HC Deb 01 August 1963 vol 682 cc662-8
The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs (Sir Keith Joseph)

I will, with permission, Sir, make a statement to the House.

The Government have been considering the proposals of the Local Government Commission for England to make the county borough of Burton upon Trent a non-county borough in the administrative county of Staffordshire, and to form three new administrative counties by the amalgamation of Huntingdonshire with the Soke of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire with the Isle of Ely and Rutland with Leicestershire.

The Commission thought that Burton, Huntingdonshire, Rutland, the Soke of Peterborough and the Isle of Ely, which are among the smallest of the county boroughs and counties in England, lacked the scope and resources to provide effectively the services required of major authorities.

The Government consider that there is great force in this view. They have decided to accept the proposal for Burton upon Trent. They believe that the inclusion of Burton in Staffordshire will bring real benefit to the town, in the way of better-founded county services, and to the county in the strengthening of its population and resources.

The Government have also decided to accept the proposals for forming two new counties from Huntingdonshire and the Soke of Peterborough, and from Cambridge and the Isle of Ely. The problems of these four counties are closely related. They arise not only from the small size of three of them, but also from the dominating position of the cities of Cambridge and Peterborough in the counties to which they belong. The two new counties will have a much bettor balance between town and country than exists at present, and they will each be of a size and coherence which should enable a good standard of service to be provided. On any likely view of developments in the foreseeable future, I am confident that the amalgamations will materially strengthen local government throughout the four counties.

This means that Cambridge City will continue to be a non-county borough. I regret the disappointment to the city, but considerable weight must be given to the fact that three of the four county councils directly concerned faced with the need of change are ready to accept the two-county arrangement, only the Isle of Ely being opposed. There was, moreover, a strong volume of opposition to the Commission's draft proposal to form a single county from the four, which would alone have created the conditions for making Cambridge into a county borough.

Rutland's situation is different. There can be little question that a fully adequate standard of service to its residents could be better secured if it formed part of a larger county, and the Commission very reasonably proposed its amalgamation with Leicestershire. But its problems are peculiarly its own. Joining it with Leicestershire would bring no advantage to that county and Leicestershire County Council have not asked for an amalgamation. Rutland has been able to rely heavily on other bodies, and especially Leicestershire County Council, for a number of services. Rutland will no doubt be able to meet foreseeable demands in the same sort of way. Determined though they are to carry through a thorough-going overhaul of local government, the Government have decided there are grounds for treating Rutland's case as unique and they do not propose to proceed with the Commission's proposal.

Parliament will, in due course, be asked to approve Orders giving effect to these changes.

Mr. M. Stewart

Is there any significance in the fact that the Minister has picked three or four proposals out of those made by the Commission and has not commented upon others of considerable importance, such as the proposal to enlarge the City of Leicester? Is it the Government's intention to announce shortly what it thinks about the other points which the Commission made?

Will the right hon. Gentleman impress upon his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House the need for a proper interval of time between making the text of any Orders available to hon. Members and actually debating them in the House? Hon. Members will want the opportunity not only to study them themselves but to consult their constituents and local authorities. We should also need adequate time in the House to discuss the Orders themselves.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman what are the grounds for treating Rutland's case as unique? Is it that the Tory majority in that constituency is rather more shaky than those of the surrounding areas? Will the Minister realise that when we notice how tender he is to the pleas of Rutland and contrast that with the deaf ears of the Ministry to representations from London——

Mr. Jennings

And from Birmingham.

Mr. Stewart

When we notice this we are bound to conclude that the right hon. Gentleman is influenced throughout more by political considerations than the good quality of local government.

Sir K. Joseph

The Government will have some further decisions to announce to the House on some other recommendations of the Local Government Commission before the end of the year. I take the hon. Member's point about giving as much time as possible for the House to study any Orders which are made. As to Rutland, each case must be decided on its merits, and I think that the House will find the reasons for the Government's decision amply explained in the statement which I have made.

Sir Hamilton Kerr

While recognising the very great difficulty involved in the Cambridgeshire boundaries, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he is aware that this decision will be greeted with most grievous disappointment in Cambridge City, particularly as the Boundary Commission has entirely reversed its past findings, and that the public of Cambridge will not allow this decision to remain final?

Sir K. Joseph

I share my hon. Friend's regrets that it is not possible to treat the problem of Cambridge City in isolation, but I do not think that public opinion should allow itself to think that the difficulties which stand in the way of creating Cambridge as a county borough will be easily removed.

Mr. Lubbock

Does the Minister not think that his special treatment of Rutland will be looked on in the country as a blatant attempt on his part to appease the revolting Tories of Rutland? Is not that the reason that he has given this specially favourable treatment to Rutland? Has he noted the remarks of the Local Government Commission that if he acceded to the demands made by Rutland to remain a separate entity this would have far-reaching implications for the reorganisation of local government generally, and that there are many other local authorities in other review areas which will ask for this special treatment which has been given to Rutland?

Is this the only answer which he intends to give to the very closely reasoned argument which the Local Government Commission put about about the amalgamation of Rutland with Leicester, covering no fewer than 21 pages of its report, in which it concluded quite unequivocally that adequate social services could not be provided in a unit as small as 25,000 population?

Sir K. Joseph

I repeat that each case must be decided on its merits. I do not believe that the unique situation of Rutland, and the fact that the amalgamation of Rutland with Leicester would not have strengthened Leicester, will prevent either the Government, at a later stage, or the counties, in the important part which they have to play, from paying due attention to the need for providing effective as well as convenient local government.

Mr. Jennings

While congratulating my right hon. Friend on his decision about Rutland—in which fight I have played a part—may I ask whether he is aware that there is considerable disappointment about his decision on Burton upon Trent? Presumably Rutland has special qualifications as a small unit, but is he aware that Burton is a small unit—[HON. MEMBERS: "Small beer."]—but is not small beer? There is a suggestion or a suspicion that the criterion used in deciding the fate of Burton has been an arbitrary, mathematical, and statistical one. While my right hon. Friend says that the main basis of the decision is that Burton lacks scope and resources, it seems to me that efficiency has not been the keynote here.

May I, finally, ask him whether he is aware that in a modern progressive Tory democracy there must be room for the small man and the small unit?

Sir K. Joseph

I admire the sturdy sense of independence shown by my hon. Friend throughout all these processes, but no one, least of all right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite, should underestimate the invidious nature of these decisions which the Government have to make. Right hon. Members and hon. Members opposite flinch from any decision, or even from honesty, which may bring them the least unpopularity. The answer is that, unlike the case of Rutland, the Government believe that joining Burton to Staffordshire will strengthen both local government units.

Mr. K. Lewis

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I am very glad that I shall now have to find a new theme for my Questions and supplementary questions and that I am not troubled in any way, as suggested by the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart), about my majority, since it was doubled last time, or about the attitude of the Liberal Party on this matter, which will be noted.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be more joy this week-end in Rutland over one Minister who has relented than over the 90 or nine local government commissioners who have been saved from the folly of the unhappy proposals which they had put forward for Rutland?

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a motto on the coat of arms of the County of Rutland, Multum in Parvo? Today sees the survival of a small unit at a time when perhaps bigness gets the headlines and takes the running—and not all of it necessarily the best. This small unit which has survived is an indication that the Tory Party, in its policy, is prepared to accept that although we intend to have the "must" of the modern, we hope to preserve the best of the past.

May I pay tribute to the work of all the people in the county who have backed their own campaign and say that I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to carry the flag in a small way in the House?

Sir K. Joseph

I cannot allow the work of the Local Government Commission to be indicted as folly because of the fact that, in looking at the larger picture, the Government came to a different decision on this one recommendation only. I am glad that out of this announcement some joy has been revealed somewhere.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

I think that the House will realise that the county of my constituency will suffer more than any other from these recommendations, because it will lose its identity altogether. While I very much appreciate the complexity of the problem and the impossibility of arriving at a decision which everybody will think fair, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he will recognise that the disappearance of an authority which has been a separate authority of some sort for 1,290 years is not likely to encourage my constituents to support a Member who would seek to destroy it?

While I am most anxious to say nothing which will make it more difficult for those who have to administer whatever decision the House may later take when it comes to implement what Parliament has decided, I hope that my right hon. Friend understands—and I ask him to indicate that he does—that my constituents have a right to expect their Member to try to represent to the best of his ability what he believes to be in their interests, however difficult—and I fear that it is sometimes very difficult—it may be to determine what in the long-term really are their interests.

Sir K. Joseph

I should like to pay tribute to the vigorous, sustained and sturdy representations of my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) over a long period both to my predecessor and to me on the interests of his constituents as he has seen them. I recognise the long, historic background of the Isle of Ely. My hon. Friend will recognise that all that is being changed is the possession of the Isle of Ely of the status of an administrative county, which is a comparatively recent status. I hope to be able to persuade my hon. Friend that the Government's decision will strengthen the administration for the benefit of citizens of both Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely, but I recognise that he must judge these arguments in the light of his own duty to his constituents as he sees it.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must have less Multum in Parvo.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

On a point of order. I am sure, Mr. Speaker, that you will appreciate that there is now no opportunity for an hon. Member to raise a matter on the Adjournment additional to those selected by yourself for debate tomorrow. In view of the very great concern which this statement will cause in my constituency, if I were able to obtain the agreement of certain hon. Members whose Adjournment debates you have already selected for debate tomorrow, would you consider allowing me to raise this matter—if I can get other hon. Members who are to raise other matters to agree to allow me a few minutes?

Mr. Speaker

If the hon. Member can get all the requisite consents and the presence of the Minister, I will consider the matter. More than that I cannot say, but it must not be at the expense of others unless they consent to be expended.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must get on.

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