HC Deb 06 May 1963 vol 677 cc193-204

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-[Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

11.48 p.m.

Sir Edwin Leather (Somerset, North)

In the short time available I should like to raise the principles of the Local Government Boundary Commission, in particular in relation to Report No. 4 on the South-Western General Review Area, on which the Minister and I have had many discussions. I thoroughly understand my right hon. Friend's problems and difficulties and that, officially this Report has not been sent to him. I should like to tell him how very much I appreciate the great courtesy he has done me in taking this debate tonight himself. I am sure that my many hon. Friends who feel strongly about this topic have nothing but sympathy for my right hon. Friend in his problems, and the most immense personal good will towards him.

On a suitable occasion I am prepared to argue that this Report on the southwestern area is bad and wrong in detail and in argument in every singular particular, but tonight I am concerned only with the principle involved. In a debate on my right hon. Friend's Department last week, he referred to the unpleasant situation in which he was placed in taking difficult decisions, and the courage it took to face up to them. I tell him quite frankly that I yield to no one in my admiration of his courage in those matters. When he has had to take difficult decisions on principle I have always supported him, however unpopular they might be. I have been, and am, happy to do so.

In that debate last week reference was made to the London Government Bill and to what my right hon. Friend had to do with it, but there is no parallel between the situation in my county, and in my hon. Friends' counties, with what happens in London. I am not a London Member, and would not like to judge that issue, but, as I understand, both the people and the authorities concerned were all agreed that something had to be done, but bitterly differed on what should be done. My right hon. Friend therefore had an appalling decision to make. In the cases in Somerset with which I am concerned, both the people and the public authorities are united in feeling that nothing need be done, and are unanimous in opposing the proposals in this iniquitous Report.

The Minister may tell me that the Council of the City of Bath would not agree with that statement, but not one citizen in Bath is affected by these proposals. Whether or not the proposals are accepted, not one person in Bath will be affected; the lives of the people there will continue in exactly the same way. Their institutions, local government organisations and traditions will go on regardless of what happens to these proposals. But it is not unfair to say that there is no enthusiasm whatsoever in Bath for them, and that many of the people there, including many prominent members of the council, are actively opposed to them.

I hope that my right hon. Friend is absolutely clear that the 10,000 or more people whose lives are intimately affected by these proposals live in Somerset. The proposals in the Commission's Report would tear up whole villages by the roots. There are two closely-knit communities, in one of which I have lived for many years, which would not just disappear—it is proposed to split them three ways, Historic parishes would be abolished completely. A perfectly satisfactory rural district council, against which not a single complaint has been made, would be emasculated.

If my right hon. Friend studies the Report, he will find that the Commission could not find one person or authority involved to support the proposals that it has had what I must, with the very greatest respect, call the effrontery to put forward. The Commission could not produce one witness to complain of existing arrangements. It knows that there has been a democratically held referendum in which over 90 per cent. of the population voted against the proposals; that every village meeting has been unamiously against them; that the county council and the rural district councils are unanimous.

I therefore say that if my right hon. Friend were to accept these proposals it would not be a Solomon's judgment, such as he had to take in the London case, but a clear-cut decision for the officials and against the people. It would be a positive act of contempt for public opinion, and contempt for the most fundamental rights of the people of my county—and for what principle?

If my right hon. Friend says that he is prepared to take unpopular decisions in the interests of principle, I support him. I do not think that my record in the House has been that I have run away from unpopular decisions. The principle involved in this Report, in which my right hon. Friend is asked by the Commission to do this, is quite clear. It is for administrative convenience—that and nothing more, Furthermore, I would point out to my right hon. Friend that the Commission has not produced a single shred of evidence, not one witness, and not one statement in the Report to support the contention that present arrangements are in any way administratively inconvenient. The Commission knows perfectly well that it is the unanimous opinion of those of us who have to live under these arrangements that its proposals would be administratively a great deal more inconvenient than those we have to deal with at the moment.

I would refer my right hon. Friend to one short extract from the excellent report put before him by the Somerset County Council on this question of administrative convenience, about which the Commission is asking him to take a stand and go to the stake. At present, the County Borough of Bath has a common boundary with one county and one district council. If my right hon. Friend accepts the proposals in this Report it will have boundaries with three counties and four or five district councils, depending on how much chaos is left in the remainder of the county. At present, it has to deal with one planning authority on its environs. If the right hon. Gentleman accepts these proposals it will have to deal with no fewer than four authorities. This, these people have the temerity to call administrative convenience.

I say with all the sincerity that I can command that I do not conceive how any Conservative Minister could accept these proposals without betraying the most fundamental principles of our party. This Commission has gone far beyond anything ever visualised by those of us who were in the House when we debated the Local Government Act, 1958. I would far rather leave this party than betray the principles for which we have fought and worked for so many years and I therefore implore my right hon. Friend to think very seriously before he places many of us in that intolerable position.

11.57 p.m.

Sir Harry Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

I do not wish to queer the pitch of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Sir E. Leather) by trying to plead the exact case that one day I shall perhaps have to put for my constituents, but there is so much in common between the general basis of what he has said and what my constituents in the Isle of Ely feel about the Boundary Commission's Report that dealt with the Soke of Peterborough, Huntingdonshire, Cambridge, and the Isle of Ely that I feel I can well support my hon. Friend almost without any exception whatsoever.

I think that it was Lord Melbourne who said: Pray, Sir, have the goodness to leave things alone. His words might well be re-echoed tonight. The county of the Isle of Ely, the separate county administration, is coincidental in its boundaries with my constituency of the Isle of Ely and I have not found anyone who is in favour of the recommendations to amalgamate the Isle of Ely with any of its neighbours.

The one thing which I resent bitterly is what I might almost describe as blackmail by the Commission during its inquiry to try to persuade representatives from the local authorities to say what, if they could not get all they wanted they would then like, and to ask whether they would prefer to become part of four counties amalgamated into one county, or of one county joined with only one other, thus begging the much bigger question whether there should be any changes at all.

One of the things that disturbed me above all about the work of the Commission was what one member said to me when I went to see the Commission about its work. "Having been set up", I was told, "we must recommend something, after all. We cannot just recommend the status quo." That seems to be the negation of justice. If that be the doctrine upon which the Commission is working, I do not believe it is fulfilling what Parliament intended, When we debated local government reform some years ago I am certain that none of us visualised that any report made by the Commission would be made because it felt that it had to recommend some changes. I am sure that we felt it would do its job fairly and dispassionately, and that if it felt things should be left as they were it would say so. It should not feel under an obligation to recommend changes merely for the sake of change, and certainly should not make changes purely for the sake of bureaucratic convenience.

The important thing is that there should he real unity between the electorate and local government, just as there should be between the electorate and the central Government, and it seems to me that the Boundary Commission is getting off the rails in some of its recommendations. I think that the fact that a number of us are prepared to wait till after midnight to raise this important matter is some indication of the importance that we attach to it.

12.1 a.m.

Mr. J. C. Jennings (Burton)

It appears to be the official view that smallness connotes inefficiency. Naturally, I repudiate that implication.

I have three specific cases in mind in connection with this debate. One is the County of Rutland, another is the County Borough of Burton-upon-Trent, and the third is the Rural District Council of Tutbury, in my own constituency. Surely we on the Conservative side of the House take some notice of tradition and history. We should not be ashamed of it. To condemn any authority, such as any of those that I have mentioned, to a change of status merely because they are small is flying in the face of tradition. We are proud of our tradition in the Tory Party, and we should not be afraid to face it.

It is over a year since we had a public inquiry into the position of local authorities in my constituency, and we are still awaiting the decision of the Minister on these matters, particularly with regard to Burton-upon-Trent and Tutbury rural district. I shall be grateful if either tonight or within the near future he will indicate when a decision is likely. I implore him to look at these matters, from the point of view not merely of size, but of efficiency.

12.3 a.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

No doubt, the Boundary Commission proceeds according to well-defined rules, but very often rules do not fit with people. I have had the privilege of knowing all my life these villages and communities to which my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Sir E. Leather) alluded. Although he came from another land to sit in this House, his roots are deep in Somerset. I have done some research in the county and I have found a number of people, whose name I had perhaps better not mention, but it is very similar to my hon. Friend's name. I know the sincerity with which he feels for the difficulties faced by his constituents.

We have been told that there may be doubt as between the views of the local authority and the views held by the people concerned. Surely, if there is any doubt, the benefit of that doubt should be given to, the people concerned. They should have their way. We are told that the proposal is made on the grounds of administrative convenience. That smacks of the small-minded men who administer so many of our local authorities. These people, whose families have lived in the area for hundreds of years, should not be disturbed.

I represent a great city which has more than enough to administer and does not desire to take a bite out of the countryside in any direction, although changes have been forced on us. Although am not so well acquainted with Bath as I am with Bristol, I am sure that there are many people in Bath who would not like to see the bite into the countryside which is proposed. I hope that my hon. Friend's constituents will long remain part of the countryside and will not be condemned to being part of a nameless suburbia.

12.5 a.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Sir E. Leather) for giving us the opportunity to discuss the Local Government Boundary Commission, short though the time is. I will not join in a wholesale condemnation of the Commission because I have had the opportunity of seeing it at work and of studying what it has done in Leicestershire.

I would rather say that it is somewhat like the curate's egg, good in parts. The Commission is good because of the meticulous and painstaking care which it devotes to ascertaining accurately the views of everybody who can possibly be concerned with its proposals. In Leicestershire, the Commission held inquiries lasting over many days, so that everybody had the opportunity of really letting the Commission know what he or she felt.

That is a good part of its work and I therefore say that one could almost point to the Commission and say, "There is democracy at work". But the curate's egg was also bad in parts and it is bad that the Commission, having so accurately and with such great care and attention digested the views and opinions of those people affected by its proposals, should find that as often as not there is produced an answer entirely at variance with the views of those who have made known their views.

In this House, if 200 hon. Members voted in the Aye Lobby and 100 in the No Lobby, the Ayes would have it; but if 100 people go into the "No Lobby" of the Boundary Commission and 5,000 into the "Aye Lobby", as likely as not the Noes will have it. It is difficult to ascertain how the Commission produces some of its answers.

However, we in Leicestershire are confident that when the Minister comes to make his Order for the East Midlands Review Area, which has almost completed its gambit of activity, he will pay due and proper attention to the views expressed by the people. They have requested that the proposals made by the Commission be rejected out of hand. I know that the Minister does not court unpopularity willingly. We have seen that fact in the stand he has taken over rates in the matter of the rating of properties up to present-day values, but it is almost stimulating to be unpopular and, at the same time, to be right. It is the very devil to be unpopular and to be in the wrong.

I know that the Minister is anxious to reply, but I would like to leave him with one suggestion which has been put to me during recent months by town planning experts. It is that, somehow or other, city authorities must be prodded into expanding vertically rather than laterally all the time. It is not good enough that they should be able to say they want a few more hundred acres of Somerset, or Leicestershire, or the Isle of Ely, and be able to get away with it. They are not being encouraged sufficiently to curtail their lateral activities. A little bit of stimulus from the Minister might encourage them to make their future developments in a vertical manner much more than they have done in recent years.

12.10 a.m.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs (Sir Keith Joseph)

Anyone who asserts that local government enjoys no allegiance in this country ought to come here at five minutes past midnight and hear three or four of my hon. Friends using at times almost un-parliamentary language in their defence of, and loyalty to, local government; and I respect their attitude

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Sir E. Leather) for his personal courtesy towards me, though I shall have something to say about his attitude to the Commissioners in a moment. Perhaps I should say straightaway that in the case of the Report on which he feels so strongly, namely, the Final Report of the Local Government Commission for England on the South-West General Review Area, I had better put it on record that before I or the Government address ourselves to the merits of the proposals made there has to be, under the procedure laid down by the 1958 Act, a public inquiry at which all and any objections to the proposals can be ventilated, and the Report has to be put to me. It is only when I have that Report that I am in duty bound to prepare with my Government colleagues recommendations to put to the House. So the decision-making stage in the South-West has not yet arrived, and there will be ample opportunities for my hon. Friend's constituents to make their views known.

My hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) pro- duced an extremely effective quotation. He said, in the words of Lord Melbourne: "Pray have the goodness to leave things alone."

But, of course, things have not been left alone. Wherever we look things have changed. They have changed, in most cases, all over the country. Population has changed; the distribution of population has changed; the location of industry has changed; the scope and the method of communications has changed; the scope of local and central government has changed; and the relations between central and local government have changed; and at least the scope of local government and the relationship between central and local government have changed in all places even if, in some places, the population has not changed all that much.

Surely, then, it makes sense that the Government should have a policy, as they do, for reviewing the local government structure of this country as a whole in order to modernise and improve it. That is the objective, and it is an objective which, in principle, my hon. Friends willingly supported in 1958. As part of the procedure, Commissioners were appointed. My hon. Friends do not need to put them in the category of officials and seek to invest the honourable word "official" with a pejorative bias. These people are independent Commissioners, appointed by Her Majesty. They are men and women of integrity, independence, experience and distinction. They have been given a job by us in Parliament, and the case of my hon. Friends surely does not depend in any way upon depreciating the work these people have done in carrying out a most invidious task. I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) for his words of appreciation. Surely the right thing to do is to wait till the Government formulate their recommendations to Parliament and abuse us if we make a recommendation—whether based on the Report or not—with which my hon. Friends disagree.

The criteria which the Commissioners have worked to are laid down in the regulations of 1958. My hon. Friends will know very well from their study of these criteria that there is a number of factors which the Commissioners are required to have in mind. Of these, local opinion is one and an immensely important factor, but it is not the only one. Nor do I think my hon. Friends can possibly maintain that local opinion, in the context which I have described, could be the only single factor in this context on its own. If so, they could not have agreed to pass the 1958 Act.

Mr. Farr

Would my right hon. Friend say that local opinion is possibly the most important of the factors to be considered?

Sir K. Joseph

My predecessor said that it was an immensely important factor, and that I gladly repeat. But it does not lie on me, who am bound to obey the Statute, to pick out one factor and say without qualification that it is the most important. It is immensely important, and I certainly do not wish to invite the odium of going against local public opinion without having the strongest reasons. I am not addressing myself to the merits of any particular case, and 1 am not entitled to.

Perhaps my hon. Friends will bear in mind the contents of Paragraph 11(c) of the regulations, which refers to the important factor of the balance of advantage brought about by any change. This is a further very important protection for local opinion laid upon the Commissioners and the Government.

My hon. Friend for Burton (Mr. Jennings) asked me to comment on size in relation to the general objective of improvement and modernisation of local government. Here, I must rest on the words of the law, namely, that the purpose of the Commission is to achieve "effective and convenient" local government. My hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) and Somerset, North were wrong in referring to "efficient local government" or "efficient administration". The combination is "effective and convenient". These are the words which take into account both local opinion and the factors of general convenience and effectiveness.

I cannot give a categorical assurance that in no part of the country, under any circumstances, will local opinion be upset. In the nature re of things it is impossible to carry out such a review without up- setting some local opinion. But I take the point inherent in what my hon. Friends have said—that there is a distinction between the throbbing, pulsating problems of the conurbations, where something desperately has to be done if traffic, homes, planning and services are to be carried out, and the more leisurely, less immediate, though important, problems of the countryside. I readily grant that.

It is, in the nature of things, a matter of degree. In the cities, change must take place if the public is to be served. In the country, change must take place in order to bring the structure of local government up to date in accordance with the regulations and by the procedure which I must carry out under the Act.

What we are trying to do—and my hon. Friends have thrown at me Conservative principles—is to carry out the perennial task, the hardest task in government, of reconciling tradition, history, public opinion and effective service to the citizen. It is a very hard task. In pursuing it, I want to avoid odium, but I hope that I have my hon. Friends' support in seeking this reconciliation in the light of the extremely conscientious efforts of the Local Government Commission, obviously reserving the discretion of the Government before making final recommendation to the House in any particular case.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.