HC Deb 26 February 1964 vol 690 cc434-9
The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs (Sir Keith Joseph)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on local government reorganisation in Wales.

The Local Government Commission for Wales has proposed reducing the Welsh counties from 13 to 7. It has also proposed some extension of the county boroughs of Cardiff, Newport and Swansea; that Merthyr Tydfil should become a non-county borough; and that no new county boroughs should be created.

There have been many objections to these proposals, and the next step would be to hear them by way of public inquiries. Inquiries are being held to hear the objections to the extensions of the three county boroughs. But the Government do not wish, for the time being, to pursue the other proposals.

The Government are convinced that local government in Wales is in urgent need of reorganisation. The Commission found, following exhaustive examination, that "the machine in Wales needs radical overhaul". But the Government are not convinced that the proposals in the Commission's Report would provide a fully satisfactory basis for an effective local government structure in Wales.

This implies no criticism whatever of the Commission's work. Within its terms of reference it did a first-class job. Its proposals may well prove to be the foundation for reorganisation in Wales. But the Commission itself said that to be fully effective its investigation should have gone beyond consideration of the boundaries of local government to its structure, its functions and its finance.

The Commission, it is true, said that it believed it urgently necessary that action should be taken on its present recommendations, which would go some way to remedy existing weaknesses and which could provide the foundations for more far-reaching reforms in the future. But the Government believe that it would be right, before going ahead with these proposals, to see whether they cannot find a basis for reorganising local government in Wales likely to prove more satisfactory and more enduring.

The Government accordingly propose now to reconsider the pattern of local government which might be appropriate in the circumstances of Wales. The mountainous character of much of the country, the sparsity of the population, the relative difficulty of communications, present problems different from those to be found generally in England; and it may well be that a different pattern of local government—a different distribution of functions among authorities as well as alteration of boundaries—would better suit these conditions.

The financial position of the Welsh local authorities will be considered as part of the general review of the relationship between central and local government finance. The financial review is, of course, complementary to the review of local government now taking place throughout Great Britain, and the two will be completely interrelated.

If the Government conclude that a different pattern would better suit the conditions in Wales, a White Paper will be laid setting out suggestions for discussion with the local authorities and other interests concerned; and if, in the event, it is decided to go forward with proposals for a new pattern of local government in Wales, reorganisation will be effected by legislation.

I cannot conclude this statement without expressing my very deep regret over the death, recently, of the chairman of the Local Government Commission for Wales, Sir Guildhaume MyrddinEvans. He was an excellent chairman and the cogency of the Commission's Report owed, I know, a great deal to him. We shall miss his wise counsel in considering how best to build on the report to provide a local government structure fitted to the needs of Wales.

Mr. C. Hughes

I should like to support the tribute which the Minister has paid to the work of the Local Government Boundary Commission in Wales and also to regret the death of Sir Guildhaume Myrddin-Evans, who gave distinguished service to the State, to the Ministry of Labour and as chairman of the Commission.

Can the Minister say why it has taken so long to arrive at this conclusion? The Commission was set up five years ago and the Report has been in the Minister's hands since December, 1962. Why has it taken all this time to appreciate that local government cannot be reformed without taking finance and functions into consideration? Can the Minister be rather more forthcoming about his proposals? If he has abandoned the Commission's recommendations and he agrees that a radical change is necessary, why is he in doubt?

The Minister has suggested that the Government may conclude that a different pattern "would better suit" the conditions in Wales. Has not the Minister yet come to a conclusion? Is a White Paper to be published? If so, when will we have it? Will it be before or after the General Election?

Who is to be consulted in Wales on these matters? What interests, if any, apart from local authorities, are to be consulted by the Minister? Is the Boundary Commission to be kept in existence for any purpose in connection with the new arrangements which may be set up?

Sir K. Joseph

It is true that the Government have taken 14 months, since receiving the Final Report, to decide that the best course to follow would be that which I have explained. If, however, hon. Members care to look at paragraph 14 of the Report, they will see that by an Amendment which was tabled during the passage of the 1958 Bill, one way in which we could have done this more quickly was struck out of our hands by an Amendment from Welsh Members which was only reluctantly accepted by my right hon. Friend who is now Home Secretary.

A White Paper will certainly be published. I cannot give an exact date, but I hope that it will be published this year. We shall discuss our proposals after the publication of the White Paper with the local authorities and with such other interests as those who discussed the matter with the Local Government Commission and who are listed in Appendix IV. The Local Government Commission for Wales has been disbanded, but we shall, of course, want to discuss our proposals with individual members whose advice, I am sure will be most helpful.

Mr. T. W. Jones

Is the Minister aware that his statement this afternoon will give great satisfaction to the people of Merionethshire, who greatly resented the carving up of the ancient county according to the proposals of the Commission?

Mr. J. Griffiths

I should like the Minister to realise that the tribute which he has paid to Myrddin-Evans, as we knew him, will be shared by all those who knew him, both in and outside Wales.

I understood the Minister to say in his statement that he was convinced that because of the geographical features of Wales, and the distribution of population, it might well be that Wales would require an entirely different pattern of local government from the existing one. Do I also gather that he is saying that boundaries will not be considered separately from the question of finance, a view which we entirely share?

In considering the pattern of existing local government in Wales and the possibility of changes, and, perhaps, an entirely new pattern, will the Minister bear in mind that over recent years one of the features of the development of local government in Wales has been the growth of ad hoc national bodies? Will he take into account the recommendation of the Buchanan Report that it may be essential for the future administration of local government services to develop local government of a regional character? Will the Minister, therefore, at least not exclude from his consideration the possibility that in Wales an answer to some—not all—of our problems might be found in a regional body covering the whole of Wales for some purposes?

Sir K. Joseph

The problems of different parts of Wales differ sharply from each other and, however these matters are organised, there is need for strong effective and convenient units of local government, which must be organised on a basis to give comprehensive service to the citizen.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

While not wishing in any way to quarrel with what my right hon. Friend has decided about Wales, may I ask him to hear in mind that Wales is not unique—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is unique in the respect that the statement is confined to Wales. This question does not arise from the statement.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

On a point of order. I do not in any way wish to attempt to disagree with what you have said, Mr. Speaker but my right hon. Friend has raised an important matter of principle which, obviously, has a wider application.

Mr. Speaker

That may well be, but I am confined by the practice of the House to questions arising out of the statement, which is confined to Wales.

Mr. Hooson

Is the Minister aware how welcome his statement will be in Wales, however belatedly it is made, especially as it puts forward a sensible point of view which has been urged from these benches since the proposals were first made? Now that the whole question of local government is to be reinvestigated by the Government, will the Minister consider the suggestion made by the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) that the question of a regional council for Wales, discharging certain functions of local government as well as, perhaps, certain functions of national government, should now be properly investigated? Now that the whole matter is under investigation, will the Minister consider referring it to the Advisory Council for Wales for investigation, report and comment?

Sir K. Joseph

The Government will certainly want to discuss the White Paper proposals in due course with the Council for Wales and Monmouthshire, but whatever the larger question may be—and it is a different question—there will still be need for the reorganisation of local government in Wales. That is what the Government are pursuing.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must get on.