HC Deb 09 July 1964 vol 698 cc709-22

7.50 p.m.

Mr. John Diamond (Gloucester)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Severn River Authority Constitution Order 1964 (S.I., 1964, No. 896), dated 18th June, 1964, a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th June, be annulled. I can outline the background to this matter very shortly. It is quite simply that under the Water Resources Act, 1963, the Minister is empowered by Order to set up a water authority for relevant areas, and under this Order it is setting up one the Severn River Authority.

In that Order the Minister proposes that there shall be a board, called an authority, of 37 members of whom 19 shall be local authority representatives. Among those local authority representatives are individual representatives for a variety of counties and county boroughs but—and this is the kernel of the matter—for my constituency, the County Borough of Gloucester, and the constituency of the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker), whom I am glad to see in his place, it is proposed that there should be one representative jointly. Speaking on behalf of my own constituency, that is not regarded either as sensible or practicable. That is why I am praying against this Order, and I shall be more than interested to hear what the hon. Member for Worcester has to say about the same point.

If I may now, having explained the purpose of the Prayer very shortly, turn to the background, I would say that Gloucester is a very ancient city. It was a well-established town at the time of the new invasion by the Romans and has had historical incidents of fame ever since. It is known that the Normans came there and that the Domesday Book was born there. It is known that Parliament sat there long before it sat in this place. In short, I can say that in historical times there has always been a Gloucester, and, of course, going further back to pre-historical times, there has always been a River Severn, and the two have always been connected.

Previously, Gloucester's interest in the River Severn was through the controlling authority, which was known in recent times as the Severn River Board. Gloucester City was a member of that Board, and now the Severn River Authority has taken over the functions of that Board. Broadly, it has now two major functions, those that relate to the Severn itself and its major tributary, the Avon, as one of the most important waterways in the country, and those that relate to the catchment areas. Gloucester is interested in both these functions. I mention this because certain of the represented local authorities are interested in only one or the other.

A large part of Gloucester's trade is channelled through the River Severn. Gloucester is the port health authority with responsibility extending as far as Sharpness Docks. There is a very important factory in Gloucester, Walls Ice Cream Factory, the largest ice-cream factory in Europe and for all I know the largest in the world, which, as everyone knows, produces the most excellent ice cream. It produces the most excellent ice cream because it relies on the most excellent water. Without the water there would not be any ice cream. The purity of the water is absolutely vital and millions of gallons are used by this factory. It is an essential function of Gloucester to control the supply of this water.

Gloucester is, of course, interested in the amenities of the river within its own boundaries and takes an active interest in the recreational use of the river beyond its own boundaries. I hope that I have made it clear that the interest of Gloucester in this river is vital and must be fully and adequately represented.

I now turn to the proposed form of representation. Under this new authority there is to be a council, a controlling body, of 37 of whom 19 are to be represented by local authorities, according to the simple basis of the product of a 1d. rate. That is the formula adopted. Obviously, it does not work out precisely in each case to a precise number of members, and therefore common sense has to be used in deciding the number of members, having regard to the proportional size of the 1d. rate product. Accordingly, we find that common sense applies in a number of cases, but alas, not in all.

Coventry, for example, which according to this formula should have less than two and a half members, has three members, following the normal principle to which we are well accustomed in commerce, company law, and a whole variety of organisations of taking the next higher unit, where the formula produces less than a unit, because it has been found impossible to divide a man and still have him functioning adequately on a river authority. So Coventry, with less than two and a half on this formula, gets three members. Wolverhampton, with less than one on this formula, sensibly, gets one member. Montgomeryshire, with less than one-half on this formula, gets one member, but Gloucester with more than half and Worcester with more than half are, apparently, to get one member jointly—one member between the two authorities—which is out of keeping with the previous logic, with common sense, with history and with the functions which they have separately to perform. I cannot understand why on this one case alone—and I want to make it clear that the Schedule shows without question that there is no other case of a joint representative—the Minister felt compelled to have one joint representative. The Act does not so compel him. The Water Resources Act, 1963, states in Clause 7(2) The number … shall be determined by the Ministers having regard to the appropriate 1d. rate product … It could not be otherwise because we should have part of a man elected. I have already indicated the manner in which this has been interpreted by the Minister. It is not, therefore, necessary or legally compulsory to appoint one member jointly on behalf of these two ancient county boroughs.

I have already indicated that we have precedents galore for appointing one representative in cases where the formula works out at something less, and that this has happened in a sufficient number of other cases in this very Order to indicate the kind of logic that is applied elsewhere and should be continued in the case of these two authorities.

I want to make it clear that this is not a question of a clash of personalities, or anything stupid at that level. These two counties work harmoniously on many occasions. I am reminded that they join together at the Three Choirs Festival—the most ancient music festival in this country—where they work and, I imagine, sing, harmoniously together. But this is not quite that sort of operation. It must be remembered that these two cities are about 28 miles apart, and their interests do not coincide. They have different interests, different geographical situations, different histories and different councils and committees of those councils which are interested in separate points related to the management of the river and the catchment area. It is essential that they should be each fully represented.

It is not possible to have adequate representation by one joint member. It is not a practicable method. I presume that the Minister has in mind that we might have one member appointed by Worcester for a three-year period and one appointed by Gloucester for the next three-year period. This would not be a satisfactory arrangement, because all the time we would have these committees meeting, wanting to refer and to give instructions and wanting to have their views represented on this authority—committees closely concerned in matters of trade, amenity, culture and the rest. It is not satisfactory that there should be one representative.

I have already indicated that there is no reason why we should not have one representative each. It would mean that a council consisting of 37 members would become one consisting of 38. Nobody else has joint representation.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. F. V. Corfield)

It is written into the Bill that the number of local authority members should be only one more—and it is emphatic in the Bill—than the number of other appointed members. That means that if we add one local authority member we must add one other, and if we add two local authority members we would have to add two others, making a total of four extra.

Mr. Diamond

I should like to comment on that point in a moment. I cannot see any weight in the argument. Even if the number had to rise from 37 to 41—which I do not accept—that really should not tip the scales at all. Its effect cannot even be measured in terms of the arguments that I have been putting before the House.

Mr. Corfield

I am sure that the hon. Member did not imagine that I was attempting to answer his whole speech in one intervention. I was merely correcting his arithmetic. I was pointing out that we should be considering an extra four and not an extra one.

Mr. Diamond

If the Parliamentary Secretary is saying that he will not be put off by the fact that he will have to add four instead of one, I accept it as a valuable contribution to the debate. If, on the other hand, he is suggesting that this is a major argument against what I am saying I completely dissent from that proposition. I am accepting, for the purpose of the Order, that the Act must be interpreted in this way.

I would add that the Order does not include the original number of proposed appointments. There was a time when the number was two fewer. Representations were made on the basis that it would be more sensible and more in the interests of the authorities concerned and the working efficiency of the control authority itself—the Severn River Authority—if the number were increased by two. Accordingly, it was increased by two. There is no magic in the maximum of 37, or any other number.

We want a satisfactory river authority, and we believe that it can be satisfactory only if it has regard to those authorities which are deeply concerned. I repeat that Gloucester is deeply concerned, and has been for more than 2,000 years, as a city. It is deeply concerned in respect of its trade, amenities, culture and responsibilities. It is deeply concerned, also, in the lower reaches of this river. According to present plans, local authorities on the upper reaches are well represented, as are those on the middle reaches, but on the lower reaches the representation is over-light.

It is for these reasons that I hope that the Minister will have second thoughts. It is less than sensible to be tied to a piece of arithmetic in order to keep down the number of representatives on a body to a preconceived figure which does not particularly contribute to its efficiency or anything else. Gloucester always has had separate representation on the authority controlling this river and it asks for that separate representation to be continued.

8.5 p.m.

Mr. Peter Walker (Worcester)

It is not often that I agree so enthusiastically with the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Diamond) as I do this evening. The Order fails to take into consideration the real interests of the Cities of Gloucester and Worcester. I know some of the interests of Gloucester, having lived there for several years, and I also hope I know something about the City of Worcester, since I live there at present.

Both cities are closely associated with the River Severn. Gloucester and Worcester frequently co-operate in things like the Three Choirs Festival and the Three Counties Show, and occasionally they fiercely oppose each other, as on the cricket field. To suggest that there is any possible contact or unity in their representation on the river board is wrong.

Both cities have separate problems. I have never understood on what basis my right hon. Friend decided to suggest this joint representation. As the hon. Member for Gloucester pointed out, if we take the measure of the product of a 1d. rate and consider the representation of Montgomeryshire, it is clear that Gloucester and Worcester should have separate representation. Let us consider the representation of the county boroughs of Coventry and Wolverhampton. Those two counties are on the fringe of the area, with no direct contact with the river. The majority of the populations of those two cities have probably never seen the river. Yet they will each be represented on the river board, while the two cities which are probably more concerned with the river than any other cities or county boroughs in the area will have to share representation.

A further surprising fact is that since the original recommendations were passed by the local authorities my right hon. Friend has agreed to increase the representation for local authorities. As I understand it, however, the increase in representation has been given to two authorities which were already represented upon the body—and, indeed, already had two representatives each on the authority—whereas the Cities of Worcester and Gloucester, both of whom have appealed for representation, have been left with the suggestion that they should have joint representation.

Many different problems have to be considered. About one-fifth of the area of the City of Worcester is subject to flooding from the river. We have a particular interest that this area of flooding should be reduced, if possible, and certainly not increased. Yet although there is this great problem of flooding, including the flooding of such vital places in the city as the cricket ground and the racecourse, the city at times will have no direct representation on the authority.

We have particular problems connected with the river basin. Part of our water supply depends on the river. Part of the city drainage is connected with it. We have a diversity of interests in the River Severn. I ask my hon. Friend also to consider the sort of bureaucracy that is involved in the two cities co-operating in this way. Does he suggest that we should now set up a joint committee so that all the diverse points affecting the two cities should be talked over and discussed before each meeting of the authority? This will involve a great deal of travelling on the part of officials and councillors in order that the one representative allowed for the two cities should be properly briefed.

What happens at meetings of the authority? What priority will the one representative give to what may perhaps be conflicting interests? At times there will be conflicting interests between the Cities of Worcester and Gloucester. If, by chance, the representative comes from Gloucester he may be biased in favour of that city, and if he comes from Worcester he may be biased in the other direction.

It is not good enough to reply that in the event of extra representation being given to each of these cities other local authorities will demand representation on the same basis. There are no other local authorities which are as concerned in this river and which are as unrepresented as the Cities of Gloucester and Worcester. In order to avoid the bureaucracy that we shall create by this joint representation, and in order to see that these two historic cities, so closely associated with the river, are properly represented, I ask my hon. Friend to consider withdrawing the Order and revising it so that each city has separate representation.

8.10 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. F. V. Corfield)

Perhaps I might start by reminding the House of the provisions in the Act with regard to the situation of the river authorities. Hon. Members will recall that the Act provides that in the absence of special circumstances in the view of the two Ministers concerned, the membership of the river authority shall be a minimum of 21 members and a maximum of 31, with a provision that the local authority members shall always form a bare majority of one. The reason for that—I am sure that hon. Members are fully aware of it—was that the local authority representation is in recognition of the fact that they are the authorities on which the river authority will precept, and therefore they are finding the money.

The whole object of the constitution of these river authorities—which was stated over and over again in the Second Reading debate and during the Committee stage and which received all-party support—was that we should establish authorities—not a collection of representatives of particular interests or local authorities but a body of people with the requisite knowledge and experience to form a corporate whole and able to carry out its functions. It was stressed then, and it is to be stressed over and over again, that even the members appointed by my right hon. Friends—either the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or the Minister of Housing and Local Government—are not to be appointed to represent fishing or drainage but to bring knowledge of these problems to the authority.

Mr. Diamond

Is not the hon. Gentleman referring to the special representatives—quite properly—in contradistinction to the local authority representatives? The local authority representatives represent local authorities.

Mr. Corfield

I am coming to the basis of it.

There were of course—although I do not think we need spend long on this—provisions that, in certain areas if there were special circumstances, additional members could be appointed by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture or by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport where there were special navigational or harbour interests. In those cases the additional members were to be disregarded when determining for procedural purposes whether the river authority has more than 31 members. A membership above 31, excluding additional members, would necessitate coming to this House with an Order.

The principle on which my right hon. Friends have approached this problem is one on which—although we appreciate the skill of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Diamond) with figures—I think even the hon. Member would be challenged to find a better. It is to decide initially the number of Ministerial appointments which should be made to cover the interests of a particular river authority; bearing in mind, of course, that different river authorities will differ in their requirements. There may be more industry in some areas than in others; there may be more fishing rights in some than in others; or there may be more or complex agricultural and land drainage factors in some than in others, and so on. In many cases the importance of the water supply industry will vary. The provision of these special members, if I may so call them, is laid down in Section 6 of the Act. It is required that a representative, or rather a member with qualified knowledge, should appear on every river authority; though it is open to the Minister concerned to increase the number above one, in relation to the importance of the particular skill or knowledge required in a river authority area.

These interests are listed as land drainage, fisheries and agriculture, appointments for which are the responsibility of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and public water supply and industry other than agriculture which are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend. On the river authority of the Severn with which we are dealing—the hon. Gentleman is quite right in saying that we have had, so to speak, two shots at this—land drainage has four representatives—I use the word "representatives" for convenience and I stress that the whole object is to build a corporate body with the requisite knowledge rather than a collection of delegates—fisheries three; agriculture two; public water supply three; industry other than agriculture three and navigation one, which adds up to 16. This requires 17 local authority representatives to balance the body in the terms laid down in the Act.

These proposals were circulated to each of the various interests concerned and to the local authorities. I make no apology for the fact that we then endeavoured to meet some of the criticisms—or as many as we felt we could—as a result of consulting local authorities and various other organisations, including the Association of Drainage Authorities, the N.F.U., the F.B.I., the British Waterworks Association, the fisheries associations and so on. We increased the membership of the authority by one extra member for the public water supply, making four instead of three, and one extra for industry, which also made four instead of three; and thereby created a total of 18, all these Ministerially appointed members requiring 19 local authority members to balance them.

We therefore reached a situation in which, following the terms of the Act—which the hon. Member for Gloucester correctly read out—the Ministers, having regard to the product of a 1d. rate, should, so to speak, allocate the representatives of local authorities between the county councils on the one hand and the county boroughs on the other; bearing in mind the balance between the two types of authority, with the proviso in Section 7 clearly stating that in some cases the result may well be that a local authority could have no representation because it would be well below the "half man", and in others it would be suitable to have a shared representation. It was clearly laid down in the Act that this was something which would be considered not only as an exception but as something to be taken into account.

Taking the figures from which we derive this apportionment—I assure the hon. Member for Gloucester that they are according to my arithmetic and that of my officials which I have checked—and taking the total of a 1d. rate product and dividing by the number of local authority representatives, we get the result that Coventry, for instance, has a figure of 2.696, and not something under 2.5. That is the reason why we went to the figure of three members, in the belief—with which I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree—that three is nearer to 2.696 than two.

In the case of Wolverhampton the figure is far from going below one. It comes to 1.02 and I think the hon. Gentleman would agree that obviously again we should have one member. The figure for Gloucester is 0.6 and for Worcester 0.5, making a total of 1.1. Therefore, it seemed sensible to suggest that these were two cities within the same type of authority—both being county boroughs and both, incidentally, having had comments passed on that status by the Local Government Commission, although that is by the way—and both happen to have approximately the same product of a 1d. rate. I fully appreciate that the hon. Member for Gloucester and my hon. Friend desire that these cities should have separate representation. That is a natural reaction, but I ask them to bear in mind that, though it may be true that in this particular river authority they are the only two local authorities required to share a representative, there are local authorities which have areas within the river authority area and are not represented at all.

Mr. Diamond

Of course, one is bound to rely on what the Parliamentary Secretary says, but I have before me the copy of a letter dated 6th May addressed to his Department by the Town Clerk of Gloucester saying that for Coventry the figure is 2.41 and not the figure the Parliamentary Secretary gave and the figure for Wolverhampton is 2.92 and not the figure he mentioned. I also have the copy of an answer dated 22nd May from his Department which does not controvert these figures in any sense. Although it deals with the question it does not deny the figures nor the argument.

Mr. Corfield

I have seen those figures, but I am sure that the figures I have given are correct. I shall check this, but I think that the earlier figures were based on the proposals before the two extra people were added. The figures I have given have been checked and rechecked.

As the hon. Member and my hon. Friend have said, Gloucester and Worcester have long associations with the Severn. It would be surprising if they had not for they happen to have been built on its banks. I cannot go so far as to say that as Parliament once sat in Gloucester before it came here that is a reason for making this change. Parliament also sat in Acton Burnell, in Shropshire, but that does not give Shropshire an extra seat.

Mr. Walker

Has Shropshire not been given an extra seat?

Mr. Corfield

Not on that particular basis, although if my hon. Friend would like, I would consider adding one more, but perhaps that would be regarded as bias because it is my native county.

I think the proportion of the river authority's area which falls in Montgomery is 14 per cent. Although Montgomery has a low product of a 1d. rate, I am sure none of us would think it right to rule out the whole of the County of Montgomery. In spite of the fact that it is a watershed for a great deal of the rainfall, it would then have no say at all on any river authority. It is right that we should make an exception despite the fact that the actual 1d. rate product comes out at a little less than that of Gloucester.

I hope that the House would also agree that it would be quite wrong to cut out Montgomery from an authority of this sort. One has only to look at the map to see how much of the area is in the river authority area. Sticking rigidly to the 1d. rate product principle there we would be taking advantage of the fact that the Welsh Border counties are particularly low in rateable value, which is not the case in Gloucester and Worcester. I think it is a right decision.

The hon. Member and my hon. Friend made the point that no two cities of this sort, despite the fact that they are both on the river, and that they take part in singing and go to agricultural shows together, could possibly work together on a river authority without being separately represented. I refer them to a very much older body, the Thames Conservancy, which has had members appointed by two joint groups and representing in one case six local authorities and in another five. That has worked extremely satisfactorily, so much so that the proposal to cut that representation met with particular opposition from the Conservancy.

Not having been closely associated with Worcester but with Gloucester—perhaps longer than the hon. Member for Gloucester—I cannot think that they would want to revive the wars of the past and regard the river authority as a sort of second round of the cricket match later in the season. I am sure that they will work perfectly well on this basis. If they do not, they will do a lot less well than the authority for the Thames has done for a great number of years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester mainly endorsed what the hon. Member for Gloucester said, but he particularised on the reliance of both these cities on the river for water supply and its importance in regard to drainage and so on. I remind both hon. Members that the whole concept of the Act is to ensure that these particular matters of water supply and drainage are represented by the Ministerially-appointed members because of their special knowledge in these matters, but not in relation to any particular local authority. The local authority members collectively represent the providers of the money.

This is the basis of the Act and I am sure it is the right way to go about it. It is bound to produce a number of cases where we have less than half a man, or less than one-and-a-half or two-and-a-half. The occasion arises where we can meet that difficulty by combining so to speak two half men, and this seems a sensible thing to do.

If we go further than that in this authority it would increase the number certainly by another local authority member and therefore by another Ministerially-appointed member and we shall have the same sort of repercussions on a wider scale in river authority areas which happen to contain more and perhaps smaller local authorities. It is thus possible to get very large river authorities and one of the purposes of the Act was to avoid that. If we are to have an efficient executive, size beyond a certain limit is not conducive to efficiency. I am not suggesting that one extra here would do much damage but if we upset the proposed constitution we might well find that we might have to bring in one member for the County Borough of Dudley and even shoot up the Staffordshire representation from one or two.

There are these ramifications, and I believe we have achieved the right balance. I hope that the House will accept the Order. I can assure the hon. Member for Gloucester that the figures he quoted were those from the original distribution and not from the final distribution.

Mr. Diamond

Never mind the figures which are under disagreement. By the figures under agreement, Montgomery has half or less than half, or in any case less than Worcester or Gloucester. If we accept the principle, which we all endorse, of common sense, how can we deny continuing representation to cities which have had representation on the previous authority which controlled the river?

Mr. Corfield

The figure for Montgomery is .55, which is more than half, and only a fraction different from Gloucester. The hon. Member must accept that in setting up the river authorities many of them will deliberately be smaller in the number of people on them than the existing river boards. That is one of the purposes of the Act. That being so, it is not a valid argument to say that that because a city or county was represented on the previous board, it therefore should be on the authority. Had we accepted that, the Act would have been different. There are many provisions in the Act about constitutions but had we accepted that argument one of its main purposes—to keep the number of people within reasonable limits—would have been entirely defeated and we might as well have taken over the river boards as they were.

Question put and negatived.