HC Deb 05 May 1964 vol 694 cc1243-54

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

It is with some trepidation that I raise the question of the future status of Cheltenham, in view of the presence of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach). I am glad to see him here tonight. I hope, Mr. Speaker, that he will catch your eye and be able to say a few words on this important subject. We are all sad that he is not seeking re-election at the next General Election. I feel that anything I have to say is no reflection either on the borough which he represents or the admirable administration which it has enjoyed in past years.

I wish to raise the whole issue brought up by the January, 1963, Report of the Local Government Commission for England dealing with the South-Western General Review Area. In that Report there were two main proposals. The first was that Cheltenham should be expanded to take in Charlton Kings urban district, which I consider completely unobjectionable. I have heard no objection to that proposition, because it is virtually part of the City of Cheltenham already. Secondly, it was proposed that parts of my constituency in the Cheltenham Rural District Council area, Prestbury, Leck-hampton and Swindon, should be incorporated into Cheltenham. The second recommendation was that the whole should be made into a county borough as opposed to a non-county borough, as it now is. It is to this proposal that I wish to direct what I have to say.

This has been the subject of a public inquiry. My right hon. Friend will soon receive a report from his inspector and will have to make up his mind whether to agree to the proposition. On behalf of my constituents, who have much at stake in this matter, I must point our some of the objections to the proposed course of action. In the past few weeks there have been many arguments about the exact population figure involved. This arises from the Local Government Act, 1958, which specified 100,000 as the minimum population for a county borough. By juggling with figures for the proposed new area, including Charlton Kings and the parts of Cheltenham Rural District which are proposed for inclusion, the final population is expected to reach 100,000 in or about 1971.

In 1958 the area so circumscribed had a population of only 86,300. In 1961 the figure had risen to 90,000, and the whole proposition is based on the speculation that by 1971 the increase in population in the area will have reached a figure of 100,000 or so, which would bring it just within the ambit of the 1958 Act for inclusion as a county borough. It is rather scraping the barrel to produce the necessary figure, but that is not really the point. The point is that 100,000 in itself, is far too low a figure for a county borough. The figure should properly be something like 200,000 or 250,000 rather than a smaller figure, which would make it too difficult to provide the specialist and expensive services which local government is called on to provide in these days. Tonight it is not so much the exact population figure about which I wish to talk as the effects of this proposition were it allowed to go forward.

First, there is the effect that it would have on services provided by the local government organisations in Gloucestershire, and secondly its effect on the rate which those living in Gloucestershire would have to pay. In all, I have to say there are two main principles to which I adhere. First, as we go forward into the future, all units of local governments must tend to become bigger and we should bend our efforts towards making bigger rather than smaller units of local government. Secondly, in any representative part of the country where there is an industrial area development with country districts surrounding, it must be an essential part of the structure of local government that the country districts are thrown in with the town districts so that we have some marrying of requirements and subsidisation of the rural districts by the town and developed parts of the country. Those two principles, that of larger units and including rural with urban development, seem to have been denied by the proposals before us.

Cheltenham Rural District Council, which administers part of my constituency, has an area which entirely surrounds the City of Cheltenham. It would more or less cease to exist if these proposals went through, because a quarter of its population would go into the new county borough and a very small rural district would be left. With the tendency towards much larger rural districts of 20,000, 30,000 and even 40,000, Cheltenham R.D.C. would cease to exist.

In particular, I refer to the town of Prestbury, which has an entity of its own. It existed long before Cheltenham was a town, indeed when Cheltenham was a hamlet. It has no great affinity or interest with Cheltenham. It is interesting to note that the rural district council had a poll of inhabitants of Prestbury and out of 3,006 inhabitants 2,041 took part, and 1,793, 85 per cent., were against the proposal. They gave strong indications of the strength of the local feeling on the matter.

Gloucestershire local education authority covers a population of about ½ million and about 100,000 or one-fifth would come out of that if Cheltenham became a county borough. I realise that Cheltenham is at present an excepted district, but its exception has many riders to it which curtail the independence of Cheltenham education authority to a large extent. That is particularly so in higher education. North Gloucestershire Technical College and the Gloucestershire College of Art are administered by the county already. If the proposals went through they presumably would become part of the borough and, as these important institutions serve the whole county, we would have the anomalous position of the two main higher education establishments under one authority and the population which uses them under another.

In primary and secondary education the county council controls the education estimates, appointments of senior staff and educational administration and the amount of new school building. This would go if Cheltenham became a county borough. There are many transfers between one and the other. The whole educational omelet in Gloucestershire is too closely mixed to be possible to separate in future. I am certain that it would net be good for education in the county. There is a large amount of co-ordination already. Various committees have representatives from both the County and the City of Cheltenham. From the experience we have I do not feel that there is any need to alter the present arrangements whereby the excepted district co-operates with the county education authority.

There are also the specialist services. The county council employs no fewer than 14 highly-qualified specialist officers. It is unthinkable that Cheltenham could provide those 14 specialist officers on its own. It would be a very great expense to the town if it tried to do so. It seems to me that it is much better to make the drama expert, the music expert, and other experts available for the whole county rather than trying to reproduce the whole system on a smaller scale in the city.

I therefore hope that the local education authority will continue to administer Cheltenham. The hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Diamond) is here. The arguments which I adduced, in my opinion, also apply to the City of Gloucester, which has an even smaller population than the City of Cheltenham. At some stage in the future I hope to see the whole of Gloucestershire administered by the county education authority.

Other services, such as fire, police and ambulance are at present joint, and Cheltenham has said that it would like to see them continue to be joint if Cheltenham becomes a county borough. On the other hand, the health service has been delegated in the past, and so has planning. What I have said about education would apply very nearly to the Health Service and to the planning authority in the county, because although they are delegated at present a large measure of control exists from the county and there is already a large amount of co-operation. To try to set up a completely separate organisation would multiply the number of officers without, in my opinion, achieving any greater efficiency of service.

The county planning officer already feels that it is difficult to have the City of Gloucester exempt from his overall planning, and I believe that the House is beginning to accept that planning as a service should be carried out for a very wide area. If we had not only the City of Gloucester, but also Cheltenham, taken out of the county planning officer's area, we should take a backward step. There is always the point that if one tried to produce a complete planning authority with a smaller population one might not be able to attract enough staff of a high quality to perform the functions. If every town of 100,000 had its own planning authority the demand on planning officers and trained staff would be so great that our standards as a whole would have to fall. I feel that we should see planning much more as a regional affair rather than trying to parcel it out in small units.

I must mention the question of rates, although I emphasise that it is not only the level of rates which I consider to be important. I think that it is fair for people to pay a good rate if they receive a good service in return. But where, as I have tried to outline, we shall get a worse service in the county and at the same time shall be asked to pay more rates, it is fair to protest on behalf of those who live in the county.

The figures which I shall give have been agreed between the finance officer of Cheltenham and the finance officer of the county council. An extra £51,000 per annum for paying extra staff for setting up new departments will have to be provided if the two are divided and Cheltenham is made a county borough. Whoever pays, it is a net addition to the cost of local government. It must come out of somebody's pocket. It seems to me that that is duplication—and that is a measure of the cost of these proposals.

If the proposals to make Cheltenham a county borough had been in force in 1963–64, the present borough rate in Cheltenham would have been 10.7d. lower. On the other hand, that part of the Cheltenham Rural District Council which would have been transferred to the borough would have had its rate increased by 5.8d. to 10.5d. and the rate in the remaining part of the Cheltenham Rural District would have gone up by 4.7d. The county rates in the rest of the county, which is covered by my constituency and by that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw), would have risen by 2.5d. This is the measure of the cross-subsidisation which takes place. It is fair to add that these figures are based on the new valuation and therefore represent considerable percentage increases on the rates which we have to pay at present.

I think I have said enough to show that the proposal will greatly affect my constituents, will affect the services provided, and will affect the rates they have to pay. The county overheads will rise. Cheltenham's overheads will rise. The unit of local government will be made smaller rather than bigger. The general feeling of a move towards bigger units is being thwarted. I hope that when the Minister considers this proposal he will find that what I have said is true and will be able to resist the proposal and leave Gloucestershire as it is at present, with the county controlling the Borough of Cheltenham.

10.16 p.m.

Major W. Hicks Beach (Cheltenham)

As this matter which has been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), who is one of my neighbours, refers specifically to Cheltenham, my constituency, I am very glad indeed to have the opportunity to state the facts.

Let me say straight away that I do not accept the figures my hon. Friend gave about the population of Cheltenham, nor do I accept the comparison between Prestbury and Cheltenham, unless we go back 200 years. After all, even a county council must move a little with the times. We cannot base figures on what happened 200 years ago. I do not propose to deal with that, however.

I come straight way to the facts as present. My hon. Friend is a newcomer to Gloucestershire. We first saw him only in 1958. Anyone who knows Gloucestershire and Cheltenham will recognise that today Cheltenham is a very different place from what it was before the war. An enormous advance has taken place since the war, in particular in industry, quite rightly, because Cheltenham is a progressive borough which wants to help industry and everyone else. Instead of being, as it was in 1939, largely a residential and scholastic centre, with a population of about 50,000, the borough area has expanded since the war and now has an estimated population of 100,000.

The House will be aware that Parliament has laid down, in the Local Government Act, 1958, the procedure whereby a local authority can extend its local government status. Cheltenham accepted the procedure laid down by the House by applying for county borough status. Cheltenham proceeded on the lines laid down. The House appointed a Local Government Boundary Commission to hear evidence from all local government authorities concerned. This was done. The Commission reported to the Minister in January, 1963. I regret to say that my hon. Friend did not think it proper to read out the Report. It is proper for me to refer to the recommendation in respect of Cheltenham.

The Commission, having heard all the evidence, made this recommendation in paragraph 105 on page 24 of its report: We accordingly recommend the constitution of a county borough comprising the borough of Cheltenham and the built-up part of the urban district of Charlton Kings, with parts of the parishes of Leckhampton, Up Hatherley, Prestbury, Swindon and Uckington. The next step in the procedure laid down by Parliament was that all local authorities affected had the power to object. Objections in this case were received from the county council and Cheltenham Rural District Council. An independent inquiry was appointed by the Minister. It sat in Cheltenham from 3rd March to 13th March last and heard the cases of all the local authorities concerned.

Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)

On the question of the Commission's hearings, does the hon. and gallant Member not find, as in the case of the Gloucester proposals, that the Commission had a tendency to ignore representations made by the smaller authorities?

Major Hicks Beach

I found exactly the reverse, and, as a lawyer, I have attended many public inquiries. I must refer to the next step in the matter with some reluctance. It was a Question put down by my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government on 14th April, when he asked when my right hon. Friend expected to make his decision on the report of his inspector on the public inquiry into the future status of Cheltenham.

My right hon. Friend replied that he had yet to receive the inspector's report. My hon. Friend then asked: Will my right hon. Friend at least assure us that when he receives the inspector's report he will read it himself?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th April, 1964; Vol. 693, c. 228.] I mention this only to make clear that I and the people of Cheltenham are quite satisfied that the Minister reads every report and we wish to dissociate ourselves from any suggestion to the contrary.

The present position is that we have the Commission's Report and that the inspector's report is to come. It would not be proper for me, nor is this the time, to make further comment except to say that I am satisfied that when he has sifted all the evidence my right hon. Friend will come to the conclusion that Cheltenham is a borough of county borough status.

10.24 p.m.

Mr. John Diamond (Gloucester)

In the thirty seconds or so left to me, I wish only to say that I have listened carefully to what has been said and that I do not want to intervene in an argument between two hon. Members opposite.

Why the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) wanted to bring in the City of Gloucester I have no idea. It does not give one an opportunity to answer the argument which, I should have thought, was as ill-informed as it was utterly premature.

10.25 p.m.

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

This is a somewhat unique occasion, in that we have present all the Gloucester County Members, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach) and the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Diamond).

I find myself at some disadvantage in having a constituency interest, on the one hand, and a ministerial responsibility on the other. However, as far as the county goes, I can claim to some extent to have a foot in each camp. I represent a Gloucester county constituency and, in so far as I was educated at all, I was educated in Cheltenham—though I never regarded myself as scholastic, as my hon. and gallant Friend described it.

I am also a member of the Cheltenham Society. Therefore, despite the caution thrust upon me by my right hon. Friend's responsibility, there is the advantage that I need not give any indication as to which side I am on.

Almost exactly a year ago, when my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Sir E. Leather) had the Adjournment debate, my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) rather aptly quoted Lord Melbourne as saying: Pray, Sir, have the goodness to leave things alone. That seems to sum up very aptly the plea made by my hon. Friend the Mem- ber for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley).

Whether it is entirely apposite in the light of the changes that have occurred in the last 200 years to which my hon. and gallant Friend referred, I am not sure, but my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury started by suggesting, in effect, that there had been a good deal of juggling to reach a population of 100,000. Population, however, is not the sole criterion, as is quite clearly laid down in the Act.

I thought that my hon. Friend did a little juggling himself. He mentioned Prestbury, with a population of 3,006 and 2,041 people who had bothered to answer the questionnaire. From that he made a percentage of those against of 85, but if one takes it as a percentage of total population the figure is a little over 60. That, I agree, gives an overall vote against the proposal, but not quite such a preponderant one. There is a perfectly true story of a village not far from here which managed to get an 86 per cent. vote one way and 85 per cent. the other—but what that proves I am not sure.

The hon. Member for Gloucester will know that these inquiries are technically and literally into objections to the proposals rather than into the proposals themselves, and because there is an objection by the County Council of Gloucester to the continued county borough status of the city, it is relevant in so far as the considerations that will be given by my right hon. Friend are considerations as to the effect on the county of the Cheltenham proposal and the Gloucester objection.

This is, perhaps, the moment to warn my hon. Friend that, because these two objections must be linked, it may well be some considerable time before a decision is taken. My right hon. Friend has not yet received his inspector's report. That is understandable, because the inquiry was long and complex. When he does receive it he will study it very carefully. I can assure the House that in these local government matters my right hon. Friend does read the reports. I admit that he reads them a great deal faster than I can, but he does read them, and studies them most carefully and will do so in this case.

Nevertheless, the balance between county and county borough proposals is bound to be determined by what happens in the case of Gloucester City, and it may well be that my right hon. Friend will find it right to postpone a decision until the later inquiry into the Gloucester City proposal is held and a decision taken. My hon. Friend and hon. Members opposite will not expect me to go further now, for fear that I should touch on the merits of the matter, which would, I think, be wrong.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury referred to the various services that might be affected both from the point of view of the town of Cheltenham and of the county. Those are two matters that are relevant to the inquiry, and I assure him that every factor will be most carefully considered before a final decision is come to.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.