HC Deb 25 April 1966 vol 727 cc498-506

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Walter Harrison.]

10.1 p.m.

Mr. T. W. Urwin (Houghton-le-Spring)

I am deeply grateful for this early opportunity in the lifetime of the new Parliament to raise on the Adjournment questions relating to the Local Government Boundary Commission's proposals, especially about the North-East General Review Area, under the Local Government Act, 1958. More importantly for my constituency, I want to refer to the recent decision to grant the application of Sunderland Borough Council for substantial boundary extensions involving the absorption by the county borough of almost the whole of Sunderland rural district which lies within the Houghton-le-Spring constituency.

This is a complete local government unit which hitherto has enjoyed its separate identity. The total population of the rural district is 29,810 and the electorate is 19,350. The whole area has always been closely identified with the mining industry. Throughout the country there have been deep divisions on occasion about proposals and decisions of the Boundary Commission, but I can say with complete conviction that feelings have not run higher anywhere than in the Sunderland rural district following the publication of the draft Order.

Having served in local government for a number of years, I have a good deal of sympathy with the expressions of those who represent this local government area about the decision. It is not unnatural. that, having been notified of the nature of the draft proposals in April, 1962, they scrupulously carefully conducted a referendum of the whole of the electorate of the local government area. Proof of the extent of the feeling is to be found in the fact that 92.5 per cent. of the electors participated in the referendum and voted The result was an overwhelming majority of 87.4 per cent. against the proposed extensions of the borough of Sunderland.

The affairs of the rural district council, with which I have been connected for many years, long before becoming a Member of Parliament, have always been efficiently administered by the area's elected representatives in accordance with the best traditions of local government. Here we are dealing with compact communities where there are every day contacts between the elected representatives and the people, and they have indeed a very good record of achievement over the years.

It is, perhaps, in the sphere of housing that this council has the best, and perhaps an enviable, record. It has an admirable direct labour department which provides low-cost houses. Unfortunately, the average rate of building during the 'fifties was drastically reduced because of economic difficulties. I do not intend to go into them in detail in this debate. Let it be sufficient to say that the rate of productivity is now cut back to 175 houses per year. It was also one of the first local authorities in the northern region to build houses through the same medium of direct labour for sale to prospective mortgagors. The council now owns 5,500 houses.

Having said this, I want to make it abundantly clear that it is not my intention—by no means is it my intention—to question the efficiency of the Sunderland Borough Council. It also has a very sound local government structure. It also proudly boasts a very large direct labour department—may be of only a few years' standing but, nevertheless, a highly successful one. So that I am not attempting to pit the rural district council against the borough council. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong), who lives in Sunderland and is a member of Sunderland Borough Council, will appreciate what I am saying.

But the cold economic housing facts are that from April, 1967, which is the operative date for the recorded decision to come into being, any rent equalisation scheme which I feel inevitably will have to be introduced will mean that the present tenants of the rural district council houses will be involved in very substantial rent increases. There is the added disadvantage of an appreciably higher rating precept in the county borough than that which applies in the rural district, and this, of course, will devolve upon all ratepayers within the rural district.

Of course, these are matters which weigh very heavily with most people, not least with the residents of the local government area, and undoubtedly the reason that public opinion has massively and vehemently been directed against the merger decision, has also led to public meetings of protest. Many organisations—almost without exception, all the organisations—within the rural district have had protest meetings and recorded votes of protest against the decision. I personally have literally been inundated by letters from secretaries of organisations and from individuals within the area against this decision.

The economic factors, important as they are, are by no means the only considerations in viewing the situation in this debate. The application for the extension of the borough boundaries was made in 1959, and largely based on the need to procure more land to house overspill population from the county borough.

I sympathise with the elected representatives of the borough in the situation in which they found themselves, and had found themselves for quite a long time before 1959, because of the acute shortages of land within their own administrative area. To achieve their objective, and in advance of a decision on the boundary application, planning approval was sought in 1962 from the Durham County Council for residential development in the Silksworth area, Silksworth being within the confines of the rural district and requiring the acquisition of 600 acres of land.

After a public inquiry in February, 1963, the Minister's inspector emphatically recommended refusal of the application as the proposed development would thrust into valuable agricultural land, that the overspill could be accommodated at Washington and that development on the Sunderland periphery should be considered not in isolation but against the background of development in North-East Durham as a whole. These were laudable and very cogent reasons why the inspector found it necessary to recommend refusal of the application.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) has left the Chamber—it is not uncommon during Adjournment debates for the Opposition benches to be empty—but I must refer to the fact that, despite the recommendation of the Minister's inspector, the right hon. Gentleman, who was then Minister of Housing and Local Government, rejected the recommendation and in July 1964—almost his last Ministerial decision—chose to grant the order, a decision which may have considerably influenced my right hon. Friend the Minister to concede the application for boundary extensions in December 1965.

However, despite this powerful factor, bearing in mind that since the latter date a Royal Commission has been established to inquire into local government, I suggest to my right hon. Friend, again taking up the inspector's point, that even at this late stage Sunderland should not be treated in isolation, certainly not from the rest of the administrative county. The necessity for a systematic review of local government, including boundaries, is widely accepted by many responsible people, but a Royal Commission may have and work on entirely different terms of reference from those followed by the Local Government Commission. In these circumstances, current decisions, while having the stamp of irrevocability, cannot take account of developments over the next two or three decades. Once this decision is taken, not knowing what the future may hold, we must appreciate that the omelette cannot be unscrambled.

Parliamentary boundaries are not an issue in this debate and therefore I comment very briefly on the fact that in the two Sunderland constituencies the number of electors has declined by 6,116 since the 1959 General Election. In the absence of a thorough census, this, I estimate, would be equivalent to a population loss of 10,000. In face of this decline, it is reasonable to suggest and believe that the remaining overspill population could be adequately absorbed by the new town at Washington where, it is understood from the 1963 public inquiry, sufficient land is available for the purpose, and, moreover, sufficient stable land, which is a very important factor in mining areas.

Washington is also on the fringe of the Tyneside Special Review Area. Geographically, it is ideally situated to absorb overspill from that area, too. The Tyneside Review is not yet completed, but whatever form the ultimate decision may take, it will seriously further erode the Durham County Council's administrative area, which is already denuded of the richer section of the county by the more recent Tees-side decision.

Durham is classified as a poor county. No one aspires to becoming top of the charity league. The county is heavily dependent upon rate deficiency grant, about the future of which there is, I understand, some doubt. Subtraction of rateable value by the loss of Tees-side, Sunderland as a result of its present decision and, later, Tyneside will inevitably throw increased financial burdens upon ratepayers who are already participating in the struggle for economic emergence and security as an integral part of the Northern region.

Washington, Sunderland and Tyneside lie in close proximity to each other. The distance is five miles from Washington to Sunderland and about nine miles or even less from Washington to Newcastle. I suggest that in these circumstances, and especially having regard to the provision of a new town at Washington, the sprawl of Sunderland into the attractive green belt to the south comprising Sunderland rural district appears to be wholly unjustified. The present decision with regard to Sunderland may well prove eventually to be a correct one—no one would be dogmatic enough to argue against it completely—but it would be equally possible for it to be wholly wrong in the light of changing circumstances over the next few years.

It is in this context and in the firm belief that the Sunderland Rural District Council, together with the remainder of County Durham, should be referred to the Royal Commission that I now ask my right hon. Friend the Minister again to look at the decision so far as it affects the Sunderland rural district and to consider seriously deferring the implementation of that decision beyond April 1967[...] so that the Royal Commission should look more fully into the whole position.

In saying this, I fully recognise and appreciate the procedural difficulties with which my right hon. Friend the Minister would be heavily involved if he acceded to this request. Nevertheless, I sincerely hope that it will receive his earnest consideration.

10.18 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. James MacColl)

Anybody who listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Urwin) deploying his arguments on this matter must have been impressed by his great and detailed knowledge of the area and by the fairness with which he put his case. My hon. Friend referred to his connection with the Sunderland Rural District Council, which has been distinguished and long. He has played a big part in building up what he himself referred to and which I do not challenge: that is, the good record of the council. The fact that the decision of which my hon. Friend has spoken has been made is not in any way a reflection upon the efficiency of the council.

The decision arises out of the review by the Local Government Commission, which has been taking a long look at the problems and trying to see what in the long run would be best. It is not in any sense a quick decision. Nobody could suggest that decisions made under the 1958 Act are ever rash or unduly quick, and that is true in this case.

The operation of examining the situation in the general review of the county began in December, 1959. The draft proposals, which were substantially the same as have now been approved, were first put forward in April, 1960. Conversations and discussions went on before the final proposals were made, in October, 1963, and then there were the objections to those final proposals. The inspector reported in January, 1965, and the Minister's decision letter was issued in December of that year.

All through that period there has been general agreement among those who have been looking at this situation that, in the long run, this was the fairest and best solution. As my hon. Friend said—and the inspector confirmed this—there is a good deal of local resistance to these proposals. I would not wish to underestimate that for a moment. That is one of the factors which the Commission took into account, as it was bound to, in making its recommendations.

In any decision of this sort it is difficult to look at all the factors and hold them in balance. Undoubtedly, what will be popular and what will meet the feelings of the people is a very important element. The fact that there is a good deal of community interest, in the sense that people living in the area substantially go into Sunderland to work and shop, and that, to an increasing extent—particularly with the development of the new overspill proposals in Silksworth—the people of Sunderland will be living in this area and there will be an interchange of population in that way, works towards blending the two areas into one.

No one element of the situation is the final, conclusive element. It is the balance of advantage which is taken into account, after looking at all the possibilities. My right hon. Friend, who has to make these decisions, has to look at the evidence put before him by the Commission, and the second examination of the situation at the inquiry, and finally reach a decision.

My hon. Friend asked why we should make a decision when the Royal Commission is to be established. He asked why we should not leave this until after the review. This question has been discussed on several occasions in the House both in relation to particular cases and, in general, when my right hon. Friend made his statement about the work of the Royal Commission.

What he said, and what I have since repeated on one or two occasions, is that we have to draw the line somewhere. On the one hand, setting up a Royal Commission will undoubtedly create delay and uncertainty. It will mean that staff will not be certain of their future. It will be difficult to recruit people to work for local authorities. On the other hand, by looking at these problems we may find a better solution. We have to decide where to stop.

My right hon. Friend is not freezing every decision and refusing to implement it if it has not already been taken. That would be arbitrary, because it would still mean that a number of proposals had gone through. But in all cases where the formal stages have been completed and there is no need for any further inquiry and investigation, and where my right hon. Friend can clear his desk by making a decision one way or the other, that is what he has done. That is what he has done in this case.

My hon. Friend asked one or two questions about the effect of this decision on the area, in terms of rent and rates. The Order which lays down the details of the transfer has not yet been prepared. It will have to be laid before the House, and is subject to a Prayer when it is laid. That will enable us to consider any further financial difficulties which arise, and if there is a substantial difference between the rates, there can, if necessary, be transitional proposals which will, to some extent, moderate the drastic nature of the change.

The question of house rents is rather more difficult. It is true, as my hon. Friend says, that it is for the housing authority to decide the rent level. Naturally, it may want to have a fairly equalised scheme of rents over the whole county borough, but I certainly hope that it would do this with care and reasonably prudently, that it would not make drastic changes. Eventually, there will presumably be a unified rent system, but I hope that it is reached by stages.

To sum up, my right hon. Friend has shown his interest in the problems of this area of Durham by the fact that he will pay a visit there at the end of the week and will be seeing some of the problems for himself. That will be an opportunity for people with something to say to put their views to him. This is in no sense an official investigation; it is simply a furtherance of my right hon. Friend's general policy of keeping as closely in touch as he can with what is going on in the areas for which he is responsible and looking at the problems of local government in those areas.

At this stage, it is too early to see the final form of the change in detail. It will be easier to see how it will work out when the Order is laid, but, taking in balance all the area's problems—the inter-relationship of the particular parts of the area and the movements of population in and out—my right hon. Friend felt that, on balance, this was one of the Commission's recommendations which we ought to accept. He therefore accepted it in his decision letter.

Question put and agreed to.

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