HC Deb 10 February 1966 vol 724 cc644-51
The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Richard Crossman)

I will with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement about local government reorganisation in England.

In consequence of the decision just announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to appoint a Royal Commission, the review which is being carried out by the Local Government Commission for England will be discontinued.

The Commission has produced some valuable results within the limits open to it, and I would like to take this occasion to thank the Commission for all that it has done; but its terms of reference did not enable it to propose the changes either in structure or in boundaries which fully meet present-day needs. The Commission will not carry further the reviews it has begun of the North West and the South, or start work on the South East.

Most of the work it has completed will be carried through. Where decisions have been already announced on proposals by the Commission, the necessary orders will be brought before Parliament as soon as possible. Other proposals on which decisions have not yet been taken will be considered on their merits, in the light of the decision to appoint a Royal Commission.

Under the Local Government Act, 1958, each county council is required, once the work of the Local Government Commission is sufficiently advanced, to undertake a review of the county districts in their area. I intend to deal with county reviews already submitted to me, but I shall have to consider further what is to be done in the case of reviews not yet completed.

Legislation will be required to provide for winding up the work of the Local Government Commission and to make any necessary provision for the county reviews.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Can the right hon. Gentleman clarify a little what is to happen during the years during which the Royal Commission is undertaking its investigations? In particular, will all the new changes in boundaries and organisation which changing circumstances are always necessitating in local government be frozen, or will there be any method of making adjustments, large or small? Will the freeze on change inhibit reforms in local government finance such as the right hon. Gentleman is often talking about?

When will the right hon. Gentleman be in a position to tell the counties what they are to do in respect of their suspended review of county districts? He has just said that he will have to consider further what is to be done in the case of the county reviews. I want to know how long the right hon. Gentleman's further consideration will continue and when he will tell the counties which, he will realise, are halted in mid-review this afternoon by his statement.

Finally, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us how long he expects that this state of unhappy uncertainty over local government changes will last?

Mr. Crossman

I have, naturally, discussed the county reviews with the County Councils' Association and I have told it that the three reviews which are near readiness will continue. One has come to me already, namely, Shropshire, The two which are nearest—they are both near to inquiry—are Cornwall and Worcestershire. They will continue. That is definite. I will have the others looked at to see how near to completion they are, because I quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman; I do not want this work to be lost or stopped. The last thing I want is to see a freeze.

I have been asked how long. I would say that the Royal Commission can do its work in not much more than two years. That is our view. I will explain why in a moment. I think that it can be done. Then the legislation will immediately follow, I hope. In this period I think that we have plenty of work to do. We have a mass of decisions already to implement in Orders. I intend, wherever an inquiry has been held, to continue this to the point of decision and of Order. There is, therefore, a great deal of work which will go on. Minor reviews and and adjustments can continue exactly as they have done during the existence of the Commission.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about financial reform. I have made it clear that the two Rating Bills which are now in process were designed to shore up an ancient building pending radical reconstruction. They are intended to last for the period while the Royal Commission works and before it recommends, because it is clear that if we want a radical review of local government the Royal Commission must consider local finance, and the kind of finance which is needed for the new reorganisation which will be recommended by the Royal Commission and, I hope, implemented by the Government.

The right hon. Gentleman asked why I hoped that the work could be done as fast as I have suggested. The reasons are twofold. First, during the months in which I have discussed the subject with local authorities I have found a remarkable readiness now to acquiesce in the necessity for a really radical overhaul. Those who care most about local government and have most deeply at heart the cause of local democracy are most anxious to see something radical done, which the Local Government Commission was denied doing by its terms of reference, which have constricted its work since 1958.

It is the absence of those constrictions in the new terms of reference which will enable the Royal Commission to carry through reforms which are demanded by everybody in counties and county boroughs who now sees the need for this drastic overhaul if local government is to become as efficient as it can be and to revive a democracy which is being, in a way, undermined by the ineffectiveness created by the relation of counties and county boroughs. This is why I believe that after all the work of the Local Government Commission and the Maud and Mallaby Committees, the time has come when decisions can be made, when the Royal Commission has reviewed the situation.

Mr. Dan Jones

Did I understand my right hon. Friend to say that the recommendations already made by the Commission will be carried out? If so, will that procedure be carried out without delay?

Mr. Crossman

I certainly did not say that the recommendations would be carried out. I said that the recommendations of the Commission which have completed their inquiry stage will come to me and I will decide them and see that my decisions are implemented, because these are recommendations on which a decision has to be made. That I did say, yes.

Mr. Fell

Can the Minister answer a question about a local constituency? As the Royal Commission may recommend different terms of reference for the Local Government Commission, can the right hon. Gentleman say whether the case of part of my constituency of Great Yarmouth will now be held up?

Mr. Crossman

The hon. Member is, I think, under a misunderstanding. The Royal Commission will have a dual purpose. Although I shall not talk about its terms of reference, I can say what its function will be. It will be to formulate the principles of reconstruction and then itself to recommend the precise reconstruction so that the whole thing will be done in one process. I do not intend that there should be another Boundary Commission with a lapse of five years before one can get anything done. I cannot, therefore, answer the hon. Member's question about his constituency without prior notice.

Mr. Snow

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of us who represent Staffordshire will have viewed the work of the Local Government Commission so far with something less than enthusiasm? Is he aware that his words that there will be no freeze upon existing reviews of county districts will be warmly welcomed? Will he bear in mind that especially where there are substantial movements of population, as are occurring at present in the West Midlands, in the overspill receiving areas, action should be expedited as far as possible?

Mr. Crossman

Yes, Sir.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

With regard to the district authorities' review by the county councils, will the Minister give a complete undertaking that he will inform all those local authorities, at both district and county level, as soon as possible whether the review is to go ahead? There is great uncertainty about this.

Secondly, is the Minister aware that there is a close relationship between the work of the Local Government Commission and the Parliamentary Boundary Commission? Will he undertake that there will be no further alteration in the work of the Parliamentary Boundary Commission until he has made up his mind finally after the Royal Commission has reported?

Mr. Crossman

I would be a hazardous Minister if I were to say that about something which is no concern of mine. I can speak only of the work of the Local Government Commission. The other Commission is completely independent of me.

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has said about county reviews. I have given the counties, so to speak, decisions on the first, immediate issue. They will be given within a very short time, as I assured their representatives when I met them the other day, a firm decision on the rest of the review.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Can my right hon. Friend let the House know how his statement will affect the reorganisation of local government on Tyneside? In view of the great importance that this should be seen in the context of regional development, would not my right hon. Friend agree that it needs to be looked at in those terms?

Mr. Crossman

Yes, I will give an early decision on Tyneside. I have only just received the reactions of all the local authorities to my provisional proposal for a single-purpose borough for the area. When I have studied them, I will make my decision.

Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles

Can the Minister assure the House that the existence of the Royal Commission will not prevent the experimental schemes being carried out in special areas as put forward by the Hampshire County Council?

Mr. Crossman

Yes, I think that I can give that assurance. Indeed, I am going to Warwickshire tomorrow to discuss with the Warwickshire County Council one of these experimental schemes.

Mr. Frederic Harris

In view of the fact that in the last two or three years we in what is now termed Greater London have gone through the whole system of reorganisation of local government, is it possible to eliminate Greater London from the terms of reference of the Royal Commission?

Mr. Crossman

That is obviously something which I have thought about carefully. As the hon. Member says, there has been a radical reshaping of local government in that area. My view is that it is most unlikely that it will be included in the terms of reference of the Royal Commission, but I am not absolutely sure.

Mr. Duffy

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that existing proposals for the West Riding of Yorkshire conurbation will still come before him? Is he aware that the Commission must be seized of the greatest urgency in its work and its proposals fearlessly adopted if Labour Governments are not to get a reputation for being soft on the subject of local government reform?

Mr. Crossman

I am not sure what the softness would be. In reply to the first part of the question, I have said that I have to consider each of these areas, and prima facie, since nearly all, or perhaps all, of the inquiries in Yorkshire have been completed, I see no reason why I should not be able to complete the process. It is my determination to do all we possibly can to get all that is good out of the work of the existing Commission.

Mr. Lubbock

Will the Minister be good enough to give an assurance that any proposals made under Section 6(4) of the London Government Act for the transfer of part of a borough which is contiguous with a county to that county will be allowed to go forward: in other words, that representations submitted by people under that Section to go out of Greater London and into the adjacent county will be considered by the Minister?

Mr. Crossman

This matter is under consideration by my Ministry. I have consulted Greater London and the boroughs. I cannot make a statement now, but I will do so in the near future.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Can the Minister clear up two points which arise from his original answer to me? I understood him to say that during the period of the Royal Commission minor changes can continue. Does that include changes which have not yet been initiated, but which are proposed from now onwards?

Secondly, in his statement that the Royal Commission could be expected to report in the very quick time of two years, did the right hon. Gentleman take into account also the time that will be needed both for consideration of its report by the Government of the day and the preparation of the necessary legislation? Is he still satisfied that the Royal Commission will take only two years in the light of his own statement that it has both to formulate principles and to apply them, apparently, throughout the country?

Finally, can the Minister say when we will have an opportunity of debating the matter?

Mr. Crossman

It is a waste of time for the right hon. Gentleman to address his final question to me. The question of debate is a matter for the usual channels.

As to minor changes, again I want to be as helpful to the House as I can without going beyond what I can say with certainty. Where a voluntary change is agreed between a county and a county borough, I see no reason why these changes should not continue during the period. We shall continue in force the existing legislation, which allows those changes to take place. Where they are more than changes of that nature, I do not think that they will take place. Otherwise, I should be merely winding up the existing Commission but continuing its vast work.

I have calculated that to finish the work of the existing Commission in the North-West, South and South-East would, at the present pace of procedure, take six years. It would take four years even to do Lancashire. Therefore, what is really wrong with us today is a Commission which, through no fault of its own but partly because of its terms of reference and, even more, the intolerable procedural methods imposed upon it, has a protraction of time and a waste of effort which denies the possibility of decision.

A Royal Commission freed from those limitations would, in my view, proceed faster over the whole country than the Boundary Commission, through no fault of its own, would have been able to proceed over the three remaining areas at its disposal.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I know how important this matter is, but we must move on.

Mr. Lubbock

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In reply to me, the right hon. Gentleman refused to give the assurance for which I asked—that the rights of the people who live on the edge of Greater London, and who are asking for transfer to counties under the London Government Act, would be safeguarded. Yet, in his statement, he said that legislation would be introduced for the winding up of the work of the Local Government Commission. Is it in order for a Minister to make a statement nullifying existing legislation without proposing to introduce new legislation for that purpose?

Mr. Speaker

That is a matter of political argument and not one for the Chair.

Mr. More

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I draw your attention to the fact that three counties are immediately affected by this statement, but that, with respect, you have not called any hon. Member from any of those areas?

Mr. Speaker

I must ask the House to bear with me. It is exceedingly difficult. As an old local government man myself, I know how interested are the majority of hon. Members who tried to put questions on the statement. I did my best to spread the questioning around. I am sorry if I failed.

Mr. Biffen

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Since Shropshire, Worcestershire and Cornwall are already faced with considerable dislocation—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I suspect that this is not a point of order. I understand that the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. William Yates) wishes to raise a point of order.