§ 10.5 p.m.
§ Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
I beg to move,That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying, that the Exeter Order 1966 (S.I. 1966, No. 135), dated 9th February 1966, a copy of which was laid before this House on 18th February, be annulled.This Order is one of three piecemeal Orders which the now redundant Local Government Commission dealt with. It will doubtless be pleaded on behalf of the Minister that this Order, or the provisions in it, were recommended by the Commission.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I hope that the House will listen quietly. Other hon. Members may wish to pray one night.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
If the Minister prays in aid of the Order that it is on the advice of the Commission, that will be both an insincere and a bogus plea, because in the case of Plymouth and Plymstock he has done the opposite to what the Commission recommended. I hope that the House will agree that this is not a case of the Minister backing up the Commission, but that he could not care less about the recommendations of the Commission when they do not fit in with his plans.
The result of this Order would be that Devon, with a population of 555,000, one of the lowest population densities in the country, would lose 9,300 people. The county would be £56,000 a year worse off taking into consideration the changes in general grant and rate deficiency grant. Moreover, unless the Minister can give a specific undertaking—which, of course, he cannot, with a General Election just coming up—that rate deficiency grants will be continued at least at their existing level into the indefinite future, a further £11,000 burden will fall on the county, making a total of an additional £67,000 thrown on to county ratepayers in a county suffering from chronic under-population.
The effect on the rural district council from which this amputation is proposed will be far more disastrous, cover- 1034 ing a very wide area much land of which is poor, hilly farming land with very few public transport facilities. The effect of the Order would be to remove no less than 24.6 per cent. of the population of the rural district which would then be extraordinarily difficult to administer, if one takes the Minister's own criteria laid down by Act of Parliament that he should be guided by those factors which are conducive to convenient and efficient administration.
What would be the effect upon the individual parishes concerned? The parish of Topsham is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Mathew), but Alphington and Pinhoe are in my constituency. The effect on both would be to lose one tier of their government. At the moment, they have parish councils, but, incorporated in Exeter, they will lose their parish councils. Alphington will be agglomerated with twice the population of Alphington in the new ward, but it will not have direct representation at that level.
What will the effect on the rates be? If there is a 10 per cent. escalation in Exeter's rates, as seems highly probable, Alphington, once the 6d. umbrella is removed, will have to pay another 1s. 7d. in the £, without there being any suggestion that the services received will in any way be improved.
What is the position of Exeter? Let us be charitable and say nothing, except that it has a population of 81,810 at the moment. It never had any interest in increasing its frontiers until Burton lost its county borough status and Exeter woke up one morning and took fright. When the Commission had first asked what Exeter wanted, it did not want anything at all. Having taken fright, it wanted a huge chunk of the county, but gradually agreed to settle for the parishes of Pinhoe, Alphington and Topsham. Even with these added, Exeter would still be about 90,000. It is losing its police force any day now because it is too small. Incidentally, it is one of the only two county boroughs in England which receive a special grant from the Government because of a low population density.
In other words, this is not the case of a thriving city, bursting at the seams, unable to undertake its development 1035 because the available land is used up. It even has farm land within its boundaries. It is a matter of the local government officers wanting to ensure the continued existence of Exeter as a city. In all seriousness, I do not think that anybody would suggest that it should not be. It is the county town of Devon, a university city, the cathedral town of Devon, the largest shopping centre in the county. It would be ridiculous to suggest that, because of its existing size of 81,810, and growing, its county borough status is in jeopardy. It is not. Nor has Exeter claimed that it ever was or ever will be.
What will be some of the side effects of this ridiculous Order, which with what one might think is a somewhat cynical sense of the appropriate the Minister proposes should become effective on April Fool's Day? First, the location of newly-built schools by the county is rendered ridiculous. The excellent new modern school at Broad Clyst, which draws a large proportion of its children from Pinhoe, would never have been sited at Broad Clyst if there had been any suggestion of Pinhoe being raped from the county and being drawn into Exeter. There will be complicated cross-arrangements whereby children from Pinhoe will continue for a while to go to Broad Clyst, and many bits of paper will change hands between the county treasurer and the county borough treasurer. At the end of the day nothing will have been gained, but quite a lot of money will have been spent.
What do the people living in these areas feel? My hon. Friend the Member for Honiton will tell the House what the people in Topsham feel. The rural district council conducted a referendum in Alphington. Seventy-three per cent. of all the voting cards issued were returned. Of those, 7 per cent. were favourable to the proposed transfer and 91 per cent. were against it. In the case of Pinhoe, 69 per cent. of all the voting cards issued were returned—incidentally, a higher proportion than most Members of the House have in parliamentary elections. Twenty-three per cent. of the votes were in favour of amalgamation. Seventy-four per cent. were against it.
This was after very prolonged debate, after the evidence for and against the proposals had been given at the public 1036 inquiry before the inspector appointed by the Minister, and after the evidence for and against had received widespread publicity in the Press. Therefore, these are not referendum figures based on an initial revulsion against any change in status. These are the figures that resulted after all the facts were known. Let us be under no misapprehension about this.
What of the character of these villages? My hon. Friend will tell the House about Topsham, which, incidentally, used to be in the Tiverton division. Alphington is a rural village contiguous to Exeter. It has not lost its rural character. It has farms practically in the middle of it. It has its village hall and it is the only highly-populated part of a large chunk of land stretching one-third of the way to Moretonhampstead. Take Alphington out, and we are left with a truncated area.
In Pinhoe, we have a village separated quite distinctly from the city by the express railway line from Exeter to Waterloo. On the far side, on the Exeter side, there is a trading estate which is part of Pinhoe and which could reasonably be transferred to Exeter. Indeed, both the county council and the rural district council thought it was reasonable that this should be transferred to Exeter. We would then have a quite clear physical line of demarcation, the railway.
In Pinhoe itself there are many facilities. There is a Church of England church and a Church of England hall-church in the village itself. There is also a Nonconformist church, a public library, two public houses, and one of the nicest village halls that I know of, provided entirely by money contributed by American soldiers who were billeted in the area during the war, as a gift to Pinhoe. It is perfectly true that many of the people who live in Pinhoe work in Exeter; but, to take the analogy, is it suggested that having moved an overspill population out of London, the area to which those people have been moved should then be brought within the jurisdiction of the G.L.C. on the basis that, as the people are working in London, the same local authority should cover the area? Of course, it is not. It would be a preposterous suggestion; But this is the suggestion that is made with a religiously straight face in the case of Alphington, Pinhoe and Topsham, that because some of the people 1037 work and shop in Exeter they should be administered by county hall at Exeter.
On that basis I cannot think what would happen to County Hall. County Hall, from which Devon County Council is administered, is in the centre of the City of Exeter. On this basis, presumably, the City of Exeter should take over the whole of Devon. That, admittedly, has not yet been advanced by the Minister, but as another proposition to come into effect on April Fool's day, it should rank very high indeed on the right hon. Gentleman's list.
What advantages are claimed for the people living in these villages if they are taken into Exeter? Absolutely none. What advantages are claimed for Exeter? Not the building land, which it does not need. Not a greater stretch for its local bus service, which is already very hard pressed. Not a greater area for its police force to administer, because its police force is not going to administer anything. Very shortly it is being drawn into the county.
What are the advantages? It is hard to see any, except that the unfortunate people brought in will have to pay higher rates than they were paying before. To that extent, I suppose that there is an infinitesimal alleviation of the rate burden to the people who are already in Exeter.
Is that a good reason for doing it? When a deputation from the Devon County Council and the district councils concerned, with my hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock (Sir H. Studholme) and I, went to see the Minister last summer it was quite clear that he had already made up his mind long before we went into the room. He had made up his mind precisely what he would say when he had heard what people who had journeyed from Torbay, Pinhoe and Alphington had to say to him. It was a waste of breath. The Minister had been presented in advance with a fully documented brief so that he was familiar with the details of the case. Apparently he did not challenge any of the facts stated in it and he stuck to his guns. He stuck to this stupid decision, made in advance of a full knowledge of the facts.
Moreover, having announced his decision, he then comes to his senses and realises that this Commission did a lamentable job anyway and he says to the 1038 House that he will not let it go on doing that lamentable job and that he will have a super commission to decide what sort of commission should do what sort of job. But the flywheel in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government had acquired such a momentum that it was not practicable for him to withdraw Orders out of the system, although they had been made on the recommendation of a body already disparaged in the House. He did not come to the House to answer this debate, but sent his Parliamentary Secretary instead, and I cannot say that I blame him. That, in outline, is the case against this preposterous suggestion.
It is being taken piecemeal in the House at the moment. We have only one of the three Orders before us and, therefore, it would be out of order if I were to adumbrate on the effect on the county of all three Orders. We must debate this Order on its merits, but it is only fair that the House should know that this is intended by the Minister to be the first of three steps, the final result of which will be to reduce the population of the county from 555,000, already a lamentably low population density, by taking 95,000 people out but taking only a very small area out. The intention is to take out the land of highest rateable value in the county and the areas, with the most miles of unclassified road per head of population in the whole of England.
The intention is to take out of the county these most highly rated and most densely populated areas. One does not need a crystal ball to predict that this will be presented to the House as a piece of efficient and convenient administration. It is neither.
§ 10.24 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Mathew (Honiton)
I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) has just said. I have the honour of representing Topsham, which is concerned in this Order, and I would add my protest against the whole procedure that is being followed.
I feel that the inevitability from the beginning of the proposal of the working of a bureaucratic steam roller has been apparent to all who have been concerned with it. I was not able to make a protest in person to the Minister, but I had 1039 considerable correspondence with the right hon. Gentleman and it seems to me that the whole procedure that was followed throughout had an inevitability about it which was a mockery of the whole democratic process that is supposed to be followed in making these changes.
At the time of the inquiry, as I pointed out in my correspondence with the Minister and as he stressed in his letters to me, there was not necessarily very much interest in the proposals in Topsham itself. Topsham is a small ancient and historic Devon town on the estuary of the River Exe, a very beautiful town which, I think, is not unknown outside Devon. It has little part in the history of Exeter itself and cannot be said by even the most starry-eyed planner to have much to do with the growing City of Exeter. It has its own history and its own way of life. But, as I say, at the time of the original inquiry, there was not necessarily a majority of people in Topsham against the proposals. I think that the proposals were little understood at the time. There was a general apathy and a misunderstanding of what was proposed.
Following this, there were in Exeter City itself certain political developments—I do not wish to stress this at length—which were less than happy. The Minister was so concerned that he sent the very distinguished lady who was his chief officer at the Ministry to look into the matter. These developments were not unnoticed in Topsham, as can well be imagined, and the result was a hardening or crystallising of opinion in Topsham about the proposals. The apathy disappeared overnight.
At this stage, I was approached, first, by the Topsham Society and then by a large number of individuals, including the chairman of the Topsham Council, a very distinguished gentleman and former stipendiary magistrate in London. As the Member for Parliament responsible, I made it my business to find out where opinion in Topsham stood. I wrote to the Topsham Council asking for an official expression of opinion. I wrote also to several societies and groups in Topsham and to the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Parties there. From all three parties and from all the other groups I 1040 received the unanimous reply that the vast majority of people in Topsham were wholly against the amalgamation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton mentioned the referendum which was taken, and I can give the House the figures for Topsham. There were 2,883 voting cards issued, 72 per cent. of them were returned, and 16 per cent. were in favour of the change, but no less than 81 per cent., a remarkable figure, was against the change.
This shift of opinion had taken place as a result of a full realisation of what was involved. I shall not repeat the facts which have been put before the House by my hon. Friend. I add only that, in the light of the political developments in Exeter to which I have referred, the full realisation of what was involved for this town, with its great and historic tradition, had gone home to the people of Topsham.
The Topsham Council and the three political parties were very strongly opposed to what was proposed. I put this to the Minister, who made it clear to me that at that stage it was somewhat late. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton has said, it is clear that public opinion in Topsham was ignored throughout from that moment. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and my hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock (Sir H. Studholme) went to see the Minister, and the impression gained by all who were at that meeting was that the Minister's mind was closed and had been for some time.
I make no imputations against the Minister. In all these instances where Ministers have to make a decision on an inquiry, suddenly after having been a party in a case where there is a dispute, such as a local government boundary case, the Minister has to become quasi-judicial. This is an instance of administrative law in our system which I have long deplored. It is impossible for any Minister to carry out this change of character overnight and become judicial and make an impartial decision on all the facts and considerations. Inevitably, under the present system, and in the fact of what I have already called "the steam roller of bureaucracy", he is a rubber stamp of the bureaucracy.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. James MacColl)
My 1041 right hon. Friend is not a party to any dispute. He has responsibilities, laid down by Statute, to receive recommendations from the Local Government Boundary Commission and to take certain steps to hold an inquiry if there are objections and then to make a decision. He does not start the operation, and is not a party to it.
§ Mr. Mathew
I must disagree with the hon. Gentleman. In all such cases—it is not only Local Government Commission cases—where the Minister is a judge of matters concerning his Department, he is up to the moment that he becomes quasi-judicial a party to it because he is the head of his departmental officials who are advising him one way or the other. In the case under discussion no doubt the officials advised him that the balance of advantage was this way.
It is very difficult for any man—I make no imputation whatever against the right hon. Gentleman for I know him to be very fair-minded—to divest himself of the interests of his Department and suddenly become a judge and totally disinterested; place on his head the wig and on his shoulders the robes of a judge and become quasi-judicial. This applies not only to the right hon. Gentleman, but to a number of other Ministers who have certain statutory duties placed on them.
In the case in point, 81 per cent. of the population of Topsham were against the proposal. This opinion, for reasons which I have given, was expressed somewhat late in the day, as the right hon. Gentleman hastened to inform me, and this I fully accept. But I think that the reasons for it will be understood by the House. Because of what had happened, the inevitability of bureaucracy was such that they had to be ignored.
For these reasons, I submit that the Minister, in this case, was in an impossible position and that the Order is wholly against the interests and the wishes of the people of Topsham.
§ 10.35 p.m.
Sir Henry Srudholme (Tavistock)
I agree with the view expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) and Honiton (Mr. Mathew). I shall not reiterate their arguments, but I want to put four points.
1042 First, no case has been made out that Exeter needs more land for further development. Exeter is one of the county boroughs in receipt of a special grant from the Government because the population is sparse in relation to the area. Secondly, as far as I understand it, the only reason for that extension is apparently that the Local Government Commission suggested that, because Exeter has a population of under 100,000—I believe that it is about 81,000—it might lose its county borough status. I have yet to learn of any county town of the status of Exeter which would ever be demoted in that way. The argument does not hold water.
Thirdly, the majority of the population of St. Thomas rural district have shown clearly in a referendum that they are against an extension of the boundaries of Exeter. I am glad to see the Minister here and I repeat to him that the same thing occurred in Plympton rural district. The Minister says that Plymouth should swallow up the major portion of the Plympton rural district, but the local population has come out against that proposal in no uncertain terms—91 per cent. being against it.
Fourthly, if the St. Thomas rural district goes to Exeter the county will lose the equivalent of ¾d. in rate—about £56,000. As a county ratepayer, I see no benefit in that to anyone. I am sure that the Minister has long made up his mind—that was clear when my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and I went on a deputation to see him the other day—but I see no public advantage at all in this proposal.
My old home is situated in St. Thomas and some of my family still live there. I know that in what I am saying I am voicing their opinions. I strongly oppose this Order and should like to vote against it.
§ 10.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)
I support the hon. Members for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), Honiton (Mr. Mathew) and Tavistock (Sir H. Studholme) in opposing the Order.
The speech we have just listened to may be—although I hope not—the last speech in the House by the hon. Member for Tavistock before his retirement and I hope that it would not be out of order 1043 if I were allowed to say, since he is our senior Member in the West Country and has been for many years, that we shall greatly miss his wise counsel. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear hear."] I should like to tell him, also, that it is with great pleasure that I find myself on this occasion in wholehearted agreement with him. He enjoys our respect and, if I may say so, our affection as well.
I neither represent, nor is my constituency contiguous to, any of the parishes involved in the Order, but, of course, the Order will have a considerable effect upon Devon as a whole. I represent one of the most sparsely occupied parts of that county. As the hon. Member for Tiverton rightly said, it would be out of order to discuss any other prospective schemes, although as he said—and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, did not see fit to suggest that he was out of order—this will be one of three, and other schemes will follow.
All one can say is that already the right hon. Gentleman has been made a Freeman of the Borough of Torquay.
§ The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Richard Crossman) indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Thorpe
If the right hon. Gentleman does not know, perhaps I am breaking secrets and this is something which may fall upon him. I know that he has been wined and dined in an ultra Conservative borough better than any Labour Member would ever have dreamed or imagined possible. The right hon. Gentleman must have realised that this was a case in which the cat was giving the cream, and it was richly appreciated.
The position is that three parishes with a total population of 9,000 are to be transferred to the County Borough of Exeter. We do not know the extent to which the loss in rateable value will be compensated for by a rate deficiency grant, but neither does the right hon. Gentleman. When he spoke in the House on 5th May, last year, and was questioned by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker), he said that these were matters very much under consideration, because this was one of the reforms of local government, carrying through the pledge of 1955, which the Government 1044 would have to scrap. This was not the promise which was to be scrapped—this was not one of those sentences—but the rate deficiency grant, and the right hon. Gentleman suggested that there must be a new way of defining it.
No doubt, an excellent way may be contrived, which nobody will be able to understand, but at the moment neither the county nor anybody else knows what will be the effect of losing rateable value, because we do not know what form of rate deficiency grant will take its place.
§ Mr. Thorpe
The hon. Gentleman may be right. There may be two White Papers, with suitable comments in all the newspapers appearing the following day.
We are taking from the county a rateable value and leaving behind a county which still has the largest mileage of road of any administrative county in England, with only 74 people per mile, now to be reduced to 59. We shall have a situation in which either greater burdens will be put on those parts of the county which remain, including my own constituency, or a far greater burden on the Exchequer.
What is sinister is that when these matters were originally raised—and the right hon. Gentleman will correct me if my information is not correct—the particular accretions of land asked for by the county borough were very minor. It wanted part of the parish of Pinhoe, where it had a trading estate, and another part of Pinhoe, where it had an occupational centre for the mentally handicapped and at Alphington, where it wanted an extension of land where it had an industrial estate.
To those claims the county council readily agreed, with no difficulty at all—until the Local Government Commission got to work and suggested that unless Exeter increased in numbers to about 100,000 it was in very great danger of losing its county status. It may well be that the Commission would say today that it never gave any such impression or that if it did, it was wholly erroneous.
§ Mr. Crossman rose—
§ Mr. Thorpe
I will try to answer the right hon. Gentleman. I will not give way yet. He asked who said that the Commission had given that impression.
§ Mr. Crossman rose—
§ Mr. Thorpe
The right hon. Gentleman must let me answer. He is a patient man.
Devon County Council clearly took that view. It is the view of many officials in the County Council at Exeter. It may be wholly erroneous, but that is the impression that was clearly given. Therefore, the City of Exeter, with a feeling for, to use a word familiar to the right hon. Gentleman, lebensraum, decided that it must start swallowing up the land around it. However, even on that basis it will not be a borough of 100,000, but will be about 10,000 short.
§ Mr. Crossman
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously saying that the Commission gave the impression that it would think adversely if Exeter did not get the right number of population? I see no evidence whatever for thinking that.
§ Mr. Crossman
With respect, I would like to know what evidence there is for such an impression. The hon. Gentleman said that the Commission had created that impression, but there is no evidence to show that that was so, nor could there have been such an impression created. The Commission's job is to study the facts as they are. My job is to decide, after the Commission has done that. It is unfair for the hon. Gentleman to say that the Commission gave an impression which it could not give. What does he mean by "Gave the impression"? The Commission looks at a situation. So far, not one county borough has been down-graded for lack of population.
§ Mr. Thorpe
The right hon. Gentleman rightly says that one must look at the facts. That is perfectly correct. Before the Local Government Commission came on the scene, the demands, suggestions and recommendations made by the County Borough of Exeter were very modest. They were for fragments 1046 of various surroundings parishes. By the time the Commission had completed its hearings, by the time that all those matters were heard, it was clearly the impression of Exeter that if it did not substantially increase its acreage it might well run the risk of losing its county borough status.
I accept immediately what the right hon. Gentleman says about the Commission never having any intention of giving such an impression or that this has perhaps never happened before—
§ Mr. Thorpe
—or that it will never happen in the next 500 years, but the fact remains that this impression was clearly created, which the right hon. Gentleman cannot controvert. The territorial claims of the County Borough of Exeter were substantially inflated to include these three parishes. Before that time it had asked for three portions of two parishes. By the end of the hearings its appetite had become insatiable.
What is it intended to do? One thing that will happen, which is, presumably, prayed in aid in this Order, is that the existing fire service will incorporate the services existing in the three parishes. It is interesting, as the hon. Member for Tiverton said, that at this moment the Exeter police force is being amalgamated with the Devon police on the ground of administrative efficiency. Here, I must declare an interest. I have some connection with the fire service. I act in a legal capacity for a fire organisation. That is a very good thing, for if there were a little more legal advice perhaps Her Majesty's Government might benefit by it.
The fire service was very impressed by a speech made by the right hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Brooke), when he was Home Secretary, in adumbrating a policy which was carried on by the former Home Secretary, who, I think, is now Lord Privy Seal, the right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice)—a policy that every fire authority should have basically 100,000 population at the very minimum to bring about efficiency and that, wherever the population was below that figure, there should be amalgamation. The Order seeks to create a fire service with a 90,000 population whereas at the moment 1047 Exeter and the county fire services could, in my view, be amalgamated in the interests of efficiency in the same way as the police have already been amalgamated.
We are artificially creating small administrative units at the very time when the public services ought to be amalgamated on the ground of efficiency. The Minister for Housing and Local Government agreed with what I said about the police and I suggest that what is good enough for the police is good enough for the fire service.
It cannot be said that this step is necessary because Exeter needs land for expansion. Exeter has plenty of land for expansion, as no doubt the Minister will confirm in his reply. I am particularly interested in the statement in the right hon. Gentleman's letter that local opinion must always be fully considered. If I may coin a phrase, my retort would be, "Sez you". There has been a referendum, and this proposal has been clearly rejected by the overwhelming majority of the local electorate. This is an unnecessary measure which is truncating the County of Devon, it is against the wishes of the local people and I submit that a case has not been made out for it.
§ 10.53 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)
I shall be brief and cut my remarks considerably, but I should like to oppose the Order on a matter of principle.
I look upon the County of Devon as a whole and not as a county made up of several bits, such as urban and rural areas, rich and poor areas, highly populated and sparsely populated areas. We stand or fall as a county, and I very much dislike this hiving-off of another part of the county, which is quite wrong, can do no good to the county and must have an adverse effect in the long run on those who live within its boundaries. I believe that we need to remain as a whole county. Here we see possibly a prosperous area being hived off, and later it may be Plympton and Torbay. This cannot do any good for the county as a whole in the long run.
I conclude my brief remarks by opposing the Order as a matter of principle. We should remain as a whole 1048 county and not have little bits taken away—a tendency which could well increase as the years go by.
§ 10.54 p.m.
§ Sir Rolf Dudley Williams (Exeter)
Before I open my remarks on the Order I wish to associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) in respect of my hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock (Sir H. Studholme). I have had many kindnesses from him since I have been a Member of Parliament, and I am sure that we all very much regret that he will shortly be leaving the House of Commons. I hope that he will have many years of happy retirement in Devon and that we shall not altogether lose contact with him.
These proposals result from the deliberations of the Local Government Commission. I am extremely grateful to the Minister of Housing and Local Government that he has never recommended me to go on the Commission, because it must have been a most heartrending job to have to make these decisions. I appreciate fully the very strong feelings which exist in these three parishes which are being brought within the control of Exeter. I have always kept out of the controversy as much as possible, so I cannot be accused of intervening in any way to bring this about. All I will say is that if these parishes do find themselves within the confines of Exeter they will be made very welcome, and that we look forward to the people of those parishes taking part in the government of Exeter.
The Minister of Housing and Local Government has made this Order, and I think that he has made it fairly. I think that he has carefully considered it. I know the pleas which have been made that the Order should be reversed or postponed, but I think that the Minister gave every possible consideration to it before making it. It has been his decision to make it, and now that he has made it I think we should all try to make the Order work, because it is far too late now to reverse the Minister's decision—
§ Sir Rolf Dudley Williams
I understand the strong feelings that are held about this by hon. Members for county 1049 constituencies in Devon, but the county council rate has been fixed for the next year, and the financial arrangements for Exeter are almost concluded and in the first week or two of next month—March—the rate will be fixed, and if these three parishes are taken out of Exeter the whole of the financial arrangements for the next financial year will have to be reversed.
There would be complete chaos if the decision were reversed at this late hour. I think that the officials who have been responsible for bringing about this amalgamation will feel utterly frustrated. They have worked very closely together over the last few months to enable this changeover to take place as smoothly as possible. Practically every difficulty has been ironed out. Only two, so far as I am aware, still exist, over the old people's homes at Alphington and some old people's homes which have been constructed at Topsham, and I think that those difficulties will be ironed out before many days are past. There is another particular sad case the details of which I shall not go into in the House. I hope that it will be satisfactorily concluded.
If we decide that this Prayer should be successful tonight I think that very grave difficulty will be caused not only to Exeter City Council, but to Devon County Council, also. I do not know whether my hon. Friends are to take this matter to a Division, but if it is taken to a Division I shall certainly support the Minister.
§ 10.58 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. James MacColl)
May I also join in what has been said about the hon. Gentleman the Member for Tavistock (Sir H. Studholme), who is a very old friend of mine. Though he was a political opponent of mine—and deputy mayor of Paddington before I was mayor—I have always had difficulty in thinking of him as a West Country man. I know how well he has served his constituency over the years. I can only say that I hope that when he thinks about these last days of this Parliament he will think rather of our Prayer about Cornwall, a happier background for him, than our Prayer about Exeter. I am sorry that he feels that it was a wrong decision.
The other thing that ought to be said is a word of thanks to the officials and 1050 staff of the different local authorities who worked particularly well in getting the Order prepared in rather a hurry. I have been told by my right hon. Friend's advisers that the contribution made by the officials, whatever their views about the general theme of the Order, was, as one would expect from local government officials, of the highest quality. They showed great skill and wisdom, and the Order, as a technical achievement, represents a very successful job.
Before I come to look at the merits of the case, I should like to point out the timetable to the House. The matter first came before the Local Government Commission in the autumn of 1959. The Commission's draft proposals were published and circulated in July, 1961. The statutory conference was held at Exeter in November, 1961. The final proposals were published and circulated to local authorities in February, 1963. The public local inquiry was held in October, 1963. My right hon. Friend's decision letter was issued in March, 1965. The Order which we are discussing was made in February, 1966, and the appointed day is 1st April, 1966.
The Commission made it clear in its report that the proposals that it put forward in its final report differ significantly from those in the draft proposals only at Alphington, where a more regular boundary is proposed to bring all the houses in Shillingford Lane within the city. In other words, from the moment of preparation of the draft proposals until the appointed day, there has been a trend of agreement about the proposals. The Local Government Commission accepted them both before and after its statutory consultations. My right hon. Friend accepted them when he issued his decision letter. Therefore, one can hardly call this a bureaucratic steamroller, except that it is extremely slow.
All this time has been spent in reaching a decision, and to defeat the Order now would be to reveal not only the weaknesses of the procedure which we all have to operate, but would be an intolerable burden on the area in creating uncertainty.
§ Mr. MacColl
My right hon. Friend has been accused of inconsistency about this, but he has not been inconsistent. 1051 When he announced that he would invite the House to wind up the Local Government Commission and ask the Prime Minister to consider other proposals, resulting in the Royal Commission, he made it clear—and he has acted consistently on that basis—that any matters that had reached decision stage would be decided one way or the other. To say that he would leave certain matters over to the Royal Commission would, again, have meant intolerable delay. Therefore, my right hon. Friend has done the only responsible thing that he could do, in view of the weight of support that these proposals has had, and made a decision. The opposition to that at the beginning—and this has been said by the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop)—was not too great.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
I never said any such thing. My hon. Friend referred to Topsham. I never said any such thing about that. The opposition has been very strong indeed—at individual level, at parish council level, and at rural district council level—ever since these proposals were first put forward, when Exeter took fright that it might lose its county borough status.
§ Mr. MacColl
The hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Mathew) quoted the case of the parish which had agreed to the proposals, and there is some question whether later, when the formalities had been completed and the inquiry was held, it changed its mind, but it accepted the proposals, and it is the parish which, geographically, is further removed from, and less contiguous with, Exeter.
§ Mr. Mathew
What the hon. Gentleman says is true, but it must be appreciated that people in Devon are not perhaps as well versed in matters of local government law and local government procedure as they are perhaps in the Greater London Area, for instance, and, therefore, it was some time before the people in Topsham realised what was involved. In addition, there were the political developments in Exeter to which I have referred, and for this reason there was then the full realisation of what was involved. I do not think that it is surprising that it took some time to understand what was involved. If it had been in 1052 London no doubt people would have understood, but we have other things to think about in Devon. We are busy people.
§ Mr. MacColl
I should have thought that the degree of participation in rural affairs in Devon was a good deal higher than in London, and I think that the hon. Member for Tavistock would probably agree with that. I believe—but I would not attach a great deal of importance to it—that a parish meeting called by Pinhoe to discuss the proposals before the inquiry was attended by about 10 people. That does not really suggest that there was a great upsurge of feeling about it.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
If the hon. Gentleman wants to produce facts of that kind, he might not be aware that the case had been canvassed. There can be a meeting because people's views are not known, or their views can be gathered by a complete canvass, in which case the purpose of the meeting is merely to discuss anything about which there is not agreement. It is possible for there to be a few people at a meeting because there is already a consensus of agreement. People go to the meeting to disagree, not to agree.
§ Mr. MacColl
When I undertake a canvass, I like people to come to the meeting after I have done so. I am looking for evidence of this great upsurge of feeling. I have to look at the case which has been put to me.
The other point which was put was about the plebiscite. This was quoted as of great weight. The plebiscite, as I think the hon. Gentleman might have mentioned from his knowledge of the area, has been particularly criticised as being extremely misleading because the description of the decision was described inaccurately on the card which was sent round.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
The hon. Gentleman keeps on making statements like that. It was criticised as being misleading by the Town Clerk of Exeter, not by an unbiased and independent judge. I have yet to meet a person who read the questionnaire and was not able to understand it. It was quite unambiguous.
§ Mr. MacColl
That gentleman has been Town Clerk of Exeter. But the point at issue is quite clear. I would not 1053 have raised it but for the fact that I thought it a little unfair for the hon. Member, in deploying his case, to say that this was a very important expression of opinion. The point was that people were asked whether they thought that the rural district of St. Thomas should be merged into Exeter.
§ Mr. MacColl
I would draw the attention of the House to the document in question. It says:Are you for or against the inclusion in the City of Exeter of the rural district of St Thomas in which your premises are situated.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop rose—
§ Mr. MacColl
I am sorry, but I am bound by the time. The hon. Member has said that what I have stated is untrue. I have read out precisely what was on the card.
§ Mr. MacColl
I do not wish to be unreasonable. I realise that the hon. Member is making the best out of a not very good case. But he categorically quoted the statistics and the proportion of people voting—and the hon. Member for Honiton did the same—on the basis of what was on the card.
§ Mr. MacColl
The hon. Member then said that what I quoted as being on the card was untrue. I produced the card and read out what was on it, and he said that I was putting words on it. He ought to learn to put his case with more accuracy and moderation.
§ question as put he left out the words "in which your premises are situated". He said that only when he read from the card. Previously, he gave the impression that the question put was whether the whole of the rural district of St. Thomas should be transferred. That is why I challenged him.
§ Mr. MacColl
Those people who received this card and who had premises situated in the rural district would have thought that the question would apply to the whole rural district. These decisions on matters of local government reorganisation are extremely difficult and awkward ones to make. I feel that hon. Members who see themselves as responsible leaders in their local communities should be accurate in what they say. I do not want to add any more.
There is no difference between the Commission and my right hon. Friend on the question that these three areas have a great deal of their life in Exeter. They are, to all intents and purposes, geographically linked with Exeter. As the hon. Member said, many of their inhabitants go to Exeter to work. They use many of the facilities and social services of Exeter. There is, therefore, a strong presumption that they should take part in the life of the government of Exeter, and also that they should pay for the services provided in the town of which they are part.
My right hon. Friend has looked very carefully at the proceedings. He had before him the recommendations of the Commission and the report of the inspector and looking at the whole thing he thought that this was a case in which the Commission had acted rightly and that its judgment of the matter was correct. Rather than put back the clock in respect of operations which began in 1959 the only responsible thing to do was to make this Order, which the House is invited to approve.
§ Question put:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 8, Noes 149.1055
|Division No. 36.]||AYES||[11.15 p.m.|
|Harrison, Col. Sir Harwood (Eye)||Studholme, Sir Henry|
|King, Evelyn (Dorset, S.)||Taylor, Edward M. (G'gow, Cathcart)||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Kirk, Peter Mills,||Thorpe, Jeremy||Mr Maxwell-Hyslop and|
|Mills, Peter (Torrington)||Walker, Peter (Worcester)||Mr. Robert Matthew.|
|Allaun, Frank (Salford, E.)||Gregory, Arnold||Oakes, Gordon|
|Alldritt, Walter||Grey, Charles||Ogden, Eric|
|Armstrong, Ernest||Griffiths, Will (M'chester, Exchange)||Orme, Stanley|
|Bagier, Gordon A. T,||Hamilton, James (Bothwell)||Oswald, Thomas|
|Beaney, Alan||Harming, William (Woolwich, W.)||Page, Derek (King's Lynn)|
|Bence, Cyril||Hannan, William||Paget, R. T.|
|Bennett, J. (Glasgow, Bridgeton)||Harper, Joseph||Palmer, Arthur|
|Binns, John||Harrison, Walter (Wakefield)||Perry, Ernest G.|
|Bishop, E. S.||Hart, Mrs. Judith||Price, J. T. (Westhoughton)|
|Blackburn, F.||Hazell, Bert||Probert, Arthur|
|Boardman, H.||Heffer, Eric S.||Rees, Merlyn|
|Braddock, Mrs. E. M.||Hobden, Dennis (Brighton, K'town)||Reynolds, G. W.|
|Bradley, Tom||Horner, John||Rhodes, Geoffrey|
|Bray, Dr. Jeremy||Howarth, Robert L. (Bolton, E.)||Richard, Ivor|
|Broughton, Dr. A. D. D.||Howell, Denis (Small Heath)||Roberts, Albert (Normanton)|
|Brown, Rt. Hn. George (Belper)||Hunter, Adam (Dunfermline)||Robertson, John (Paisley)|
|Brown, Hugh, D. (Glasgow, Provan)||Hynd, John (Attercliffe)||Rodgers, William (Stockton)|
|Brown, R. W. (Shoreditch & Fbury)||Irving, Sydney (Dartford)||Rose, Paul B.|
|Buchan, Norman (Renfrewshire, W.)||Jackson, Colin||Ross, Rt. Hn. William|
|Buchanan, Richard||Jenkins, Hugh (Putney)||Rowland, Christopher|
|Carmichael, Neil||Johnson, James (K'ston-on-Hull, W.)||Shore, Peter (Stepney)|
|Carter-Jones, Lewis||Jones, Dan (Burnley)||Short, Rt. Hn. E. (N'c'tle-on-Tyne, C.)|
|Coleman, Donald||Jones, J. Idwal (Wrexham)||Silkin, John (Deptford)|
|Conian, Bernard||Kerr, Mrs. Anne (R'ter & Chatham)||Silverman, Julius (Aston)|
|Craddock, George (Bradford, S.)||Lawson, George||Small, William|
|Crawshaw, Richard||Leadbitter, Ted||Spriggs, Leslie|
|Crossman, Rt. Hn. R. H. S.||Lever, Harold (Cheetham)||Summerskill, Hn. Dr. Shirley|
|Cullen, Mrs. Alice||Lever, L. M. (Ardwick)||Swingler, Stephen|
|Dalyell, Tam||Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)||Symonds, J. B.|
|Davies, G. Elfed (Rhondda, E.)||Lomas, Kenneth||Thomas, lorwerth (Rhondda, W.)|
|Davies, Harold (Leek)||Loughlin, Charles||Thornton, Ernest|
|Diamond, Rt. Hn. John||McBride, Neil||Urwin, T. W.|
|Doig, Peter||McCann, J.||Varley, Eric G.|
|Driberg, Tom||MacColl, James||Wainwright, Edwin|
|Duffy, Dr. A. E. P.||McGuire, Michael||Walden, Brian (All Saints)|
|Dunn, James A.||Mackenzie, Gregor (Rutherglen)||Walker, Harold (Doncaster)|
|Dunnett, Jack||Mackie, John (Enfield, E.)||Wallace, George|
|Edwards, Rt. Hn. Ness (Caerphilly)||McNamara, Kevin||Watkins, Tudor|
|English, Michael||Mallalieu, J. P. W. (Huddersfield, E.)||Wellbeloved, James|
|Fernyhough, E.||Manuel, Archie||Whitlock, William|
|Finch, Harold (Bedwellty)||Mapp, Charles||Wilkins, W. A.|
|Fletcher, Sir Eric (Islington, E.)||Marsh, Richard||Williams, Alan (Swansea, W.)|
|Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)||Maxwell, Robert||Williams, Albert (Abertillery)|
|Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston)||Mendelson, J. J.||Williams. Sir Rolf Dudley (Exeter)|
|Floud, Bernard||Millan, Bruce||Willis, George (Edinburgh, E.)|
|Ford, Ben||Milne, Edward (Blyth)||Wilson, William (Coventry, S.)|
|Fraser, Rt. Hn. Tom (Hamilton)||Morris, Charles (Openshaw)||Yates, Victor (Ladywood)|
|Freeson, Reginald||Mulley, Rt. Hn. Frederick (Sheffield Pk)|
|Garrett, W. E.||Neal, Harold||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Garrow, Alex||Newens, Stan||Mr. Ifor Davies and|
|Gourlay, Harry||Norwood, Christopher||Mr. Alan Fitch.|