HC Deb 20 October 1966 vol 734 cc438-42

District councils and non-county boroughs claiming to act as highway authorities shall be entitled to receive from county councils a contribution under section 237(1)(b) of the Highways Act 1959 to the cost of providing a lighting system equal to the full difference between the amount of the capital grant to which they may be entitled to receive from the exchequer towards the cost of such a system and the total cost of the system.—[Dr. Winstanley.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Dr. M. P. Winstanley (Cheadle)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

This new Clause deals with the position of those urban district councils and non-county borough councils which are loosely known as "claiming authorities", I do not know whether there is any statutory significance in the phrase, but it is used in correspondence by both the Ministry and the authorities themselves. They are claiming authorities in the sense that by virtue of having a population of more than 20,000, they have been able to elect to claim to be highway authorities and have these powers delegated to them by the county council.

It appears that the new situation arising from the Bill will penalise these claiming authorities as against those other authorities which have had such powers delegated to them, and the Bill will therefore produce a distinction which it was probably not intended to create. It will produce and perpetuate a distinction between two types of local authorities responsible for lighting, particularly a distinction in financial responsibility.

There seems to be little doubt about this. In correspondence which I have had with him, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport confirms that the effect of the Bill will be to make the provision and maintenance of road lighting a function of the highway authority. For "unclaimed" county roads in non-county boroughs and urban districts the highway authority will be the county council and the non-claiming urban authority will therefore be relieved of its financial responsibility for all lighting except footway lighting as defined in the Bill. The county council may delegate responsibility for lighting to the borough or district council, but in that case the county council will retain full financial responsibility and the second tier authority will simply be acting as its agent. But claiming authorities are highway authorities in their own right for county roads within their own area and are therefore financially responsible for any lighting provided by them on county roads.

I doubt whether it was intended to produce that distinction. It is an undesirable distinction and I would have thought that we would not wish to do anything to inhibit local authorities from taking more powers unto themselves. I would have thought that it was the intention of the Government to see that local authorities played as full a part as possible in all the various activities which could possibly come under their control. But while there remains a clear and definite financial disincentive so to do, I would have thought that it would have undesirable effects. It is unfortunate that merely by having claimed under previous legislation to exercise these functions, these authorities should be financially penalised, whereas if they had not claimed but merely had these functions delegated to them by the county councils, the county councils would have continued to be financially responsible.

There is no doubt about the effects of this provision. In his letter to me the Parliamentary Secretary said: … claiming authorities will still have to meet some of the costs of road lighting from the rates…".

This may not be the case in the next door authority.

This matter was first brought to my attention by the treasurer of an urban district council in my constituency, but inquiries have shown me, as no doubt they have shown others, that many authorities are concerned. The matter has been discussed in many places, although it was not discussed on Second Reading or ventilated in any detail, ii mentioned at all, in Committee. The new Clause therefore deals with an entirely new issue, with an undesirable anomaly which will arise with the passage of the Bill unless specific provision is made. The new Clause makes that provision and would remove the anomaly and make the situation much more satisfactory, and I hope that it will be accepted.

I have been informed that some county councils have written specifically to claiming authorities to inform them that as an act of grace they will defray any financial burden and will make grants direct to certain claiming authorities in order to deal with this anomaly. That may be the case with one or two county councils, but it is undesirable that it should be left to the whim of county councils to decide to take that choice. It would be much better for the Minister to make it quite clear that this is a matter of policy and in regulations or by amendment or in some other way to provide that this should happen automatically and not merely as an act of grace.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Morris)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley) for the way in which he has moved the new Clause, which deals with a most difficult matter about which he has had some corresponce with my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. He was right to say that the county will remain financially responsible for works delegated to non-claiming authorities. We say that that is a perfectly right position. He then sets out the difference between when the work is delegated by the county authorities and when, on the other hand, an authority exercising the power is a claiming authority. The difference lies in the fact that a claiming authority is the highway authority for county roads in its area and will have the powers of decision on lighting on county roads and for other such highway improvements. The rate of contribution by the county is normally agreed between the authorities concerned, and in the event of a dispute the claiming authority has the right to refer the case to the Minister for determination.

That is the situation over the claiming authority, and I would be the first to concede that there is a difference between a claiming authority and an authority with delegated powers. My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary set out the issue very fully, and I have very little to add to the reasons that he has set out. The difference is that, on the one hand, the county remains financially responsible for the works that it delegates and on the other, it is right and proper that the claiming authority should be given some measure of financial responsibility since the power of decision rests upon its shoulders. I hope that the hon. Member will withdraw his New Clause.

Mr. Lubbock

In view of what the hon. Gentleman has said in reply to my hon. Friend, may I ask him to answer one question? Why does he think that certain county councils have decided to reimburse the claiming authorities with 100 per cent. of the cost of street lighting schemes, therefore implying that they do not see this connection which the Ministry makes, that where a council is responsible because it has claimed these powers, then it should bear some of the financial burden? The Cheshire County Council does not take this view.

There is going to be a quite arbitrary difference between the treatment of urban district councils in one county and another, because some county councils will not pay 100 per cent. of the cost of street lighting schemes to claiming authorities. Can the hon. Gentleman justify this situation? Does he think that it is reasonable for an urban district council in Cheshire to receive 100 per cent. of the cost of street lighting schemes from the county council when an urban district council in Lancashire—I do not say that this happens in Lancashire but it could—only receives some lesser proportion as reimbursement?

Would it not be much better, as my hon. Friend has suggested, to have one uniform scheme to cover the whole of the country so that both urban district councils and county councils know where they stand?

Mr. Morris

Without notice, I cannot comment on the particular instances which the hon. Gentleman has advanced. The principle that I seek to put before the House is that where there is responsibility for action by a local authority and the power of decision lies with it, then it should have a measure of financial responsibility.

Dr. Winstanley

Would the hon. Gentleman explain in what way the degree of responsibility varies when the powers are claimed as against when the powers are delegated? The authority with delegated powers still has responsibility.

Mr. Morris

Without straying from the terms of this new Clause, which is fairly strictly drawn, I would say that the difference is that powers are delegated by the county authority to the other authority. In this case the authorities are exercising powers and are the claiming authorities. The measure of contribution has always been open to discussion between the two authorities. Where there is any dispute or difference the claiming authority has the right to refer the case to the Minister for determination.

Question put and negatived.