HC Deb 07 February 1967 vol 740 cc1516-24

11.4 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Hartlepool Order 1966, dated 30th November, 1966, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th December, be approved. This is an Order made under the Local Government Act, taking effect after action by the Local Government Commission and a decision by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government. The proposal which is before the House is to set up a new county borough by joining the old non-county borough of Hartlepool with the old county borough of West Hartlepool.

I will start by explaining the timetable, because it is always helpful, in looking at these Orders, to see how the thing has developed. The Local Government Commission began its inquiries in the North-East in the autumn of 1959 and draft proposals were prepared by the Commission in April, 1962. The statutory consultation took place between October and November, 1962. The final Report of the Commission was made in October, 1963. The public inquiry ordered by the then Minister was held in December, 1964, and the decision letter came in February, 1966. This is fully consistent with the procedure which the Lord President of the Council announced, when he was Minister of Housing and Local Government, and when the Royal Commission was established, of taking those Reports of the Local Government Commission which were already completed and taking action either to disregard them or put them into operation.

In this case my right hon. Friend had no hesitation at all in putting this into operation. There has been a remarkable uniformity of opinion about the desirability of this proposal.

The first question which I want the House to consider is whether the union between Hartlepool and West Hartlepool is a sensible one. There is a long history of proposals to do this and the Local Government Boundary Commission of 1947 recommended that there should be a single county borough made up of the two towns. The proposal was looked at by the Local Government Commission and in its draft proposals it said in paragraph 59: The Hartlepools have been virtually a single urban area for many years. About one third of the working population of Hartlepool works in West Hartlepool and many people living in West Hartlepool work in Hartlepool. West Hartlepool provides the principal commercial services, shops and entertainments for the people of both and for most purposes except local government the Hartlepools are already regarded as one town. The Commision, when it came to its final conclusion after its consultations, looked again at the question of union and said in paragraph 71: Here we need merely say that we do not think that there is any argument based on balance of advantage to the inhabitants of County Durham that would justify the demotion of a unified Hartlepool. The same view was taken when the inspector came to look at the possibilities of this union becoming demoted and not being a county borough. He said: No attempt was made to justify it on the grounds that the services or administration were inefficient or incompetent. In fact it was expressly denied that any such suggestion was intended. The Commission said: The joining of the two Hartlepools into one local government area is clearly desirable and would make for more effective and convenient local government in the area as a whole. In the end the Commission said: Nothing that we read in the written representations or heard at the conference shook our view that the two Hartlepools are in fact one community. There is powerful evidence going back quite a long time to justify both the joining of the two Hartlepools together and the establishment not of a non-county borough but of a county borough.

There is no doubt that the new county borough will be viable as a local authority. Whereas at present West Hartlepool has a population of 78,500, Hartlepool will bring in an additional 18,000, giving a total population of 96,500. The new rateable value will be £3.8 million, which means a rateable value per head of £39, a larger rateable value per head than in comparable county boroughs of very long history like Blackburn, Gateshead, St. Helens and York. Nor is there any substantial ground for fearing that it will affect the County of Durham from which the area is being taken.

I recognise that it is only fair to look at this matter in conjunction with the other proposals upon which decisions have been taken, the Tees-side proposals and the Sunderland proposals. The effect of these proposals taken together will be to reduce the population of the county by 17 per cent. and the rateable value by about 25 per cent., so that Durham, which at present is the seventh largest county in population, will go down to be the ninth. There is, therefore, no suggestion of a shattering blow to the county.

It may be asked: if that is so, why has this very desirable marriage never taken place before? The real reason is that, although it has seemed clear to outside observers and to West Hartlepool, the citizens of Hartlepool, a very old borough with a long history, did not want to be absorbed in West Hartlepool, which they regarded as a good deal newer. They were jealous of their independence, and they did, in fact, at the hearing and in representations to the Commission oppose the union. But the decision having been taken, they co-operated in setting up the new county borough.

Statesmanship has been shown on both sides. The borough is taking the name of Hartlepool, the old name and the old charter of the smaller borough and smaller community. There has been a good deal of debate and disagreement from time to time, naturally, in working out the arrangements, but it is right to say that in the end both Hartlepool and West Hartlepool are content to accept this arrangement as being in the best interests of the town and the area.

My right hon. Friend the Lord President, when he gave his decision letter, made a move towards removing one source of disagreement. There is the village of Greatham in County Durham, in the rural district of Stockton, and, although the Commission recommended that that should be in the new county borough, my right hon. Friend thought that, in the interests of what people felt and wanted to do and the nature of the village, it should not be included. One source of disagreement was, therefore, removed.

What grounds are there for objecting to the Order? The only possible ground is the one we have explored at great length before, the question whether we should make any changes until the Royal Commission has reported. In this case, that is an objection which it would be very difficult to get on its legs. This proposal has been long recognised as desirable by a great number of people, including the impartial people who have looked at the problems. It is a scheme which has been brought to the verge of fruition and completion. It does not make a new county borough. It removes one county borough and creates another which is larger, wealthier and a more effective unit of local government.

For all those reasons, I commend the Order to the House.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

The House is very grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for his explanation of the Order and the history leading up to it. I was only sorry that he did not explain Article 11(4), which reads: The jurisdiction of the Hartlepool Court of Pie Poudre shall extend to the new county borough. I have not a clue what such a glamorous title means, but I suppose that it is quite all right that we should approve that provision.

To be more serious, I think that it is unfortunate that the Order is introduced in advance and in anticipation of the Royal Commission's recommendations. The Parliamentary Secretary passed that off in a rather casual way at the end of his speech, saying that no case could be made out for waiting for the Royal Commission in this instance.

I think that he is wrong and that too many such Orders are coming forward at present which should wait until we know the sort of structure of local government the Royal Commission will recommend. It may seem very reasonable to merge the Borough of Hartlepool and the County Borough of West Hartlepool when one considers merely those two local government bodies. The proposals were not made unanimously but, as the Parliamentary Secretary said, they had been canvassed over many years and there is no doubt that there was a majority in favour within those two bodies. But can they be considered in isolation like that?

The proposals come as Chapter 5 in a substantial report, the "Report and Proposals for the North Eastern General Review Area". They cover Northumberland, Sunderland county borough, Darlington county borough, Teesdale, Tees-side, and, to some extent, County Durham. The first sentence of the Report and Proposals reads: The North Eastern General Review Area comprises the administrative county of the North Riding of Yorkshire and the parts of the administrative counties of Durham and Northumberland not included in the Tyneside Special Review Area, together with the county boroughs of Darlington, Middlesbrough, Sunderland and West Hartlepool. That is a very substantial area, and one cannot tell what the Royal Commission may recommend for such a wide area and such a variety of authorities.

We were told that the Royal Commission will report very soon. Although that does not mean in a matter of weeks or months, it will not be a matter of years. If that is so, it may be necessary to rescind the Order, and other local government Orders which now come before the House, soon after they have been made, and soon after the upheaval caused by them. I do not know if the Parliamentary Secretary can forecast the time which will pass before we receive the report and recommendations of the Royal Commission, but it cannot be so far ahead that, having regard to the time we have waited for this Order, we could not wait just a little longer to make certain that we have the right structure.

The Parliamentary Secretary said that the investigation in this matter began in 1959 The North-Eastern General Review Area Report and Proposals were made in October, 1963. We have waited so long, why not wait just that little bit longer so that we receive the Royal Commission's report? There are some doubtful points about the Order. The 96,000 population is small for a county borough and it may not be the right size for a county borough, or such type of local authority when we see what the Royal Commission recommends.

Furthermore, the Tees-side Order has not yet come before the House, and I understand that that is quite substantially disputed. The Parliamentary Secretary said that there was very little opposition and very small damage to the county. I have been glancing at the verbatim report of the public inquiry, and there are over 60 paragraphs of evidence by the county council directed towards is opposition to the Order, and the damage which would be done. There are several doubtful points about the Order which make me feel that we ought to have waited and been quite sure before making this substantial upheaval in local government, so that we will not have to do it again when the Royal Commission reports.

11.22 p.m.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (The Hartlepools)

The hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) has, perhaps unintentionally, overstated the area of objection. The House will be satisfied to know that there is no objection from Stockton Rural District Council, an affected part of the Order, nor from Hartlepool, again an affected part of the Order. There is also no objection from Durham County, which is a larger body interested in the effects of the Order. In referring to the size of the population he unfortunately was not able to take into account the fact that the general growth potential from the Registrar's figures show that in West Hartlepool during the next five years the population will increase from 78,000 to about 85,000, and that with the population of Hartlepool and its natural increase, the total population of the new county borough will be considerably higher than 100,000. This is a reasonable population unit for a good, viable form of local government.

I understand that the temper of the House is to let us have this Order and that the climate of comment is not one of criticism, but of helpfulness. The hon. Member was naturally concerned about the proposals, because he considered them to be in isolation. This is a reasonably valid point; a highly contentious argument surrounds any reorganisation of local government. In this case there is a natural desire for these two towns to come together for a very definite reason.

The hon. Member said that we might have waited a little longer in order to be certain that we had the right structure. The desire for unity now arises out of a very long period of attempting to get together. The amalgamation of these two towns has been under discussion for 80 years and the desire to amalgamate has come from both towns at different periods, admittedly for different reasons.

In 1902 and 1919 Hartlepool took the first steps to achieve amalgamation. In 1914 and 1925 West Hartlepool took the initiative to get amalgamation. The tragedy is that, whereas the principle was accepted, failure came about only on matters of detail such as differential rating and ward re-divisions. In 1919 both councils approved the principle of amalgamation, and again matters broke down on small matters of detail, but matters which in a local area one must respect. In 1946 the Local Boundary Commission agreed in its recommendations that amalgamation should take place. However, the Commission was wound up in 1957. In 1951, West Hartlepool promoted a Bill, and, although it created a good deal of difficulty and argument, the House accepted it. It was turned down in another place.

This is one constituency. I represent both towns equally. I have the interests of both equally at heart. But from a local government point of view, they have been divided in the past. During the last three years, principally because of depression and unemployment, both towns have had to work together in order to attract industry and to lift their economies so that the amenities they require can be provided. Therefore, this week is a very fortunate week for the Hartlepools. There has been started, after ten years' struggle, a major shopping centre at a cost running into millions of pounds. The House and another place will, I am sure, bring about the unity which will give new heart to The Hartlepools.

Secondly, apart from it being one constituency, it is joined by a common dock system. It is joined by a common trading estate. Its housing estates are adjacent. It has the same coroner's court, same county court, same Customs department, same inspector of taxes, same hospital management committee, same head post office, same telephone exchange, same police division. It enjoys the same railway station and same regional bus station. It shares employment and the availability of work in both towns. There is a common interest in its social, cultural and sporting activities in that 35 organisations are directly concerned and 67 are indirectly concerned with both towns.

I thank the House for listening to me and for providing us with the facility to have these two towns at last amalgamated.

Mr. MacColl

I should like to take up two points. First, the Court of Pie Poudre is a very ancient court relating to merchants. The researches of my Department show that it has no functions whatever. We hope that the Royal Commission will report quickly, in the next year or so, but how long it will be before the results of the report are put into effect will depend on what it says and upon how revolutionary are its proposals.

Mr. Graham Page

What does "a year or so" mean? I hope it does not mean several years, but months.

Mr. MacColl

I am taking two or three years from the date it started and it has been going for some time. I do not think it would be right to stop all improvement in local government structure until that time comes. Nothing in this Order will very seriously affect this position. This will mean only a larger and more effective county borough where previously there was a smaller one. County Durham is losing only 18,000 of its very large population, because West Hartlepool is already a county borough.

I congratulate the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. Leadbitter) on what is for him a great achievement. This is the end of a long history and I hope that under his guidance, the new county borough will long flourish and will have a great part to play in the future of the North East.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Hartlepool Order 1966. dated 30th November 1966, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th December, be approved.