HC Deb 17 December 1968 vol 775 cc1305-18

10.2 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Greater London, Kent and Surrey Order, 1968, a draft of which was laid before this House on 7th November, be approved. This Order provides for the alteration of three areas on the outer boundary of Greater London. Its effect is to transfer these three areas back to the counties of which they formed part before 1965. The Knockholt area of the London Borough of Bromley will go to Sevenoaks Rural District in Kent, the Farleigh area of Croydon will become part of Godstone Rural District in Surrey, and the Hooley area of Croydon will be transferred to Banstead Urban District in Surrey. Hon. Members will have noted from the figures in the Explanatory Memorandum on page 32 that the number of people involved is comparatively small, about 5,000 in all.

I do not wish to weary the House, but as this is the first time that such an Order has been brought before it in connection with Greater London perhaps I might say that there are provisions here which are somewhat exceptional.

When the Greater London Council and the London boroughs were being set up, the then Administration proceeded, as I think was wise, on the basis that the new units would be defined as far as possible by reference to the existing boundaries of the then local authorities. The outer areas of the G.L.C. also followed the general local government boundaries at the time. This was a perfectly proper and sensible practice, the former Administration decided that their guiding principle, for the G.L.C, should be that it really consisted of the built-up areas of this great conurbation.

Broadly speaking, this has been true of the whole area, with the absorption of Middlesex, the old L.C.C. and other areas, so that in the end there is a unit which is, in general, comprised of an almost totally built-up area within the conurbation. There were, however, a certain number of areas on the fringe of Greater London where this principle did not quite fit. There were a number of areas on the southern fringes where, for example, some open country was included in the boundaries of Greater London because they had been within the boundaries of the previous local authorities.

It was felt desirable by the then Administration that provision should be made in the London Government Act for alterations of the boundary, on more mature consideration of detailed points, which the passage time had allowed. Part of the provision in Section 6 was previously known as the Knockholt Amendment, because the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock), who had fought for a long time in the interests of Knockholt, was anxious that there should be power in the Measure to transfer areas which were subsequently thought desirable by the residents.

Section 6 therefore contains this provision, which is almost without parallel. I say "almost" because a similar provision appears in the old London Metropolitan Acts. As far as I know, it does not exist elsewhere. We are, therefore, in addition to arranging for local government boundary changes initiated by a local authority, making changes initiated by a proportion of electors. It is important, in this connection, that I should emphasise that the proportion must be either 300 electors or 10 per cent. of the electorate in the area; in this case Knockholt.

This was not a plebiscite. They were not making a decision. They were only starting a procedure. We had received another petition, received long after the public inquiry was held. The original petition contained many signatories and was presented to the Minister by the hon. Member for Orpington on 1st April, 1965, the very first day permitted by the Act. Indeed, the number of signatories was greater than the number contained in the second petition. To some extent this is immaterial, because what Section 6 does is to provide machinery whereby the initiative is left to local residents.

As I say, on the first day when it was possible for such a petition to be presented, the hon. Member for Orpington presented one, with more than the required number of persons having signed to the effect that they would like to go out of the G.L.C. area and return to the County of Kent. This, therefore, was the first time that this provision was used. An inquiry was eventually held into the proposal for the transfer.

As to Knockholt, there has arisen—very late in the day—a suggestion of opposition. There was a five-day inquiry in 1966 into the consequences of altering the boundaries. At that inquiry some of the matters in the petition submitted recently were referred to. That is not to say that we should not consider this second petition. Indeed, we have considered it. However, most of the matters it deals with were referred to in detail at the inquiry and questions were answered to the satisfaction of the inspector and my right hon. Friend; the fears which have been expressed in the second petition are not justified.

My right hon. Friend, after considering the inspector's Report, decided that it would be right to acquiesce in the wishes of what seemed to be a very large proportion of the inhabitants. At the time of the inquiry there was no opposition to those wishes from local inhabitants. The hon. Member for Bromley (Mr. Hunt) is probably familiar with this. There is a history in Knock-holt of the local people not wanting to be associated with either the G.L.C. or with the local authority which the hon. Gentleman represents. This history goes back to 1929.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman will help me. He knows that he cannot amend his own Order and that nobody in this debate can amend it. I hope that what he is saying is linked with the Order.

Mr. Skeffington

I am only trying to be helpful to the House. However, I take your point, Sir. This history goes back to 1929. The matter arose again in 1932 when Knockholt lost its rural parish status; when the Orpington Urban District Council was formed there was objection from Knockholt. In 1962, when the proposals for the G.L.C. area were made and after the Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London had examined the position, Knockholt expressed the wish to be excluded. This position has held throughout the passage of the London Government Act. It is a case with which the hon. Member for Orpington has sympathised and which he has presented very vigorously in the House at various times, certainly during the proceedings in Committee on the London Government Bill. Now we are going ahead.

The Order is detailed, as these Orders always are. It follows the usual pattern. Provision is made for every contingency—jury service, police, children, licensing, etc. All this has been carefully checked. It is in common form, and I hope that it will be acceptable to the House.

I need say little about the other areas comprised in the Order. I emphasise that in the case of both Farleigh and Hooley there has been the utmost consultation with the local authorities. At one stage the G.L.C. contested the position, but since the Minister announced his decision we have had the utmost cooperation from them, and I do not think that there is any objection to the Order from them.

Broadly speaking, Knockholt and Farleigh have a similarity in character, as to either the whole or part of them. They are designated as areas of outstanding natural beauty or of high landscape value. They have a rural character.

This Order will enable these three areas, following opinions expressed at the inquiry, to go back to having a parish council, a form of administration which has some advantages where the setting is rural. There has been no opposition to the Order except the very recent opposition in the case of Knockholt.

Some hon. Members may ask why we are introducing the Order now when we are still waiting for the report of the Royal Commission. The simple answer is that the Royal Commission, although it can take note of the position of London, is dealing with areas outside Greater London. Consequently, it does not affect the position of this transfer. Further, even if the Royal Commission felt that it was obliged to make recommendations about the existing Greater London area, which I do not think that it would, it would be a number of years before any alteration could be made by Statute. Consequently, in the case of these three districts where the desire has been expressed, either by the inhabitants or the local authorities, for transfer, we thought it right to go ahead, after having made the most careful inquiries and after the utmost consultation with the local authorities. I hope, therefore, that the House will consider this a reasonable Order and give it its blessing.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

I am grateful to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for his kind remarks about the part I played during the Committee stage of the London Government Act, 1963. As a result of representations I had received from the inhabitants of Knock-holt, in my constituency, I moved an Amendment to allow a proportion of the inhabitants of any area on the edge of Greater London to make representations for transfer to a neighbouring authority.

As the hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out, the inhabitants of Knockholt were the first to take advantage of this provision. Indeed, as I have said, they were the first people to draw my attention to the need for such a provision. I was grateful when the then Minister of Housing and Local Government, after expressing some doubts in Committee, finally accepted such a provision when the Bill reached another place.

The people of Knockholt have, as the hon. Gentleman remarked, been steadfast in their determination to opt out of the London area for many years. He has recapitulated the history of the matter. The most recent event was when they presented a petition asking for the provisions of Section 6 (4) of the London Government Act to be brought into operation. A substantial majority of the inhabitants of the village supported those representations. As a result, a public inquiry was held and the Report of the inspector to the Minister contained a recommendation that the village should be transferred to the neighbouring authority of Kent.

It is necessary for me to say a few words because, since the inquiry and the Minister announced his decision, some opposition has been expressed by a minority of the inhabitants to the move. It is necessary to give very careful consideration to this opposition, although we may not support it.

I have had letters from residents in the village expressing anxiety about the position of education under the new move. I have been into the matter with some care because I appreciate the anxieties of the parents. I wrote to the Chief Education Officer of Kent, who sent me an extremely helpful answer. I understand that, since he wrote, he or one of his staff has been to the village and has explained what the Kent Education Committee has in mind for the education of the children of the village. He pointed out to me in his letter of 26th August, 1968: So far as secondary modern school pupils are concerned, provision would be available at Sevenoaks, where the Wildernesse Secondary School for Boys and Hatton Secondary School for Girls both take 'O' level G.C.E. as well as the C.S.E. examination. Each school is highly esteemed in the locality. In relation to selection—although we hope that selection will not last for long—he explained that the Kent Education Committee has … limited quotas of places at Sevenoaks School (boys) and Walthamstow Hall (girls). The alternatives to these are the grammar schools at Tonbridge or the technical high schools at Tunbridge (girls) and Tunbridge Wells (boys)". It has been suggested by some objectors that the travelling time for pupils from the village attending these schools will be very much longer than their travelling time for attending schools in the London Borough of Bromley.

It is worth remarking here that the train journey to Tonbridge takes only 20 minutes with a change at Sevenoaks for Tunbridge Wells. That journey is not at all difficult when compared with some of the journeys undertaken by pupils attending schools in the London Borough of Bromley. Only if, for example, they attend St. Olave's grammar school for boys, is there a direct bus service from Knockholt, and in many cases the changes involved make the journey as long as 1½ hours for pupils going from Knockholt to the schools in my borough. The journey time is, therefore, not a very important factor in this decision, although it is weighing heavily on the minds of some parents.

I do not think there is much to choose between the standard of education of the Kent education authority and of the London Borough of Bromley. I am very proud of the schools in my constituency and in the London Borough of Bromley as a whole, but if we are quite honest with ourselves we have to admit that Kent has just as good schools, and that the Knockholt children will not in any way be disadvantaged by being sent to the schools of the Kent education authority rather than those of the London Borough of Bromley. Indeed, until very recently, as the Orpington urban district we came under the Kent education authority, so we are only reverting to a position which existed as little as four years ago.

The other point which seems to have caused some of my constituents anxiety is the position of the police officers in the village. Although this may seem a very small matter since only two officers are involved, it should be referred to, because in these local government changes one must be concerned to see that, as far as possible, no one is placed under any disadvantage. I wrote to the Home Secretary about the position of these two officers, and he very kindly conceded that they would continue to be employed by the Metropolitan Police and not be transferred to the Kent Police Authority; and that, moreover, they could remain in occupation of the houses which are at present owned by the authority. My sole remaining concern is whether the two officers will be allowed to remain in these houses after their retirement which, in one case, may not be very far distant.

These may seem very minor matters in comparison with the overall question of whether Knockholt should be transferred to Kent, but it is up to us to consider the needs and the future of every inhabitant of a village which may be transferred. I am convinced as the result of the very careful inquiries I have made that the majority of the people in the village are still absolutely determined to be transferred to Kent. From the very beginning of this controversy, I have said that the views of the inhabitants of the village should be paramount in any decision which may subsequently be made by the Minister of Housing and Local Government. It was for that reason that I tabled my Amendment to the London Government Bill in 1963.

In spite of the petition which the Minister has received in the last few days—not all the signatures to which are valid, though I will not go into that in any detail, as it is not very relevant—by far the majority of the people there wish to be transferred to the Kent County Council and to opt out of the Greater London area. That is a consideration which should be uppermost in the minds of hon. Members in deciding whether or not to agree to the Order. I hope that, after a battle lasting for more than five years, the wishes of Knockholt will be respected.

10.25 p.m.

Mr. John Hunt (Bromley)

I intervene only briefly. I join the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) in thanking the Parliamentary Secretary for the background information he gave in introducing this Order.

I intervene only because I have received a number of representations on this matter. While I fully accept that initially there was considerable support in the Knockholt area for transfer to Kent, but now, having had experience of life in the London Borough of Bromley for the past three years, the people of Knockholt have found it much better than they anticipated.

Mr. Lubbock

The hon. Member must be joking.

Mr. Hunt

I can only assess the comments I have received. Perhaps the result of the recent local elections in Knockholt bear out what I have said. There is no doubt that there are second thoughts in the area. I understand that almost 50 per cent. of the residents have now signed a counter-petition.

Mr. Lubbock


Mr. Hunt

The hon. Members says "No", but I gather there were nearly 500 signatures.

Mr. Lubbock

I am sorry to keep interrupting the hon. Member, but there were 420 signatures of which many were illegible. The hon. Member has forced me to mention this. Often there was the name signed by the head of a household and, in the same writing, the names of children.

Mr. Hunt

In any petition one finds that sort of anomaly. I still maintain that a substantial number of people in Knockholt are having second thoughts on this matter. There is a real fear in the village of a lowering of standards of services if the transfer takes place.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member knows that he cannot amend this Order. He can denounce it because Knockholt is transferred or because Knockholt is not transferred, but he cannot amend it.

Mr. Hunt

I am trying to enumerate the fears to persuade the Parliamentary Secretary to withdraw the Order. Some of the fears are based, as the hon. Member for Orpington said, on the question of education. There are also fears about refuse disposal. People of Knockholt have discovered that if they go into the Sevenoaks area their dustbins will be emptied twice a month instead of every week as at present under Bromley Borough Council. Clinic facilities for old people and nursing mothers will be substantially reduced. These are some of the things which have caused second thoughts and created fears in the village.

For that reason it is a pity that the Government have decided to proceed with this Order. I should prefer the whole matter to be delayed for a little longer so that a further assessment, in view of local feeling and the fears expressed to me and others, could be more fully taken into account.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

The House is asked tonight to approve a draft Order. It is one of the anomalies of our procedure that we might express this in the form of a riddle: when is a draft not a draft? When it comes before the House as a draft, because, as you pointed out, Mr. Speaker, we have no opportunity of amending this draft Order. It is a matter of take it or leave it, all or nothing.

It is unfortunate that in this case the Order deals with three distinct subjects. It deals with the transfer of three areas of land from Greater London Council to neighbouring counties. To that extent it deals with something of the same category in all three cases, but the circumstances are very different. They are not different only because two cases apply to Surrey and the other to Kent, but because the cases for and against the transfers are different. They are certainly different when one compares the two areas being transferred from Croydon to Surrey with that being transferred from Bromley to Kent.

In the first two cases, the area of Hooley goes to Banstead Urban District Council and Farleigh goes to the God-stone Rural District Council. An inquiry was held, which also inquired into the transfer of two other areas from the Greater London Council. At the inquiry there seemed to be no very great objection to the transfers.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty), into whose constituency the Croydon areas are to be transferred, informs me that he approves of the Order in that respect. He has also asked me to apologise for it being impossible for him to be in the Chamber this evening. He is, I think in this respect, voicing the views of the local authorities concerned. The Greater London Council was objecting at one time and did in fact put in an objection during the course of the public inquiries; but Croydon, the local authority most concerned with the transfer away from it, remained neutral throughout, and, as the Parliamentary Secretary said, has given every co-operation in the transfer of Hooley and Farleigh to Banstead and Godstone respectively.

I cannot say that there has been all that co-operation and all that lack of opposition in the third case, Knockholt. The Parliamentary Secretary has informed us that the Minister has received opposition, albeit late opposition, to this transfer. Looking at the conclusions of the inspector at the end of a long inquiry, I wonder what conclusions he did reach.

Mr. Lubbock

Would the hon. Member say why he has bothered to ascertain the views of the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) on two of these transfers, when he could not be bothered to attend the debate, but he has not bothered to seek my views on the other transfer, and I have bothered to attend?

Mr. Page

I think that it is most ungracious of the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock), when I have offered apologies for the inability of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey East, to be here, that he should make that comment.

Mr. Lubbock

It is not. It is frank.

Mr. Page

I have tonight heard the views of the hon. Member for Orpington I am not sure that I entirely agree with them, having read the report of the inquiry. This is the point that I was trying to put to show that it is unfortunate that the Order includes all three transfers—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Orpington wishes to put a point and interrupt me, perhaps he will do it in a proper way and not in a sedentary position.

Mr. Lubbock

I will be delighted. How many times has the hon. Member been to Knockholt and to whom among the inhabitants has he spoken before making this speech?

Mr. Page

I do not think that a Member is called upon to visit every area upon which he speaks. I have read the Report of the inquiry and I find that the conclusions of the inspector are not entirely carried out by the conclusions of the Minister. For example where the Minister comes to his conclusion that the local residents strongly favour transfer to Kent, that does not tally with the conclusion reached by the inspector. Nor does the inspector's conclusion tally with what we have heard from the hon. Member from Orpington this evening. In paragraph 179 of the Report, the inspector says: The representative character of the Knock-holt Transfer Committee and their method of obtaining signatures to the petition leave me in no doubt that the proposal is a true reflection of the wishes of the majority of the inhabitants of Knockholt Ward and, as such, appropriately falls under Section 6 (4) of the London Government Act, 1963. Apart from some doubt upon the accuracy of the percentage claimed by the petitioners, the London authorities are also satisfied that the petition is entirely proper. Apparently, since then, the percentage claim by the Knockholt transfer committee has been questioned by the opposition which the Minister has now received.

It is questionable whether this opposition, received late by the Minister, should not have persuaded him to bring in different Orders for these different transfers. It is most unfortunate that it was decided to bring in one Order for the three transfers. In one case there were transfers without any real opposition; in the other, as the Parliamentary Secretary has admitted, there was opposition—

Mr. Lubbock

Could the hon. Member say who has drawn his attention to the fact that this petition has been received by the Minister against the transfer, what steps he has taken to check the validity of the signatures on it, and whether he is satisfied that all those signatures are valid?

Mr. Page

The Minister has already told the House that he has received a petition in opposition to the transfer. I am not concerned with whether every signature on it is valid or not, nor am I concerned with whether every signature on the original petition requesting the transfer was valid or not.

Mr. Lubbock

The inspector was.

Mr. Page

The inspector, of course, was, when he was conducting the inquiry, because it was for him to discover whether the inquiry had been properly initiated under the proper Section of the 1963 Act. The fact remains that there is and has been opposition to this part of the Order, which confirms my belief that the Order should not have included both the opposed case and the transfer into Surrey, which was practically unopposed.

Mr. Skeffington

I hope that I can reassure all hon. Members. I do not want to go too deeply into the differences between the hon. Members for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) and Orpington (Mr. Lubbock), because they have both put their points very well, but I should say that it is education more than anything else which has given rise to fears. The Ministry got in touch with the Kent County Council to assure themselves on this point, and only yesterday we received a letter from the clerk to the county council, that concluding paragraph of which has been supplied by the Education Department, and which says: Anyone concerned in this matter"— the transfer of Knockholt— can be assured that Kent realises to the full that there must be no question of children in an area returning to Kent having an education inferior to the education they have under present arrangements. This is a declaration of intent, and knowing Kent, where I live, as does the hon. Member for Orpington, I know that they will be able to substantiate what they say there. I know that the hon. Member for Orpington has made some similar inquiries and he has given some reassuring information on that.

I am glad that the hon. Member has satisfied himself by direct contact with the Home Office on the major point about the police. As to whether or not the two police constables can remain in their present dwellings, that is a matter for the Kent Constabulary, and is not one in which the Ministry has jurisdiction. It may be a matter which the hon. Gentleman feels that he should take up with that authority in due course.

The hon. Member for Bromley (Mr. John Hunt), considering that his constituency is losing something, put his points with moderation, as I would expect of him.

The desire which has been expressed for such a long time in Knockholt is for the area to remain a rural area. The people there want a parish council. They want to be a rural area rather than in an urban area with an urban structure. I have not found, in reading the evidence of the inquiry or subsequently, any criticism of the standard of services in the area. One hopes that that position will be maintained.

On the question of numbers on the petitions, I said in opening that the petition we received recently did not contain as many signatures as did the original, but the first petition was only to set the procedure for transfer going, and we must not give too much attention to the numbers of signatures.

As far as I can see, all the grounds in the second petition, except the education point, were covered at the five-day inquiry. There was no substantial expression of opposition from anybody in the locality at the inquiry. The only opposition then was from the local authorities. That should reassure the hon. Member for Crosby.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we could have waited a little longer. I always like to take time and sleep on things, but these boundary changes take a very long time, and one of my criticisms concerns time it takes to get any- thing altered in this matter. After the London Government Act, during the passage of which all these points were raised, we received the proposal for the transfer of Knockholt on 1st April, 1965. We waited more than a year for the local inquiry into the Knockholt proposal in October, 1966, and then there was another year before the Minister gave his decision. The draft Order was laid last month. I do not know how much longer the hon. Gentleman thinks we should wait. If we waited much longer we should probably never do it, so there is not much in the plea for further delay.

The latest petition largely arises from fears about education. All the other matters were discussed at the inquiry at Knockholt. I hope that the passage I read from the letter received from the Kent County Council only yesterday, dated 16th December, shows that it will certainly take its responsibilities very seriously. Children in primary education will continue to go to their present schools. In the provision of secondary education, I think that Kent will do as well as the G.L.C.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Greater London, Kent and Surrey Order. 1968, a draft of which was laid before this House on 7th November, be approved.