HC Deb 11 June 1969 vol 784 cc1460-75
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government in England, which is published today. In addition to the three volumes of the full Report, the Commission has written a shorter version, and all these have been laid before the House.

It is a great achievement to have dealt so thoroughly with so important and complex a subject and to have made such comprehensive recommendations in the short space of three years. We owe a great debt to Lord Redcliffe-Maud and his colleagues.

The main structure of English local government has remained virtually unchanged since the Acts of 1888 and 1894, which created the present system of county councils, county boroughs and county district councils.

The dominating theme of the Report is a radical redrawing of local authority boundaries, not merely to reduce the numbers but, even more important, to end the division between town and country and recognise the requirements of planning and communications in the modern age.

The Report proposes a completely new administrative map of England outside Greater London, divided into 61 new local government areas. In 58 of them, a single authority would be responsible for all services. In the three metropolitan areas round Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, however, responsibility for services would be divided in each case between a metropolitan authority, whose key functions would be planning, transportation and major development, together with police and other services requiring authorities of this size, and a number of metropolitan district councils, whose key functions would be education, housing and the local authority personal social services.

The significance of these proposals can be measured by the fact that 81 main authorities would assume the functions of 124 county and county borough councils and over 1,000 county district councils in England outside Greater London. These new main authorities as well as those in Greater London would appoint representatives to sit on eight provincial councils, whose primary task would be to draw up the provincial strategy and planning framework which would become binding on the main authorities. In the Royal Commission's view, areas as big as provinces would not be appropriate for the operation of local government services. They suggest that it must be left to the Commission on the Constitution to consider whether the provincial councils should assume functions now discharged by central Government.

Below the main authorities there would be local councils. These councils would represent local opinion and wishes, they would be consulted on matters of special interest to their inhabitants and they would have the power to do a number of things best done locally.

Three commissioners have reservations about the pattern of authorities in certain areas; two would prefer to see rather more main authorities and one would prefer rather fewer. A fourth commissioner, Mr. Senior, while agreeing with the principle of new local authority areas embracing both town and country, differs substantially from his colleagues on the implementation of this concept, and has put forward alternative proposals.

I can say at once that the Government accept in principle the main recommend- ations of the Report, which state that a major rationalisation of local government is called for, that there should be a very marked reduction in the number of units with executive responsibility and that the anachronistic division between town and country should be ended. A new structure is needed which will permit services to be provided more efficiently than is possible at present, and which will, at the same time, create a more effective system of local democracy. A reorganisation which achieved these aims would open the way for more devolution in decision-making on issues which at present fall within the decision of central Government.

It is the Government's aim to reach decisions on these main structural reforms as soon as possible, and they will, therefore, enter into consultations on the basis of the Commission's proposals. In so doing, we shall wish to have regard to the separate proposals for the reorganisation of local government in Wales and the forthcoming report of the Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland.

The House will have noted the Commission's recommendations on provincial councils. The Government will be reviewing the future of economic planning in the regions, including the future of the Regional Economic Planning Councils, in the light both of the Commission's recommendations and of the valuable work done by the present Councils.

The process of consultation will, naturally, take some time. We intend it to be thorough. Subject to this we intend to press ahead quickly with a view to bringing a Bill before Parliament as soon as possible. It is important that the period of uncertainty should be kept to the minimum. The legislation will, of course, contain provisions to safeguard the interests of local authority staff and there will need to be full consultation with the various staff associations in due course.

As the recommendations of the Report have major implications for a number of Departments concerned with local government, I have asked my right hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio to accept responsibility for co-ordinating the Government's consideration of the Report and of the Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland, when that is received. The local authority and other consultations on the Redcliffe-Maud Report will, of course, be carried out by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government with the co-operation of other Ministers when matters affecting their Departments are at issue.

The Commission has put forward proposals for the most far-reaching reorganisation of local government the country has ever seen. The legislation towards the end of the 19th century which created new county boroughs and urban and rural districts was, in many ways, a rationalisation and extension of what existed already. The earlier development of local government, right back to the Middle Ages, was gradual and piecemeal. In the last generation, we have tried to bring the structure up to date by limited modifications. Radical and widespread changes are overdue The Commission's Report, I believe the House will agree, faces up to this challenge and, in its turn, presents the House, the Government and the country with an opportunity and a challenge, which we for our part intend to accept.

Mr. Heath

I join with the right hon. Gentleman in expressing our thanks to Lord Redcliffe-Maud and his colleagues for the work which they have done in producing this Report. It is a monumental work in three main volumes, which has only just come into the possession of the House, and we for our part will need to study it carefully. I should have thought that the whole House needed time to study it before coming to any preliminary judgment upon the Report, let alone making any emotional reaction to it. The Government are to hold consultations and we naturally want to do the same, certainly before we debate this matter.

I have three major questions. First, can the right hon. Gentleman clarify exactly what he means by saying that the Government "accept in principle" the main recommendations of the Report. Does this mean that they accept the three-tier structure proposed by the Commission? Do they accept the powers which it is proposed to allocate to this structure, or are they merely saying that they accept in principle the need for reform of local government in which there will be a smaller number of authorities, able to remove the difference between town and country and provide services in a democratic way? It is very important to know whether the Government accept the precise structure and powers recommended.

Secondly, how do the Government now propose to handle the question of the finance of local government, all the questions about which now come up again as a result of this Commission?

Thirdly, the Prime Minister emphasised that consultations will, naturally, take some time: he said that the Government "intend to be thorough". Can he tell us what is the Government's estimate of the time scale involved? By what date do they at present visualise that whatever changes are made will be implemented? Would it be fair to say that, even on the most optimistic assessment, such changes are unlikely to be implemented in practice before 1974?

The Prime Minister

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the whole House will need a lot of time to consider the Report, which is very far-reaching in its proposals and contains a great deal of detail and argument. A lot of time will certainly be needed, as the right hon. Gentleman said, for every hon. Member as well as for the parties to have such consultations as seem appropriate to them. The question of a debate, to which he referred, can perhaps best be discussed through the usual channels in the normal way, but in such a way as to allow time for that reading of the Report, thought and consultation.

The right hon. Gentleman questioned my use of the phrase "acceptance in principle." The phrase was related in my statement to the need for a fundamental reorganisation, for a substantial reduction in the number of main authorities and for the abolition of the distinction—which is rather artificial these days—between town and country.

It does not mean acceptance in detail of, for example, all aspects of the three-tier structure, another point raised by the right hon. Gentleman. There will be a lot of argument and controversy about the position of the smaller councils, whose rôle I briefly summarised. I could well imagine—it would obviously be wrong to draw a conclusion from this—that in the case of the three conurbations, the three main metropolitan authorities, many people will, perhaps, contest the view of the Royal Commission that education should be in the hands of the secondary authorities and not in the hands of the main conurbation authority.

Remembering the arguments that occurred in London, and which had to be put right by a Bill in 1965, this is obviously a matter of controversy about which it would be wrong to jump to conclusions until we have had full consultations, particularly with those areas.

The question of finance, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, is referred to in the Report. The Commission has not put forward specific recommendations and is leaving this, in part, to the recommendations of the Crowther Commission. Naturally, many hon. Members have in debate put forward suggestions particularly for the financing of provincial councils. I recall such suggestions being advanced in the debate on the last Queen's Speech, when hon. Members gave their views of what should occur if provincial councils were set up. The Government are at work on the question of the financial reform of local government. Necessarily, we could not make progress on this matter until we saw the shape of local government as recommended by Redcliffe-Maud; and we could then decide in the light of consultations.

To answer the right hon. Gentleman's question about the time schedule, it is difficult at this stage to make firm estimates. Consultations with local authorities on the aspects of structure to which I referred as being appropriate for consultation, and on the question of boundaries, on which many different views will be expressed, particulary locally, need to take place. Without tying myself to a timetable, I believe the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion of 1974 to be unduly pessimistic.

Mr. Tudor Watkins

What effect will this Report have on the implementation of the proposals contained in the White Paper on Wales?

The Prime Minister

The position from the point of view of Wales was explained by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in an Answer which he gave on 21st November to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare (Mr. Probert). The preparation of legislation for Wales is proceeding on the basis of the 1967 White Paper. However, I think it right to provide, and this we are providing, that local authorities in Wales and the local authority associations representing Wales should have a further opportunity to comment on the Welsh proposals in the light of the Redcliffe-Maud proposals.

If, for example, Redcliffe-Maud has put forward ideas which anybody in Wales thinks might be embodied in the Welsh legislation, it is open to him to make representations to the Secretary of State. On the other hand, if he thinks that the Redcliffe-Maud Commission has rejected certain concepts in the proposed Welsh legislation, then, again, it is right for him to use those arguments in making representations. To that extent, consultations will continue in the light of the new information and ideas which have been put forward by Redcliffe-Maud.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

While recognising that this is a vast Report which is of immense importance to the whole country, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to ensure that those who are most affected locally by its consequences will be made fully aware of what the real consequences are for them? Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore arrange not only for a shortened version of the Report to be made available, but for a popular version, applying to all the areas affected, to be made available?

The Prime Minister

I entirely agree with the opening comments of the hon. Gentleman about the great importance of this matter and the fact that there should be the fullest consultation and, therefore, the fullest possible information given. This, of course, applies not only to councillors, aldermen and others affected by the Report, but to the electors of those areas and the staffs of their local authorities.

I shall certainly give consideration, with my right hon. Friends, to his question whether it would be possible to produce something on a more localised basis. I think that the hon. Gentleman has in mind something along the lines of a short summary of the proposals, with more detail in respect of the individual localities. Of course, the maps exist and the volume, which sets out the detailed recommendations, will be available. Indeed, I would be surprised if they were not already in print or being printed and are urgently being read in local newspapers this afternoon.

Mr. Blenkinsop

While accepting the need for a detailed study of these important proposals, may I ask my right hon. Friend to agree that it is also important that we should have a quite early debate on the general principles involved in these recommendations so as to avoid our dwindling into nothing more than parochial special pleading?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. My reply to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition was really aimed at that thought. I was agreeing with what he said; that there should be long enough for hon. Members to study the Report, to have such consultations as they feel it right to have and that there should then be a general debate. Certainly, I do not believe that we should wait for all the consultations with all those concerned, with all the local authorities on boundaries, and so on, before the House expresses its view. Indeed, the views of hon. Members on these various matters will be valuable before those consultations get under way.

I think, therefore, that the answer to this question is that there should be long enough to enable hon. Members to read and to enable them to have quick consultations—that is, long enough for both hon. Members generally and for the parties—and that then we should have a general debate on the principles, before we get to the detailed consultations.

Mr. Lubbock

While not disputing the truth of the general propositions advanced by the Prime Minister in his statement, or the analysis of the Royal Commission, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to appreciate that grave disappointment will be felt throughout the country over two aspects of the Report? The first is that the eight provincial councils should be appointed and not elected, which is contradictory to the principle of extending democracy. The second is the fact that no proposal is contained in the Report for the devolution of power to the regions, a matter which is to be left to the Constitutional Commission. Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that these are serious defects in the Report which will cause universal disappointment?

The Prime Minister

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman, whose views on this question are well known to the House, should feel disappointed about this. I should have thought that he would have welcomed the emphasis in the Report on provincial councils. The question whether, at the end of the day, the provincial councils will be nominated or elected bodies is, as I read it, left open by the Commission. The matter is left for consideration by the Constitutional Commission.

The House should recall that the terms of reference of the Constitutional Commission provide that Parliament can take action ahead of that Commission's report. In the light of the consultations, we should consider whether to make a leap in one jump towards elected provincial councils, or whether they should be appointed, or partially appointed, councils, functioning for an interim period. I would not have thought this to be a retrograde step, but an important move forward.

Mr. MacDermot

I thank my right hon. Friend for the positive reception which the Government have given to the Report. Will he answer two questions? First, will the consultations which have taken place also include consultations about the alternative proposals put forward by Mr. Senior? Secondly, is it proposed to request the Constitutional Commission to give urgent consideration to the matters in that Report, which seem to relate to its discussions, so that decisions will not be unduly held up in awaiting the report of the Constitutional Commission?

The Prime Minister

The answer to the first part of my hon. and learned Friend's comments is that the consultations, whether with individual authority or local authority associations, can cover the views of those consulted on the alternative steps which have been put forward, either in some of the dissenting paragraphs of individual commissioners or in the main dissenting Report of Mr. Senior. All of those views can be advanced and pressed by those who agree with those dissenting views.

Secondly, on the question of delay in the Commission, the Commission will take full cognisance of what is important in connection with its work, but that need not and ought not to hold up the work of the Government and the House in implementing the Royal Commission's Report, with such changes as, after consultation, we feel it right to make.

I cannot stress sufficiently clearly the need to avoid a long period of delay, which would not only create uncertainty as between local authorities in relation to their boundaries, their electors, and so on, but could also mean that important decisions which have to be taken on such things as the provision of land for housing in a particular area, planning decisions, roads, and the rest, could be held up for a number of years if we did not proceed with all reasonable speed, subject to the necessity for adequate consultation.

Mr. Woodnutt

While I accept that rationalisation is undoubtedly necessary, would not the Prime Minister agree that if this Report were accepted in its entirety it would remove the franchise from isolated areas like the Isle of Wight? That being so, could he not agree now that we ought to consider extending the idea of metropolitan districts beyond the areas of Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester?

The Prime Minister

I would be doubtful about the recommendation in the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question. With regard to the earlier part, I would not jump into agreeing with his first conclusion. If anything, my reading would push me the other way. But it is a matter in which we must have consultation with the local authorities concerned, including the local authorities responsible for the Isle of Wight.

Mr. Barnett

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that it is urgently necessary to announce the date of implementation as soon as possible, in view of the urgent need, for example, for change in local government finance and organisation? Can my right hon. Friend expand on what he said to the Leader of the Opposition about the date, 1974, being unduly pessimistic? Could he also say more about local taxation and the Commission's recommendation that there should be an examination in this field? Is it intended to set up a new committee, or does the Government simply intend to come out with their own report fairly soon?

The Prime Minister

On my hon. Friend's first supplementary question, I have given reasons, which I think that the House will accept, for reasonable urgency in this matter. We shall provide for consultation as quickly as we can, and as soon as the local authorities and local authority associations have had time to read and study the Report and work out the implications, with the idea—the debate will, of course, come before the Government statement in the form of a White Paper is made—of producing a White Paper before the end of the year on the structure, and so on.

We shall, of course, take account of views expressed in that debate. There is no reason why informal discussion of boundaries should not start ahead—and I hope that the boundary discussions will not take as long as they have in the past—with a view to proposals being produced ahead of the date mentioned by the Leader of the Opposition. We shall, as a Government, bring forward proposals on finance as soon as the working party's report is complete. It is probably more in the field of provincial council expenditure that we might expect to receive the most help from the Constitutional Commission.

Mr. Turton

Does the Prime Minister realise that the value of the main proposals cannot be properly judged until the Government make decisions on the extent to which Whitehall can decentralise administrative and financial powers? Will he publish a White Paper as soon as possible setting out the Government's attitude to those two points?

The Prime Minister

It is right that we should have consultation before the White Paper is published, but I believe that the further analysis of the points mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman is one which could very well form one of the central themes of the debate we shall hold. I remember particularly a speech made by the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) during the debate on the Gracious Speech, in which he produced some very far-reaching proposals on the question of finance in relation to provincial councils.

With regard to the general question of devaluation, one of the exciting things about the Redcliffe-Maud Report is that it holds out hope of local authority units sufficiently large, effective and efficient to be able to decentralise more from Whitehall to local authorities. This would, perhaps, apply more particularly in the case of the conurbations, and might apply as soon as we are clear in our minds about what should be the functions of the provincial councils.

Mr. Mackintosh

Would my right hon. Friend, while putting this proper emphasis on the need for speed, appreciate the special problem of local government staffs, many of whom feel uncertainty so acutely that recruitment is very difficult? Would he consider making some offer of permanent status to transferred local government staffs above certain ranks so as to retain them in the interim period? Further, would he consider the extension of the provincial council principle to Scotland irrespective of the Wheatley Report, because the case for that principle in this Report is even more valid in the case of Scotland?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend will have noticed that I referred in my opening statement to the importance of these staffs, and to the fact that we shall have to embark on consultation with the staff associations as soon as possible. Until we have done that, it will not be possible to come to any such conclusion as he has mentioned. The arguments for avoiding undue delay apply just as much in human terms—perhaps even more—in terms of staffs of local authorities.

As to the other considerations, I have already mentioned with regard to the question of provincial councils and the relevance of the Redcliffe-Maud Commission for England to the problems of Scotland and Wales, that it was precisely because the Commission recognised the relevance of its recommendations within its more limited geographical remit to the problems of Scotland and Wales that this was to be looked at by the Constitutional Commission, which can now go forward with its study of Scottish and Welsh problems having as part of the background the Report of the Redcliffe-Maud Commission, which would not stop the House moving ahead of the Crowther Commission, if necessary. But it may be difficult to reach final conclusions until we have the Crowther Commission's report on the implications for Scotland and Wales.

Dr. Bennett

Does the Prime Minister foresee the protracted negotiations and consultations about boundary and other questions as being a reason for the redistribution of Parliamentary boundaries being held up?

The Prime Minister

That is another question, but perhaps I might reply to the hon. Gentleman by saying that the Government are giving careful and urgent consideration to the recommendations for constituency changes. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will bring his conclusions before the House, and I do not think that the hon. Member should expect me to anticipate them.

Mr. Moonman

My right hon. Friend will recall the promise made by his right hon. Friend and himself at the time of the publication of the Maud Report, that the associated subject of Seebohm and its implication would be referred to the House. Can he say when that will be?

The Prime Minister

Ever since the Seebohm Report was received we have made it clear that its views on proposals for administrative reorganisation of the Health Service would have to be considered in the light of the Report of the Royal Commission. That must have some effect on the kind of local authority structure involved. We can now go ahead with the more detailed consideration of Seebohm, and will make our views known as soon as we can.

Perhaps it might help my hon. Friend if I were to remind my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State for Social Services has said that the Government intend to make an interim statement on Seebohm after the publication of the Report of the Royal Commission, but I do not think that we can expect to take any final decisions before the Summer Recess.

Sir G. Nabarro

Is the Prime Minister aware that, for example, the Redcliffe-Maud Report proposes to amalgamate South Worcestershire with Herefordshire—[Interruption.] It would put up my majority. Can he, therefore, say, in the context of his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett), whether the Home Secretary will take into account the recommendations of Redcliffe-Maud before he lays before the House the proposals of the Boundary Commission? And did that Commission know the contents of the Redcliffe-Maud Report before reporting to the Home Secretary?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman can be absolutely certain that not only I but all other hon. and right hon. Members made the recommendation on South Worcestershire the second thing we looked at in the appendices to the Report. But, naturally, on this, as on all other boundary questions, and amalgamations and merger proposals, it must be a matter for consultation with the local authorities concerned—

Sir G. Nabarro

And my constituents.

The Prime Minister

I think that even the hon. Gentleman's constituents are entitled to be consulted, and not to rely on him as a rather inadequate means. The hon. Member's constituents will be consulted on local government boundaries.

With regard to the relevance of the Boundary Commission to the areas concerned, I have said more than once, as my right hon. Friend has, that the Redcliffe-Maud Report will have some bearing on Parliament's final decision on the matter, but I can inform the hon. Gentleman that to the best of my knowledge the members of the Boundary Commission have no prior information of what would be contained in the Redcliffe-Maud Report. They could not have done so—the Redcliffe-Maud Report was signed only very recently—and there is no provision, nor would it be proper, for exchange of information between the two bodies.

Mr. Alfred Morris

Reverting to the question of finance, is my right hon. Friend aware that not everyone will welcome the proposition in the Report that rates should continue to be the main source of revenue for local authorities? Notwithstanding all that this Government have done to ease the burden on domestic ratepayers, is my right hon. Friend aware that many people would prefer the alternative of a system based on ability to pay?

The Prime Minister

The Maud Commission having looked at this, but not having made it one of its themes of study, has reached the same conclusion as others have reached, that the rating system is wholly inadequate but that no one so far has produced a better substitute. That is a short summary of what the Commission has said. It said that the question needs further examination and will also need to be considered in the light of the Crowther Commission's Report and any recommendations the Government may make in the light of the working party which has been set up.

It is true that as a result of legislation introduced by this Government householders are receiving the benefit of a poundage reduction of 1s. 3d. in the £ as a result of central subsidies, but although that may be a palliative, and important, it does not deal with many of the complaints levelled against the rating system, although we have not yet heard from any hon. Member opposite a really cast-iron proposal for something better.

Mr. Maddan

Is the Prime Minister aware, following what he has just said, that any recommendations he brings to the House for us to approve will be very hollow if they do not go some way beyond rates and central Government grants as a means of financing local authority expenditure? Does he not now regret that the terms of reference of the Redcliffe-Maud Commission did not specifically include local authority finance?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not regret that. There was a whole section on it, because the Commission realised that it could not make its main remit without reference to it. We all recognise the limitations of the rating system, including its regressiveness in some respects. It is easy for us to see that but much harder for successive Governments and the House as a whole to provide an adequate alternative. No doubt the hon. Member and others will come forward with suggestions on this when we debate these matters.

Mr. Heffer

Can my right hon. Friend clarify the point that the discussions on boundaries will not be confined merely to boundaries at the third tier, but that there will also be discussions on the provincial and metropolitan boundaries' areas? I am sure he is aware that there would be some considerable objections concerning the North-West provincial area and the Merseyside metropolitan area.

The Prime Minister

I said that in the matter of consultations on the proposed structure—this was in answer to the Leader of the Opposition—obviously there will be questions of principle which must be the subject of consultations, for example, the rôle of the smaller authorities and, indeed, of Merseyside on the question I mentioned of education.

All matters of boundaries, be they of provinces, of metropolitan, that is, conurbation authorities, be they of main authorities or perhaps the third tier—all of these will be matters for consultation. So far as Merseyside is concerned, without committing myself on it in advance by these consultations, I rejoice that the recommendations bring me even closer to my hon. Friend.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker


Sir Harmar Nicholls

On the point of order. The statement was on the Royal Commission on Local Government of England and two of the longest questions came from Wales and Scotland. Although St. George has been demoted in other quarters, there is no need for St. George to be demoted in this House.

Mr. Speaker

I share the hon. Member's keen interest in St. George, but I have to protect the business of the House.