HC Deb 04 February 1970 vol 795 cc430-42
The Secretary of State for Local Government and Regional Planning (Mr. Anthony Crosland)

With permission, I wish to make a statement about the reform of local government in England, on which a White Paper is published today.

The White Paper sets out the Government's conclusions on all the structural proposals of the Redcliffe-Maud Report, and on their broad application to the map of England. There is widespread agreement that a major reform of local government structure is required. While dissenting on certain points, to which I refer later, the Government believe that the Royal Commission's proposals provide the best basis for this reform.

The Government accept that wherever possible all local government services should be in the hands of a single authority, that these unitary authorities should have areas covering both town and country, and that they should be generally of the size proposed by the Commission.

In certain parts of the country, however, the requirements of planning and development call for areas of a size and population much larger than are desirable for other services, such as the personal social services and most of the work in the housing field. In such metropolitan areas, as the Commission call them, a two-tier solution is necessary.

The Government differ from the Commission on two points concerning the metropolitan areas. First, in our view, education should be the responsibility of the top-tier rather than the second-tier authorities. Secondly, while agreeing with the Commission that metropolitan areas are required in Merseyside, in South-East Lancashire and North-East Cheshire and in the West Midlands, the Government believe that a two-tier system is also necessary in West Yorkshire and in South Hampshire, including the Isle of Wight. Both these areas need to be dealt with as single units where planning and development are concerned.

The Commission proposed that the unitary and metropolitan areas should contribute members to eight provincial councils, whose main task would be to draw up the regional planning strategies within which the main authorities would work. There is no doubt as to the importance of this task; but it would be premature to reach conclusions on a new machinery to undertake it until the Commission on the Constitution have reported. Meanwhile, the Government intend to develop the work of the Regional Economic Planning Councils, and will seek to ensure effective co-operation between them and the local authorities in their regions.

The Commission proposed that there should be local councils with the function of voicing the wishes and views of their communities, and the power to improve local amenities. They also suggested that the larger local councils might play a part in providing some of the main services. Although the Government do not accept this last suggestion, they believe that local councils will form an indispensable part of the new structure, and propose that in addition to their other functions they should be associated with the administration of some of the major services by having the right to appoint members to district committees of the main authorities.

So much for structure, on which the Government asked for early comments, and I should like to express my gratitude to all those who, by letting us have their comments without delay, have enabled us to present conclusions so expeditiously. But the White Paper also records the Government's conclusions on certain other matters.

As the Prime Minister has already made clear to the House, the Government believe that local government should have more freedom than it has today. Reorganisation creates the opportunity for achieving this. The White Paper therefore tables proposals for the relaxation of financial controls, non-financial controls, and controls over the way in which authorities manage their internal affairs; and also for a general power.

Reorganisation also creates the opportunity to review the whole field of local government finance, including local taxation. These subjects are too important and complex to be dealt with adequately in a White Paper about reorganisation. Moreover, they call for further discussion and consultation. The Government will therefore publish a separate Green Paper on this subject later. However, the White Paper records the Government's view that the Commission was right in saying that, for local government as now visualised, rates must remain the principal local tax.

The White Paper also deals with the expenses of councillors, the liberalisation of the present rules on disqualification, and machinery for investigating complaints of maladministration in local government. It states our conclusion that there should be no aldermen in the new authorities. It proposes a Staff Commission on the London model to help during the transition.

On many of these points, as well as on the detailed boundaries of the new authorities, the Government will now arrange for a further round of consultations. But the comprehensive conclusions on structure described in the White Paper should enable a Bill to be ready for the Parliamentary session of 1971–72.

Mr. Speaker, a Government which undertakes the reform of local government undertakes hard and unpopular work, but work which cannot be shirked. There will be many arguments for and against our proposals; for there is no uniquely right solution to the problem of local government. But there will be few who will not agree that reform on this scale is needed, and that Parliament should enable it to be effected as soon as is practicable.

Mr. Peter Walker

I thank the Minister for his statement. He will be aware that the House will want to give careful consideration to what is a complicated White Paper, particularly the proposals on local councils.

On what date does he expect to publish the Green Paper on the finance of local government? Would he agree, on reflection, that as he has had to postpone the ideas on provincial councils and leave that matter in abeyance, it would probably have been better to have had Crowther before Maud rather than Maud before Crowther?

Would the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that there will be the fullest consultation about boundaries, and particularly the effects of breaking up existing authorities, with all the resources that they may have? Finally, the Minister said that the Government's policy is that local government should have more freedom. Does that mean that the Government will drop their legislation on secondary education and the sale of council houses?

Mr. Crosland

I was glad to hear what the hon. Gentleman said about a debate. In view of the Opposition's deafening silence on this entire subject, we shall look forward with lively expectation to hearing their views.

The date of publication of the Green Paper will be a matter of months rather than weeks. I prefer not to commit myself to a date. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman about Crowther and Maud. There is some misunderstanding here. The Crowther Commission was set up to consider functions which might be transferred, not from local government to provincial government, but from central Government to provincial government. There is no doubt in my mind that the first step is to fix the new local government structure and then to consider the question of provincial government.

I can guarantee that there will be very full consultations on the matter of boundaries. Comprehensive reorganisation—namely, the national will to abolish the 11-plus—will still proceed.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. As an honorary alderman, I know the interest of the House in local government. But I must protect the business of the House, and questions must be brief.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be considerable concern in South Hampshire about these proposals, especially those in relation to the size of the second-tier authorities proposed for the metropolitan area? Would it not have been better to have had rather more than three second-tier authorities so that local government could really be local?

Mr. Crosland

It is my hope that these proposals will be generally welcomed in South Hampshire which, by general agreement, is the area of the country which is growing at the most exceptionally rapid rate. As for the districts within the new metropolitan authority, as my hon. Friend knows, we propose three, but this is a matter which could, within the general framework, be discussed in the consultations.

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, although most people think that there is a need for very substantial changes both in boundaries and in powers, at all events in the North-West there will be great anxiety and indeed horror about the Government's decision to endorse the destruction of the Lancashire County Council and the Cheshire County Council?

Mr. Crosland

That view will be held in the North-West, but, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, there are conflicting views in the North-West, as there are elsewhere. The fact is that on this proposal, as on most others, there will be many in the local government world who support it and many who oppose it.

Mr. Blackburn

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he can expect strong opposition to these proposals? While everyone agrees that some measure of reform is necessary, it would appear that the Government have fallen into the same mistake that the Redcliffe-Maud Report has in thinking that mere size is the criterion of efficiency. Can he say whether any estimate has been made of the cost of carrying these proposals into effect? Can he also say, if we are to have a debate, what form that debate will take?

Mr. Crosland

The debate is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. Of course, there will be opposition to these proposals in every part of the country. The fact is that almost everyone goes round saying that major reform is needed, but objecting to particular proposals for reform which are put forward. We have now to make the best judgment that we can about the reform that we want, and get on with it.

It is not possible to put a cost to the new proposals. In some directions, they will lead to an economy in staff.

There was one other question, but I have forgotten what it was. I will write to my hon. Friend about it.

Mr. Turton

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that, to be effective, local government must remain local and not become remote? Is not a unitary area containing York, the North Riding, parts of the East Riding and parts of the West Riding an abuse of that principle?

Mr. Crosland

No, Sir. Whether it is judged by the size of the local government constituencies, the distances from the capital of the new authority, or the number of electors per councillor, the right hon. Gentleman will find that the new unitary authorities are not significantly different from the larger county councils which exist today. But there is a danger, and it is because of the danger that we have elaborated our proposals for local councils which I hope, when the right hon. Gentleman comes to read them, he will think are positive.

Mr. Milne

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the opportunity provided in the White Paper for further discussions with the local authorities will be welcome, particularly in Northumberland. However, in view of the fact that the pace of change will be determined in months rather than weeks, as my right hon. Friend has said, will he look at the question of the local government staff commission and at that of the administration of the local commissioner for local government with a view to those being set up prior to the implementation of the Report?

Mr. Crosland

I will consider that last proposal. The first thing to do is to put forward proposals for the local ombudsmen, as they are called, in rather more detail, after consultations with the local authorities.

Mr. Lubbock

Has the right hon. Gentleman noticed the argument of Professor Peter Hall and others in The Times today in favour of 12 provincial councils charged with strategic functions such as land use, planning and transport? Is he aware that the White Paper will cause disappointment among those who hoped that provincial councils would be part of the Government's proposals? Will it not make it more difficult, by strengthening regional economic planning councils and creating these new metropolitan authorities, ultimately to have democratic control of these strategic functions throughout the whole of England?

Mr. Crosland

No, Sir. I do not think that these proposals prejudge the possibility of ultimate democratic control of whatever machinery we have at regional or provincial level. I read today's letter in The Times with interest. The proposals were put to the Royal Commission, and they are set out in detail in its Report. It came to the view that to create 130 to 140 separate authorities would result in authorities which were too small for education and almost certainly too small for the personal social services.

Mr. Ginsburg

While there may be some arguments for a metropolitan area for the West Riding, is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be less welcome for his proposal to retain the five Maud sub-areas? Will he confirm that his remarks to my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. R. C. Mitchell) also apply to the West Riding as regards the number of the areas concerned?

Mr. Crosland

We can consider this matter of the number of metropolitan districts, but I do not want to give the impression that the Government would accept a totally different size and pattern of districts in the new West Yorkshire metropolitan area.

Mr. Ridsdale

As the reform of local government finance is some time away, is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the very heavy burden of education costs which falls on many small householders? While one welcomes the new proposals for rate rebate, do the Government intend to extend the domestic element of rate support grant to protect other householders who are weighed down by the heavy education charges which are falling on them?

Mr. Crosland

In advance of the Green Paper, the Government would not propose to put forward any major suggestions for reforming rates. We have already reformed them in terms of the rate rebate scheme and the possibility of paying by instalments. They still remain a tax which, though essential to local government, is capable of improvement.

Mr. MacDermot

In welcoming my right hon. Friend's proposals, may I put two questions to him? First, what considerations led the Government not to recommend extending the metropolitan area principle to the Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire sub-region, which is growing almost as fast as the others which he has mentioned? Secondly, while welcoming what he said about the local councils, can be indicate whether the Government's recommendations lean more towards the proposals in Mr. Senior's dissenting memorandum or those in the main Maud Commission Report?

Mr. Crosland

On the second part of my hon. and learned Friend's question, the local councils will initially start off as what one might call Maud-type local councils. It is my hope that, when it is possible to revise their boundaries, they will take on more the character of community or neighbourhood councils. But that is a matter for experiment in the future.

On the first part of his question, this proposal was considered. It has not been widely supported in general discussion, and it was the Government's view that the problems in these two counties were not as urgent as the similar problems in South Hampshire.

Mr. Fortescue

The White Paper promises a new Green Paper on the administration of the Health Service. How soon will that be published, and when does the right hon. Gentleman envisage legislation?

Mr. Crosland

The Green Paper will be published in a very few days.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Will my right hon. Friend nevertheless receive representations on increasing the number of metropolitan authorities, particularly on Tyneside where there is a complete isolation of urban from rural communities? At the same time, I welcome the proposal about grass-roots organisation of local councils.

Mr. Crosland

I am aware of my hon. Friend's views on a Tyneside metropolitan area, but his views are not universally shared in his region. I can hold out no hope that the Government will create additional metropolitan areas.

Mr. Woodnutt

While welcoming the improved attitude for South Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, may I ask whether the Minister thinks that he would be better advised to maintain more flexibility in the allocation of functions between metropolitan authorities and metropolitan districts as between one area of the country and another? It seems lacking in sense that an island authority should have to rely on a mainland authority for water, ambulances, sewerage, fire and other services of that kind.

Mr. Crosland

I will have to consider whether the problems of islands could be considered separately. But I do not want to hold out any general hope that the division of functions which we propose between metropolitan authorities and metropolitan districts will be changed in any substantial way.

Mr. Peter Mahon

Will my right hon. Friend take into consideration in this regard what has happened over the amalgamation of police forces, where there has been a tremendous increase in cost with a notable decrease in efficiency in so many cases?

Mr. Crosland

I do not think that this view would be universally shared. It is not borne out by my experience in my own area.

Mr. Crouch

The right hon. Gentleman has presented proposals in which the main emphasis is on the structure of a new organisation in local government. Will he bear in mind that there is a considerable body of opinion in the country that the first priority and emphasis should be on effective democratic representation?

Mr. Crosland

I hope that the hon. Gentleman, after studying the structure which we propose, will agree that it provides for effective democratic representation. Incidentally, when people object to the idea of a radical new reform, they should not give the impression that existing local democracy is in a state of continuing vitality at the grass roots, because that is not borne cut by the facts.

Mr. Roy Hughes

Is my right hon. Friend concerned about the large reduction in the number of councillors that his proposals would entail? Does he not feel that this cut in numbers could be a grievous blow to voluntary service in this country?

Mr. Crosland

There will be a large reduction, at any rate in the number of councillors administering statutory services; but this is the price that we must pay for a more effective democratic local government. I remind my hon. Friend that the proposal for local councils, even though they will not administer statutory services, will provide a very great opportunity indeed for voluntary service.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Does not the putting off of this proposed legislation mean two things: first, that whatever the right hon. Gentleman may propose, it will fall to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexley (Mr. Heath) to decide; and secondly, that, in view of the constituency boundaries, be is not proposing to make the Home Secretary an honest woman in this Parliament?

Mr. Crosland

Everything that the White Paper states about dates and procedure is wholly consistent with the lucid statements that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made from time to time to the House.

As to postponing the legislation, I think that most people in local government will be surprised how rapidly we intend to proceed on the subject. We shall certainly surprise Lady Sharp who made a speech in another place suggesting a somewhat slower timetable.

In the wholly unlikely event of the Leader of the Opposition assuming power, may I say that the country is in a state of utter confusion about what views, if any, he holds on the subject. Evidently it was too complex for the cloudy atmosphere of the Selsdon Park Hotel.

Mr. Coe

Is my right hon. Friend prepared to accept any new proposals for metropolitan areas in view of what he said to my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop)? Also, is he satisfied that the unitary authorities will be large enough to cope with higher education? Can he see any future development in that sphere?

Mr. Crosland

No, Sir. I must disappoint my hon. Friend on the first part of his question. The Government have decided that there should be five metropolitan areas, and we would not be prepared to reconsider that decision.

We think that the new main authorities will be large enough to deal with higher and further education. Indeed, this is one of the strongest arguments against the solution, put forward in The Times letter this morning, of having 130 to 140 education authorities.

Mr. Waddington

Will the Minister explain why a two-tier system is considered appropriate for West Yorkshire but inappropriate for East Lancashire? In what way are the problems of the two areas alleged to be different?

Mr. Crosland

I could go into details in the debate when we have it. In our view, the problems of change in West Yorkshire concerning housing and new industry are of an altogether more urgent character than is the case in central Lancashire. We believe that the case was made out for the one but not for the other.

Mr. Mackintosh

Is my right hon. Friend aware that any of the many proposals which are possible from the Crowther Commission on decentralisation would inevitably involve these authorities that they might propose having some local government powers? If they had some local government powers, the unitary authorities would be a second tier and the precise shape, size and function of these authorities would have to be reconsidered. If my hon. Friend is not going to condemn this Commission to a total waste of time, surely he should assure it that he is prepared to keep an open mind on both issues?

Mr. Crosland

It was made clear when the Crowther Commission was set up that it was not intended that its establishment should prevent the work of local government reorganisation going ahead. Furthermore, it was made clear that the Crowther Commission would mainly consider transfers from the centre to the provinces, not from local government to the provinces. Indeed, the Government accept the view of the Redcliffe-Maud Report that provinces are not suitable for the administration of the main local government services. Therefore, I cannot accept what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Speed

Is it not clear that the Government have largely ignored the comments from local authority associations and others and in fact had made up their mind before the White Paper was issued and before they asked for comments?

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that when comments were asked for from local authorities, they were not asked to comment on the Senior minority report?

Mr. Crosland

No. Local authorities and the associations were free to comment on Senior or anything else, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in his statement to the House on the day of publication of the Redcliffe-Maud Report.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government had not made up their mind before consultations took place. I took over this task at the beginning of October when the consultations were starting, and I did not then know enough about the subject to have made up my mind.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the half-baked suggestion that Hertfordshire should be divided into two parts has caused great consternation? Will he look at this very carefully and then kindly disapprove of it?

Mr. Crosland

I will look at it very carefully but I will not necessarily disapprove of it.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the business of the House.

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