HC Deb 17 March 1970 vol 798 cc206-12
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. George Thomas)

With permission, I wish to make a statement about the reorganisation of local government in the counties of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire and about my proposals for the reorganisation of the Health Service in Wales.

Following the statement on local government reorganisation in Wales by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 28th October last, I have reviewed the situation in Glamorgan and Monmouth-shire with a view particularly to eliminating the arbitrary divisions between towns and country.

This review included a socio-geographic study of the area by the Welsh Office, and it examined a wide range of possible patterns for reorganisation of local government in the area. I am now satisfied that the needs of this area would best be met through a system of unitary authorities. I accordingly propose that in Glamorgan and Monmouthshire local government should be reorganised on the basis of three main authorities each responsible for all the major functions in its area, one containing Cardiff, which will, of course, remain the capital of Wales, one Newport, and the third Swansea. A White Paper setting out the details is published today.

I am writing to each county borough and district council in the two counties and to their associations inviting them to send me their comments on the White Paper, and I shall then arrange full consultation with them.

These proposals relate solely to the geographical counties of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. In the rest of Wales the previous proposal that local government should be reorganised on the basis of four counties and 20 districts will stand.

I am also publishing today a Green Paper with proposals for the reorganisation of the Health Service in Wales. As in England, the Health Service will be administered by area health boards outside, but closely associated with, local government. The boundary between the Health Service and the local authority public health and personal social services will be drawn in the same way. There will be area health boards coterminous with the four new counties of Clwyd, Gwynedd, Powys and Dyfed and with the three unitary areas which I now propose for the counties of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. These are firm decisions, but the other proposals in the Green Paper are for general discussion. I shall be consulting the interested parties in Wales and I shall be associated with the consultations which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services will be having on those proposals which will be common to England and Wales.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

The right hon. Gentleman appears as a reluctant midwife producing twin children of rather doubtful parentage. It is clear that he has been subject to great pressures within his own party on this subject.

May I ask the Secretary of State, first, whether he intends to introduce legislation in this Parliament?

Secondly, as this statement will not be universally popular with everyone in Monmouthshire and Glamorgan, may I ask whether he will take full account of the representations which will be made by the interested authorities within these two counties?

Mr. Thomas

Far from being under pressure, these proposals are my own. I am satisfied that they are in the best interests of both Glamorgan and Monmouthshire.

Concerning legislation, I am inviting local authorities to send me their comments by June. I hope then to have consultations with their associations and maybe with the authorities themselves. I hope to move at a good pace, but I cannot forecast the date of legislation.

On the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question, no local government proposals, whoever brings them forward, can be expected to be popular in all quarters. I am not aiming at popularity; I am aiming at efficient local government.

Mr. Michael Foot

Will the Secretary of State accept that the situation in Wales is entirely different from that in England in that we had an investigation and a report on the situation in Wales, and, indeed, specific proposals were made, before the Redcliffe-Maud Report came forward? Therefore, when my right hon. Friend says that he is prepared to have consultations still with the local authorities, if he finds that it is the general wish of the local authorities that they should have the earlier scheme which was devised in the interests of Wales generally, will he be prepared to revert to that scheme? Does he accept that it would be good for local government that there should be one form of development in Wales which could be contrasted with the kind of development which might take place in England?

Mr. Thomas

My hon. Friend does not seem to appreciate that a different system is now proposed for Wales. There are no metropolitan areas in Wales. We have a two-tier system for 25 per cent. of the population and unitary authorities for three-quarters of our population centred in Glamorgan and in Monmouthshire. While I want full consultations, I should not like anyone to be misled into believing that we are likely to move from the proposal of three unitary authorities.

Mr. Hooson

I welcome the proposals about area health boards, but may I ask the right hon. Gentleman what degree of autonomy these area health boards are likely to have, what the financial arrangements will be, and what their association with local government will be?

Mr. Thomas

The area health boards will be coterminous with the local government areas. They will be very strong boards and they will deal directly with me without any intervening body, and the main planning powers will be kept in the Welsh Office. I shall deal with only seven area health boards in Wales, whereas in England there are over 90 area health boards. We can have a different structure for our service.

Mr. Probert

Whilst further study of the White Paper will be needed to come to any real conclusions, may I ask my right hon. Friend what criteria he used to come to these conclusions? Secondly, will he tell us a little more about the effect on the existing second tier authorities?

Mr. Thomas

We used a professional and technical study of patterns of travel to work, shopping interests, and the like. It became clear that the valleys, in which my hon. Friend is interested, have greater links down towards the coastal belt than with each other.

Concerning the second part of my hon. Friend's question, it means that all powers will be exercised in the unitary area by the one authority.

Mr. Ifor Davies

My right hon. Friend has stated that the basis of this reform is efficiency. May I mention that I do not know of any charge against Glamorgan on the basis of inefficiency. Indeed, there was a great deal of unanimity on the proposals in the previous White Paper.

Mr. Thomas

My hon. Friend was my colleague in the Welsh Office, and I listen to what he says with great respect. It is true that the Glamorgan County Council has been a good authority. But these proposals aim at strengthening the structure of local government for the whole of Monmouthshire and Glamorgan. They in no way cast any blemish on the local authorities which have been doing a good job, but they need strengthening in their resources if they are to serve the community.

Mr. Gower

Is it not unfortunate that the Secretary of State, after a long history of looking into this matter, has now come forward with proposals which mean joining together municipal areas like Cardiff, Swansea and Newport, respectively, and rural areas like the Vale of Glamorgan and the county of Monmouthshire and the Heads of the Valleys and the mining areas, which hardly have anything in common? Is it not absurd and does it not make a mockery of local government?

Mr. Thomas

I do not want to be unkind to the hon. Gentleman, but he obviously has not understood the proposal and he needs further time to look at it. I am not proposing to link Newport, Cardiff and Swansea. [Interruption.] That is what he has just said. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he studies these proposals in depth, when he will realise that the valleys have strong links with the areas with which they are now proposed to be associated.

Mr. Roy Hughes

Will my right hon. Friend appreciate that his proposals will cause endless disagreement and much procrastination right through Glamorgan-shire and Monmouthshire? Why does my right hon. Friend not concentrate his proposals on reorganising those innumerable tiny local authorities in South Wales which are unable to provide proper services and unify them into proper local government units?

Mr. Thomas

My hon. Friend is probably quite right; there will be much public discussion on these proposals. There are 51 housing authorities within the counties of Monmouthshire and Glamorganshire and clearly they have not the resources to give the services to the community which are required. Similarly, with regard to roads, there are 17 road authorities in the counties of Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire and we are determined——

Mr. Roy Hughes

Reorganise them.

Mr. Thomas

—that local government which was last reorganised in the 1880's shall be brought up to date to meet the needs of the 1980's.

Mr. S. O. Davies

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what experience, if any, those in his office who have advised him have had as elected representative of local government? Is he not absolutely aware by now that the opposition to this scheme of his is the opposition of the overwhelming majority of the electors in South Wales? May I ask him to consider whether now is the time for him to indulge in such superficial heroics?

Mr. Thomas

My hon. Friend, not for the first time, is given to gross exaggeration. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I believe that he is out of touch with public opinion.

Mr. Anderson

The proposed merger between the borough of Newport and the county of Monmouthshire is consistent with Maud and will at least be welcomed by the county councils. Will my right hon. Friend answer one question which will colour the attitude of many of us to his proposals? What form of political representation, if any, will be below the unitary level? Will it be any more than a sounding board of local opinion?

Mr. Thomas

The unitary authority will, I trust, be as representative of opinion within the area as local government is now, and I can only assure my hon. Friend that I am satisfied that the people of Newport and Monmouthshire will gain by these proposals.

Mr. Abse

Would the Secretary of State accept that the people of Wales will recognise his political courage even if they notice his political recklessness in putting forward these proposals? It is understood that a higher level of efficiency is possible even beyond the high standard existing in Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire now. Could the Secretary of State say what is the nature of the discussions he intends to have with the authorities now he has made it clear that this is a final decision?

Mr. Thomas

My hon. Friend will be aware that across the Severn Bridge there is proposed an authority consisting of Bristol and Bath of more than 1 million population and in North Gloucestershire a unitary authority of more than 400,000. I believe that Wales would suffer if we had smaller units of local government where talent and ability was being sucked away to bigger authorities elsewhere.

Mr. Birch

Is it not rather odd that the right hon. Gentleman is rejecting the scheme for local government in Wales which was more likely to gain general approval than any other previously proposed and is going over to the English system against which opposition is rising steadily in the country because nobody likes unitary authorities? Nobody says "My unitary authority, right or wrong."

Mr. Thomas

The proposals that I am submitting to the House are, I believe, in the interests of stronger local government and, as a Welsh Member of Parliament, I obviously want to see that the people of Wales are served just as well through strong units of local government as they are in England.

Mr. Gower

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the nature of the statement and the very unsatisfactory nature of the replies, I beg to give notice that I shall seek leave to raise this matter on the Adjournment.

  1. NEW MEMBER SWORN 9 words