HC Deb 17 April 1972 vol 835 cc93-121

1.—(1) The English Commission shall consult the councils of existing counties, boroughs and urban districts and the Committees established under section 252(1)(b) above with a view to making proposals to the Secretary of State for the constitution of parishes having boundaries co-terminous with those of existing urban districts and boroughs, and for naming those parishes.

(2) The Secretary of State may give the Commission directions for their guidance in making any such proposals.

2.— (1) The Secretary of State shall by order give effect to any proposals under paragraph 1 above, either as made to him or with modifications, but no such order may specify for a parish a boundary different from that of an existing urban district or borough.

(2) A statutory instrument containing an order under this paragraph shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.

3. The constitution of an area as a parish under this Part of this Schedule shall not affect—

  1. (a) the continued existence, subject to section 1(9) above, of the borough or urban district the area of which is co-extensive with that of the parish, or
  2. (b) the power to make changes in local government areas under Part IV above.

4. In this Part of this Schedule 'borough' does not include a London borough or a borough which becomes a parish by virtue of section 1(8) above.

No. 169, in Clause 10, page 6, line 12. leave out 'and'.

No. 170, in page 6, line 15, at end insert: 'and (d) every parish constituted under Part V of Schedule 1 to this Act'.

No. 176, in Schedule 3, page 211, line 17, leave out 'each' and insert 'the corresponding'.

No. 177, in page 211, line 17, at end add:

(2) Until provision is made to the contrary under Part I or Part IV of this Act, the provisions of this sub-paragraph shall have effect with respect to the number of councillors for parishes constituted under Part V of Schedule 1 above, that is to say—
  1. (a) if the area of the parish is co-extensive with that of a borough not divided into wards, the number of councillors for the parish shall be the same as the total number of councillors and aldermen for the borough;
  2. (b) if the area of the parish is co-extensive with that of a borough which is divided into wards, the parish shall be divided into the same wards for the purpose of elections of parish councillors and the number of councillors to be elected for each parish ward shall be four-thirds of the number of councillors for the corresponding ward of the borough;
  3. (c) if the area of the parish is co-extensive with that of an urban district not divided into wards, the number of councillors for the parish shall be the same as the number of councillors for the urban district;
  4. (d) if the area of the parish is co-extensive with that of an urban district which is divided into wards, the parish shall be divided into the same wards for the purpose of elections of parish councillors and the number of councillors to be elected for each parish ward shall be the same as the number of councillors for the corresponding ward of the urban district;
and the numbers referred to in paragraph (a) to (d) above shall be determined by reference to the electoral arrangements in the borough or urban district at the date on which the parish is constituted.

No. 182, in page 213, line 22, at end insert:

(13) The foregoing provisions of this paragraph shall have effect subject to the provisions of paragraph 11A below.

11A.—(1) The provisions of this paragraph shall apply in relation to a parish constituted under Part V of Schedule 1 above and to the borough or urban district the area of which is co-extensive with that of the parish; and in relation to such a parish,—

  1. (a) references in this paragraph to the order are references to the order under the said Part V constituting the parish, and
  2. (b) references in this paragraph to the borough or urban district are references to the borough or urban district the area of which is co-extensive with that of the parish.

(2) As from the date specified in the order, the parish councillors shall be the aldermen and councillors for the time being of the borough or as the case may be, the councillors for the time being of the urban district and, if the parish is divided into wards in accordance with paragraph 9(2) above,—

  1. (a) the councillors of the borough or urban district, in their capacity as parish councillors, shall be treated as having been elected for the wards of the parish corresponding to the wards of the borough or urban district for which they were elected; and
  2. (b) in the case of a borough, each of the aldermen shall be treated, in his capacity as a parish councillor, as having been elected for such ward of the parish as shall be determined at a meeting of the parish council held within fourteen days after the date specified in the order.

(3) Each person who becomes a parish councillor by virtue of sub-paragraph (2) above shall (unless he resigns his office or it other wise becomes vacant) continue to hold that office until the fourth day after the ordinary day of election of parish councillors in 1976.

(4) Until 1st April, 1974 the persons for the time being holding office as mayor and deputy mayor of the borough or, as the case may be, as chairman and vice-chairman of the council of the urban district shall, by virtue of those offices, hold office as chairman and vice-chair man of the parish council, respectively; and the persons who, by virtue of this sub-paragraph, hold office as chairman and vice-chairman of the parish council immediately before 1st April, 1974 shall (subject to section 16 below) continue to hold those offices on and after the date as if they had been elected to them at the annual meeting of the parish council held in 1973.

(5) Where this paragraph applies to a parish, then, as from the date specified in the order, paragraph 11(1) above shall not apply in relation to elections to fill casual vacancies in the office of councillor of the borough or urban district, as the case may be, and any casual vacancy which has not been filled on that date shall be deemed for the purposes of the 1933 Act to have arisen on that date; and a councillor elected after that date to fill a casual vacancy shall, unless he resigns his office or it otherwise becomes vcant, continue to hold office until 1st April, 1974.

(6) Where this paragraph applies to a parish, sub-paragraph (11)(c) and (12) of paragraph 11 above shall not apply in relation to the borough or urban district, as the case may be; and in the case of a borough any person appointed to fill a casual vacancy in the office of alderman of the borough shall be treated, in his capacity as a parish councillor, as having been elected for the same ward of the parish as that for which his predecessor as alderman was treated as having been elected by virtue of sub-paragraph (2)(b) above or this sub-paragraph.

6.30 p.m.

Mr. Page

This group of Amendments follows an undertaking by my hon. Friend the then Under-Secretary during Committee and by myself at a later stage that we would provide for what I may call——

Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for interrupting the Minister but I am not quite clear about the selection. I do not think that you are calling a series of Amendments, including two in my name dealing with Clause 50—Amendments Nos. 298, 299 and 300. These deal with a specific point related to this Amendment. I am happy that this should be so but I want some assurance that this important issue of urban parishes will be developed elsewhere if we cannot develop it under my Amendments.

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that the Amendments which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned have been selected. The ones for discussion on the Clause are the ones I have read out. If the point which the hon. Gentleman is making is related to this Clause, no doubt he will be able to develop it.

Mr. Page

The Amendments relate to what I will call successor parish councils, that is parish councils which succeed certain authorities now existing which, for their major functions, will merge within the districts.

The background to this is that reorganisation involves the abolition of all existing counties, boroughs, urban districts and rural districts. The new units at the two executive levels will be entirely new authorities. Existing rural parishes are not being abolished, either in metropolitan or non-metropolitan areas. Rural boroughs, or more precisely "boroughs included in rural districts", are being converted into parishes. There are only seven of these rural boroughs.

The Government have always accepted that certain of the smaller boroughs and urban districts which are free standing in character and which are comparable in size with existing parishes should also have their own elected parish councils in future. The Government envisaged—this is the effect of the Bill as drafted—that such parish councils would be established in the areas of the former boroughs and urban districts only when the new district councils have carried out the review of parishes within their areas. This would have meant a gap between the coming into operation of the Bill and the formation of councils for those smaller boroughs and urban districts. Until that review of the parishes took place there would be an interval between the abolition of the existing boroughs and the urban districts, which would occur in April, 1974, and the setting up of the successor parish councils. The prospect of a time gap of this kind caused a good deal of concern among the smaller towns, especially those with continuous histories of municipal government going back over many years.

There are good reasons why it would not be desirable to retain parish councils within the areas of all existing boroughs and urban districts. Where there is a borough which becomes merged within a new district and its population is large enough to have influence in the new district, to have a substantial number of representatives in the new district council, it would be wrong to preserve any particular powers even at parish level for those larger towns. I am thinking of towns with a population of 40,000 or 50,000 or more. Where we have the smaller towns, anything up to 10,000 or 20,000, it is right to keep alive the parish status.

I hope that by the use of the ancient and revered term "parish" such towns will not think they have been demoted in any way in dignity and prestige. What we mean by parish status is that they should be representative of the views of the people in their area; not necessarily that they should have any great executive powers but should strongly represent the people of the parish, small borough or small urban district.

The core of the solution to this which is put forward in these Amendments is in the new Part V to be added to Schedule 1. This requires the English Boundary Commission to identify and to make proposals to the Secretary of State as to which existing boroughs and urban districts should retain successor parish councils after April, 1974. In making its proposals the Commission will consult the existing authorities and those Committees at present at work anticipating the coming into operation of the Bill—the 243 Committees as they have come to be known, after Clause 243. Those will be consulted and the Commission will act within guidelines framed by the Secretary of State.

The advantages of this course are first that it will allow time for the guidelines to be discussed between the Secretary of State and the local authority associations. I give an undertaking that there will be consultation on this point. I do not think it would be desirable to write that into the Bill because the consultations may start right away without necessarily waiting for Royal Assent.

Secondly, the recommendations will be made by the Boundary Commission which will already be familiar with the circumstances of each new district. Thirdly, these proposals will be made after the new non-metropolitan district pattern has been determined and against the background of the new district units. We hope that the Boundary Commission will shortly be reporting on the areas of the new districts and that in the autumn its proposals will come before the House after proper consultation throughout the summer and early autumn in the form of an order.

The other aspects covered by this group of Amendments are chiefly procedural. The list of towns to retain successor parishes will be given finality by order of the Secretary of State which will come before the House on the negative Resolution procedure.

As from a date indicated in the order the designated towns will have a dual rôle. They will still have their town status until April, 1974, and they will also have a parish status. The Amendments to Schedule 3 provide that the present electoral areas of the existing boroughs and urban districts shall become the initial wards of the successor parishes and the existing members of the borough and urban district councils will be retained in office and will constitute the successor parish councils until the next normal date for parish elections which will be in 1976. This is a point which is not very easy to gather from these Amendments. Existing councillors of these towns, although their areas of authority will have merged within the new district, will remain as parish councillors until 1976 when there is a further election.

In the case of ex-boroughs, the existing aldermen will be retained as parish councillors as well as the existing borough councillors. In 1976 there will be proper elections of the whole of the council members.

Those are some of the procedural points we have had to work out in applying the principle of continuation of councils of small towns, which will not have a great influence in the new district. They will not have many representatives in the new districts and therefore we desire them to be represented at the parish level.

We have been unable to table Amendments at this stage on the retention of certain dignities, such as the mayors. I gave a forecast about this in Committee, but I am still in consultation with the local authority associations about the details. I hope we shall be able to put forward a proposal in this respect in another place, but so that right hon. and hon. Members of this House know about our intentions the consultation paper with the local authority associations has been put in the Vote Office. Right hon. and hon. Members will be able to see from it the form in which we are consulting the local authority associations and our intentions in another place about preserving the civic dignities at parish level.

We hope that the House will accept this quite new, somewhat exciting principle for local government in extending the parish status—the status of representing a small area with some executive functions. The important thing, however, is not the executive functions but the representation. This will apply extensively when the Bill becomes operative.

Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)

As the Minister has shown, the Amendment provides a solution for the dispossessed boroughs and urban districts if they have a population of fewer than 40,000. This is important, particularly to those freestanding urban districts and boroughs in the new counties which might find themselves surrounded by parishes, all of which had parish councils, but the small borough would have no further way of representing them.

Mr. Page

To get the record straight, may I point out that I do not think I mentioned the figures in that way. I do not want to put any figures in the guidelines to the Boundary Commission. I merely wish to describe the sort of town which we have in mind. I referred to the figures of 10,000 or 20,000, but figures will not go into the guidelines. It is simply the general character of the towns which we want the Commission to consider.

Mr. Roper

I am grateful for that intervention. I understand that these will normally be the free-standing urban districts and boroughs which might find themselves surrounded by parishes and therefore have no form of representation to the larger new authorities. I am sure that the urban districts and boroughs will be grateful for the Minister's concession. It would help the House if the hon. Gentleman could indicate whether, in the guidelines, he will ask the Boundary Commission to review not only the non-metropolitan counties but the small boroughs and urban districts in the new metropolitan counties and metropolitan districts.

6.45 p.m.

The Amendment to the Amendment would permit parish councils to cover the whole of the area of certain selected urban districts and boroughs, but we need to see the development of this concept of urban parish councils within the whole of the urban areas. Therefore, while a single parish council would be appropriate for an urban district or borough with a population of 10,000 or 20,000, we would want to see some division of the larger boroughs or existing county boroughs into areas so that there could be local parish or neighbourhood councils to represent the interests of that community within the district council and the county council.

That would parallel in England the situation which is proposed in later Clauses for the Principality of Wales. The Redcliffe-Maud Report recommended that there should be a grass roots tier of local government. The Government have recognised this concept for the Principality and now, to some extent, for certain small urban districts and boroughs. However, I regret that they have not gone as far as to extend this concession to all the urban areas, following the suggestions made by Lord Redcliffe-Maud and Mr. Senior in their reports.

I realise that the existing local authorities and local authority associations may not be enthusiastic about the development of such urban parish councils or community councils in urban areas. The existing authorities, and indeed the new authorities once created, may feel that the setting up of such parish councils will be a nuisance to them. But, in a sense, democracy is always a nuisance to those in authority and the creation of bodies of this sort would ensure that communities throughout the country had a chance to make their point of view known in the way that parish councils have done in the past in rural areas.

Unless we take the opportunity of this reform of local government to make provision for community councils covering the whole country, there will be permanent pressure from existing authorities not to permit the setting up of community councils or urban parish councils. This reform of local government will not be complete unless there is proper provision made at urban parish level, not only in the boroughs and urban districts to which the Minister referred, but throughout the urban towns.

The Government have suggested in earlier consultation papers that in the large towns voluntary bodies—community associations or something of that sort—can fulfil the task of representing a small area and of making representations to the larger bodies. This is not an altogether satisfactory solution. A voluntary body is not as representative of its community as a body which is elected and which must face the challenge of election every three years.

Therefore, the Redcliffe-Maud Report made it clear that a satisfactorily reformed system of local government would provide for a parish or community council which would be able to make representations on the matters which concerned the community and which, in planning matters, for example, would be able to implement proposals such as those put forward in the Skeffington Report on public participation in planning matters.

I hope that the Minister will think again about this matter and will see whether it is possible either to accept the Amendment to the Amendment or to bring forward proposals in another place to ensure that the guidelines which he gives the Boundary Commission are wider than those he has outlined today and will permit the Commission to review at the start the whole of England in order to set up a network of urban parish councils to fulfil this important grassroots function.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I thank my hon. Friend for introducing these Amendments, which I generally welcome. I was a little concerned, however, at what he said about their introduction. Basically, where a new district council is to be formed from the amalgamation of an existing rural district and an urban district, it is essential that the urban district should be on the same footing as the rural district and be given a parish council, which the rural district at present possesses. In my constituency there are two or three instances where such an amalgamation may take place.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend can give the House an assurance that if a larger urban district wishes to have a parish council with 30,000 or 40,000 inhabitants it will be permitted to go ahead. Many urban districts with quite large populations—in the 30,000 or 40,000 range—will look forward eagerly to forming an urban parish council.

My hon. Friend also referred to the gap that may exist between the formation of the district council and the formation of the new urban parish council. I ask him to see whether there need be any gap. Parish councils have very important functions to attend to, and will still attend to them when the Bill becomes law. Some of the important duties to which parish councils will have to attend concern recreation, burial, allotments, footpaths, a first sight of planning and some rating responsibility. It is not enough to say that there will be a gap between the formation by an urban district council and a parish council. If there is a gap, on whose shoulders will responsibility for the discharge of these functions fall in cases where an urban district council forms part of a new district council?

Throughout the country some urban districts have existed successfully for many years having, by the chance of history, been formed by the combination of two distinct small towns. The one or two that I have in mind do not matter; hon. Members will have their own examples. But there are cases where one or two small towns with populations of 8,000 or 10,000 have united to form a successful urban district. I ask my hon. Friend whether, in those circumstances, if the urban district so wishes, it will be possible to form two successor urban parish councils.

Finally, I emphasise that I strongly welcome the Amendments that my hon. Friend has tabled.

Mr. Blenkinsop

I am in some difficulty. We welcome the Minister's general Amendments dealing with points that were discussed at some length in Committee. The Minister then assured us that he would consider the problem of the continuity of authorities that were to lose their existence under the reorganisation. We therefore welcome the Amendments, which carry out the Minister's undertaking.

The Minister will remember, however, that we pressed him to go further than that and to deal with the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper), namely, the need—as we saw it—for authorites that can best be described as urban parishes or neighbourhood councils, in our larger towns, to have an opportunity of representation at the grass roots. We regard it as all the more important because the structure of local government that is now emerging suggests larger units, further away from direct contact with many people than was the case in the past. In those circumstances there is greater need for a closer form of association at what, in a town, would be thought of normally as the ward or parish level.

There has been a great deal of discussion of this matter and widespread support for the idea has been expressed by all political parties. The Minister, however, gave no undertaking of the kind that he gave on the question of continuity. Under pressure he agreed to consider the matter, and we hoped that that might result in Government proposals. They have not come.

I have tabled some Amendments to a later Clause and had understood that it would be possible to raise this matter then. I should be willing to limit my present contribution if I had the assurance that those later Amendments would be called. I attempted to raise this matter with Mr. Speaker and received a communication from him that they might not be called. I refer to the following Amendment:

Nos. 298, in Clause 50, page 26, line 43, after 'meeting', insert: 'or from not less than one hundred electors for an area which is not a parish'.

No. 299, in page 27, line 40, after 'interested', insert: 'or by not less than one hundred electors for an area which is not a parish'.

No. 300, in page 28, line 9, at end add: (9) Where the English Commission make a proposal for the constitution of a new parish either after a request under subsection (4) above or upon consideration of a report by the council of a district made after a request under subsection (7) above, the English Commission may direct that the council of the new parish shall be described by the title of neighbourhood council but shall have the powers, functions, rights, privileges and duties of a parish council.

If they might not be called, I would wish to develop the argument a little further now, but if, as I hope, it will be possible to debate the matter later—after the boundary questions have been disposed of, and we are concerned with the whole work of the Boundary Commission—that would seem to be a more suitable time. I have had no undertaking that my Amendments will be called and I must therefore, relatively briefly, explain why we regard this point as of great importance and the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth as of real significance.

On many occasions we have said that one of our sorrows about the Bill is that it awakens no new, great pulsating excitement in democratic local government—something that we believe is needed. There are grave dangers about our present position. There is a great deal of cynicism. We believe that if we were to encourage the development of some of the smaller urban councils equivalent to a parish, there would be a new opportunity for large numbers of people, including many young people, to play a useful, constructive and active part in local affairs. That would be an exciting new development such as is missing from the Bill at the moment.

7.0 p.m.

We have not thought of this in party terms but regard it as a real improvement. Many parishes are already in areas which were once rural but have now become urban areas. Some of them are the most significant and lively parishes in the country, because they exist in semi-urban areas. The experience of these councils suggests that there is a useful place for the much smaller authority, trying to meet the needs of a localised community such as a housing estate, which could have limited powers and could be a focal point for the expression of views and could be consulted by the authorities with the real executive power.

There have been experiments like this over the last two or three years and a number of inquiries have been carried out to find out the public reaction. All these have suggested that this kind of development would be welcomed.

The Minister said in Committee that his reason for rejecting this proposal was that he did not believe that the Boundary Commission would be able to define boundaries in so many small councils. One appreciates the problem, but the curious situation is that, as on so many other issues, this will be done in Wales; there is a clear divergence between England and Wales.

However, taking into account the Minister's point, I inserted in my Amendments to a later Clause a provision to meet his argument. This made it clear that these suggestions for new urban parishes would be promoted at the specific requestion of 100 or more electors and would then be considered by the Boundary Commission. This would be some limitation, an opportunity for experiments, without assuming that the Boundary Commission would be overwhelmed by the pressure everywhere to carry out something beyond its capacity.

As my Amendments stand, the matter would come up via the request of 100 electors or more or via the request of a district council. This reasonable solution would meet the point made by the Minister. This scheme would not need to operate in every part of the country immediately. It is something with which we should experiment. The Government are not encouraging this kind of hopeful and interesting experiment. I do not know why not. They do not seem to have any belief in its value.

The Minister and others have said that the situation is adequately covered by voluntary organisations. We do not agree. We do not think that the one is antipathetic to the other. The establishment by Statute of this kind of local elected body could provide a framework for the encouragement of a great deal more voluntary work and could help to support it financially and possibly by providing secretarial help and premises.

A small organisation was set up a couple of years ago to promote this idea—again, of a non-party character. It held a well-attended conference at which many voluntary groups discussed the project. Since there is still doubt as to whether we can raise this matter later, I hope that the Minister will say that he is even now prepared to consider it further. It will be possible even in another place to make a modest provision to help meet the point that there is a need for organisation at this level.

While I welcome the main body of the Amendment, I regret that the Government have not shown themselves willing to go further and introduce the parish or neighbourhood council into our main towns.

Mr. Graham Page

The hon. Members for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) and Farnworth (Mr. Roper) have raised the same point in different terms—neighbourhood councils or urban parishes. We are retaining the parishes which one thinks of perhaps as rural entities—those which are now simply called parishes—not only in the non-metropolitan districts but also, where they occur, in the metropolitan districts. That is something quite different from creating urban parishes.

The name "parish" may have been retained for certain purposes, but in fact there are no parishes now within urban districts. Both hon.Members are asking that we should create these new authorities and give them parish status. The Government are still not persuaded that provision should be made in the Bill for a third tier of this sort in the larger towns.

This does not mean that further experience and experiment, including, of course, community councils for parts of towns in Wales, if they are set up, may not point to the desirability of providing for this type of authority in future. The case for adding to the complexities of the Bill at this time is rather frightening for me when I consider the size of the Measure as it is.

However, the Government have not closed their mind to the ultimate possibility of neighbourhood councils for separate communities within big towns in England, but I do not think the case for this innovation, which would need a great deal of study and consultation, is sufficiently clear to justify our including a specific provision for that in the Bill. This is a matter for further consideration and experiment in the light of the next year or two, after the formation of the new districts, to see how matters are working out.

It is questionable whether this could apply to all large towns. Suppose one tried to make urban parishes within Manchester, Birmingham or other large towns. There could be neighbourhoods or communities in some of the medium-sized towns where there are distinct areas of community interest—where they express certain points of view within those areas—and in Clause 136 the general power of expenditure would permit of a group of voluntary bodies, leading perhaps to a statutory body in the end, but certainly being assisted in the early stages of development by the money which can be devoted to them under Clause 136; what we have known as the "free penny" but which will be something more than that now.

I was asked whether the Commission would be asked to do anything about this issue. The answer is "No". The Commission has been specifically excluded from recommending the constitution of parishes for parts of existing boroughs or urban districts. The possibility of this was, of course, considered when drafting the Bill in the early stages and when drafting the Amendments which I am presenting.

There are several boroughs and urban districts which consist of two or more separate communities and which, although too big in character for a successor parish council, could have been painlessly divided into individual parishes. But the arguments against doing that in the Bill at this time are overwhelming.

The Boundary Commission will be recommending the successor parish councils for the small, free-standing boroughs and urban districts by not earlier than the spring of 1973. It would be extremely difficult then to proceed with the formation of urban parishes by dividing up towns on that basis. It would add such a terrific load to the Boundary Commission's work at this time that it would not prove successful.

Mr. Blenkinsop

The hon. Gentleman is repeating an argument which he adduced in Committee. Itabled an Amendment at that stage to Clause 50 to overcome the difficulty which he is mentioning and which would have applied where 100 or more electors applied or where propositions came from district councils. This could have been arranged in any way the right hon. Gentleman chose to spread it over a period of time. Will he now provide the machinery to enable this to start?

7.15 p.m.

Mr. Page

It would make it very difficult if we were to be controlled by the whim or wish of several people or a group of even 100. We want to organise the Boundary Commission's work and arrange the creation of areas along lines which allow the load on the Commission not to be governed by an expression of wish from outside. Under the hon. Gentleman's suggestion there would have to be lines drawn within towns creating new areas within those towns. We should then have to hold elections for those areas and set up a whole new structure.

Be that as it may, I repeat that this is not shut out of the mind of the Government altogether. We have some sympathy for this proposal and it may be that as the working of the new organisations proceeds, we shall be able to bring some form of representation of areas within the larger towns into operation that way. However, I would prefer to take it step by step and to see how the encouragement of voluntary organ- isations proceeds in the larger towns and how the new parishes of the free-standing towns operate; and then perhaps we can consider parishes within towns.

I must correct a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr). I think he misunderstood me when I was talking about the gap that might occur. There will be no gap in the successor parish councils which we are setting up. Councils for the parishes and free-standing small boroughs and urban districts will continue, so there will be no gap. My hon. Friend can hardly call it a gap if we do not set up for a time new urban parishes and neighbourhood councils as part of the existing large towns.

Amendment agreed to

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)

I beg to move Amendment No. 431, in page 2, line 27, at end insert: 'but every existing borough within a new district and not providing the seat of local government within that district shall, if it has a pre-1700 charter, be allowed to style itself as an ancient borough and the chairman of its parish council be styled a mayor'. I shall not detain the House, because this issue was considered in Committee. At that stage I was somewhat reassured by the remarks of the Minister, but unfortunately his comments have not led to a Government Amendment on Report. This is why my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) and I are raising the matter again. This is an important topic which deserves the attention of the House.

Under the terms of the Bill many smaller boroughs with charters going back perhaps to the Middle Ages will disappear and lose their identity and individuality if they become subordinate in a new second-tier authority or district. Some of these boroughs will be coterminous with the districts and it is clear that they will be able to petition for charters, use their civil regalia and retain, at any rate to some extent, their style and dignity. Many smaller boroughs, however, will not be so fortunate unless provision for them is made in the Bill. I am desperately anxious that we should be given an assurance that it is the Government's intention to make the necessary Amendment to this end either here or in another place.

In moving a similar Amendment in Committee I pointed out that we were concerned that nothing should be done to sacrifice something of very great worth or to destroy something which is the cause of much proper local pride, and all this in the cause of tidiness and efficiency. There is a great value in local pride and in the customs by which it is often expressed. One of the country's strengths is this expression of identity found in many communities. In many of our smaller and more ancient boroughs we find a very real richness which is often most movingly obvious on occasions of civil dignity. I know that it will be said that these styles will have no power as such, but power is not necessarily the answer when local feeling is involved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow was not fortunate enough to be a member of the Standing Committee and to present his own case, but I know that in his constituency four rural boroughs were created in 1958. That was a compromise. Certain powers were taken from them, but they were able to maintain their style and dignity of borough and the chief citizen was able to call himself mayor. We are asking here for an extension of the 1958 compromise so that these ancient towns, some of our finest and best-loved towns, should be allowed to keep their sense of corporate identity. It is not an earth-shaking issue, but it is something by which the Government and the Bill will be remembered long after many of our other debates are forgotten.

I want the citizens of places like Ludlow and Dover to feel that they are citizens of very ancient towns, and I feel that their chief citizens should retain their own style and title, and on civic occasions be able to use the civic regalia and plate which they have acquired through gifts over centuries. I want them to be able to do this and to keep the citizens' love for their own town, and so continue to contribute something to the diversity and richness of English life to which they contribute at present. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to allay some of the fears aroused, because we have not found in the Notice Paper today an expression of the Government's intentions.

Mr. Jasper More (Ludlow)

I had thought that the Amendment might more appropriately have referred to line 18, rather than to line 27, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or to line 28 as it appears on the Notice Paper, and I hope that we shall not be at cross-purposes.

I did not have the honour of being a member of the Standing Committee which considered the Bill, and I want to express my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) for all his hard work in many causes, among them being my own cause. I think that I am right in saying that this Amendment is similar to one that my hon. Friend moved in the Standing Committee, except that it relates to boroughs such as those in my constituency which came under the Local Government Act, 1958, as is referred to in subsection (8). It is for that reason that I feel that the Amendment would start more appropriately in line 18.

Mr. Cormack

The Amendment was originally tabled in Committee in exactly the same form and referred then to line 28, but there has since been a slight change and I am advised that line 27 is correct.

Mr. More

I am grateful to my hon Friend.

We hoped, perhaps wrongly, that at this stage we should find a Government Amendment dealing with some of the matters raised in Committee, because we had had very considerate and conciliatory replies from the Ministers.

My constituency is in a somewhat anomalous position, because Shropshire and, I think, only two other counties, underwent the preliminary reorganisation brought about by the 1958 Act. I think that Cornwall was another county so affected. But the principle raised by the Amendment applies quite as much to any other borough as to the peculiar boroughs we have in these three counties, which are at present known as rural boroughs.

The purpose of the Amendment is to preserve what is the present position of a borough which has undergone, so to speak, demotion from actual borough status to parish status. We in Shropshire have been living now for some years in this position, and I believe that it is a sound rule in local government and in most other matters that what Shropshire did yesterday it is wise for England to do tomorrow. We have been living quite happily in this situation, however anomalous it may appear to the Minister, and I suggest that there are very sound reasons for maintaining it.

I have in my constituency, for example, the Rural District Council of Bridgnorth, within which we have two rural boroughs, one being the Rural Borough of Bridgnorth and the other that of Much Wenlock. Everyone understands the position. It does not seem to puzzle anyone. I do not encounter any ruffled feathers. I do not get complaints from the chairman of the Bridgnorth Rural Council saying that it is a slight on his position that there should be a mayor of Bridgnorth, because this is still a borough. I suggest that following the example of Shropshire, where we have a particular scheme, it would be sensible, to make that scheme apply to the rest of the country generally.

This scheme of things, which admittedly applies only to a limited number of rural areas, relates to the position where we have a large rural area with a number of small boroughs scattered in it. When our district council boundaries have been finally redrawn we may easily have a position in South Shropshire of having one district council containing no fewer than four of the existing boroughs. What is involved is the question of the title of the chairman, and the Amendment, so excellently moved by my hon. Friend, provides that the chairman should be called mayor.

I have had the advantage of looking at the consultative document to which the Minister referred, and in some respects I find it very puzzling. Perhaps I might refer to paragraphs 9 and 10 of that document. Paragraph 9 says that the chairman of the council will be described by that name, and it will be made clear that he shall have precedence throughout the district.

Paragraph 10 states: Within these basic statutory provisions, however, such other terms or titles may be used so as not to cause confusion. The terms 'borough' and 'borough council' must be reserved for the district level but it would be open to a parish council…to adopt any other style, e.g., town or township… Having read that, I am not clear whether the Government's object is to produce clarity or confusion. In English things I am always one for producing confusion. I do not like the Continental habit whereby everything has to be the same; whereby the mayor of Milan has the same title as the mayor of the hilltop village of San Giovanni in Fiori in Calabria and where they are both called Sindaco.

7.30 p.m.

I see no virtue in these Continental ideas of similarity—not because I happen to be against the Common Market; that has nothing to do with it—but because it is sensible to look at realities. In England the realities are that we have very long usage in these boroughs, which are borough-conscious, which seem to be doing no harm and, in Shropshire in any case, have proved that they cause no confusion. If the Government are seeking confusion, paragraph 10 will give it to them, because as I read it they will end up with some district councils that are councils, other district councils that are boroughs, some existing boroughs which are parishes, some existing boroughs which are towns, or possibly some existing boroughs which are town ships. If that is the scheme of things the Government want, I suppose it is confusion, but if we are to have confusion, I prefer the confusion we have now instead of a new confusion.

This matter becomes even stranger when one comes to paragraph 12 and looks at some of the titles that the Government have in mind. At the end of subparagraph (b) it is seriously suggested that the mayor of Ludlow might like to revert to a name used locally in earlier times, for example, bailiff, warden, portreeve or chamberlain. If we are really to try to rename all our areas and make them clear, why do we not go the whole hog? For example, we could call all the chairmen of our county councils landgraves and the chairmen of our district councils margraves. That would make it quite clear.

I should like my hon. Friend to come to the wilds of South Shropshire to see the wonderful clarity and harmony with which our present system works. Without in any way denying the needs of areas which are different, for example, areas where the larger part of a new district council consists of one borough or one urban district, I should like him to recognise the fact that different considerations apply in areas such as mine.

Having had to table some Amendments in rather a hurry, because we found that there was no Government Amendment, my hon. Friends and I are hoping to table a parallel Amendment to the one we are now discussing which will affect the rights of the district council in cases where these situations obtain with small boroughs being in their area. I hope that this will appear on the Order Paper but, irrespective of whether those Amendments are called or discussed, I appeal to my hon. Friend to look again at all this and to try to avoid what I would respectfully call the nonsense of saddling us with things like bailiffs, wardens, portreeves and chamberlains, and seriously to consider whether, in an area like mine, we could not carry on living quite happily under the scheme of things we already have.

Mr. Peter Rees (Dover)

I, too, support the Amendment. I have the privilege to represent three very ancient boroughs in my constituency, Dover, Deal and Sandwich. Two of them were Cinque Ports and the third is a limb of a Cinque Port. The particular position of the Cinque Ports is recognised by Clause 258. I would hope later to receive very specific reassurances from my hon. Friend the Minister on the future of the confederation, and, in particular, of the Barons of the Cinque Ports who, of course, play a very essential rôle in the Coronation.

The consideration of the position in my constituency leads me to support the Amendment because although it is difficult to forecast the precise form of the second-tier authority in East Kent, it will possibly have as members these three ancient boroughs.

I am in sympathy with the principles underlying the Bill. I am sure that we all hope that the simplification of the structure of local government will lead to greater efficiency and economy in its operation. But I hope that the efficient can always be reconciled with the historic and honorific.

The history of the boroughs of England and Wales is indeed a very significant part of the history of this country, and the mayors, edged around with dignity and panopoly, represent in their persons this thread in our history. I hope that it will not be necessary to cut that thread. It is unimportant that mayors may have very limited executive and legislative powers because, after all, we have the example of lords lieutenant and high sheriffs, whose effective rôle is slight but who, nevertheless, play a very important and significant part in the life of the county for which they are appointed. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister has undertaken to consult further on this point.

I have as yet studied—cursorily, I regret—the consultative document. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. More), I must express some reservations about the names suggested. "Bailiff" may have a rather unfortunate connotation in modern life. "Warden" would be distinctly confusing in my part of the world, because we already have a Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, whose principal residence is in my constituency. I hope that none the less, my hon. Friend the Minister will at a later stage table an Amendment that will cover the very important point raised by the Amendment.

It is the duty of all of us to foster local patriotism as indeed it is to foster national patriotism. After all, both of them have contributed to the enduring strength of this country.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Bodmin)

By accepting the previous Amendment the House has agreed in principle that the similar urban units, at present the non-county boroughs and urban district, as we know them, should continue to have an elected council as of right as from April, 1974. My hon. Friend the Minister termed them "successor parishes". This will be very welcome in the West Country. I see many of my right hon. and hon. colleagues from the West Country present, although I suspect that they may be here to discuss a later Amendment rather than this one. But we shall welcome it in my constituency, being largely rural.

We have not only two urban districts but also three boroughs, namely Liskeard, Saltash and Bodmin itself, all of them ancient boroughs of long-established tradition. Therefore, in providing this continuity, the House this evening, I suggest, has given the lead to my hon. Friend the Minister. I hope for some kind of assurance that the necessary Amendments will be tabled so that in those units of local government which were formerly non-county boroughs, the first citizen can retain the title of mayor, and the various dignities associated with this situation will be allowed to continue.

It is important to make the point that although these people may not have major executive powers, they provide a local community of interest. They give a meaningful expression of the aspirations and traditions of an area, indeed, they reflect the whole character of a local community.

We are all conscious that we live in an increasingly drab and grey age. In some quarters it has been called a plastic age. Anything to relieve the tedium, boredom and bureaucracy, and the sameness of our local life, is to be welcomed.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. More), I have in my constituency a rural borough, namely, Lostwithiel. A few years ago Lostwithiel ceased to be a non-county borough and became part of the St. Austell Rural District Council, but it retains its mayor and all that is associated with that office; it still has its annual mayor-choosing ceremony. The local borough—in this case a long-established one—welcomes this occasion and would continue to welcome it in the future.

I have had a brief glance at the consultative document, if it can be called such. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow spoke about the possible confusion caused by paragraphs 10 and 12. I will split my hon. Friend's average, as it were, and draw attention to paragraph 11— Traditionally the title 'mayor' has been reserved for the chairman of a borough council. The Government believe that there is widespread public desire to retain the position of mayor. They have very great sympathy with this view but, in the long-term interests of local government, are anxious to avoid the confusion and friction which could be created if the title is used at both district and parish level. Like my colleagues, I do not think that any confusion exists, nor do I think that any confusion would be created in future. We all know where we stand in relation to the chairman and the functions of the district council or the rural district council or the urban district council. I hope that the three ancient boroughs plus the rural borough that are situated in my constituency can continue to have these offices.

Finally in relation to possible future titles, in the Bodmin parliamentary division there is a gentleman known as the Portreeve of the parish of Callington. Callington ceased to be an urban district unit of local government in the early 1930s when it went into partnership with the St. Germans Rural District Council. Rather than call him the chairman of the Callington parish council, a decision was made to describe him as the Portreeve of Callington. Again, no confusion arises. I may join issue with some of my colleagues here, because, I believe, that people locally associate a title with a particular position and as long as they understand what it signifies that is all that matters, because that is what local government is all about.

Mr. Graham Page

My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) was a little selfish to begin with by trying to grasp the Amendment all to himself when in fact my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) tabled it as a far more general Amendment. It does not affect only the borough of Ludlow. It affects all boroughs. I shall address my remarks to the Amendment in more general terms than did my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow.

My hon. Friend was also a little ungracious about a consultation document, the intention of which was to put out to local authority associations all the possibilities for discussion. I presume that my hon. Friend was not in the House when I referred to this consultation document earlier and apologised to the House for not bringing before it Amendments on this subject at this stage. I thought it right to consult the local authority associations before drafting the Amendments. That is the purpose of the document and the reason the Amendments are not before the House today. I give an undertaking that Amendments will be presented by the Government in another place. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow will be a little more generous to me on other occasions.

7.45 p.m.

We have provided in the Bill for the new districts to apply for borough status, to apply for charters as boroughs. If a new district is substantially the same as an existing borough, it will continue, by recitals in the new charter, its charter status as before. The practice is not to continue a charter but to give a fresh charter reciting the previous charter rights. Many towns which say that they have had charters since the fifteenth century have had a number of charters since then but have retained charter status as boroughs. That will happen with the new districts which are substantially the same as existing boroughs.

There may be a new district which covers more than one borough, and perhaps some urban districts as well. In that case it will be for the existing boroughs to retain as many dignities as possible under their existing charters, as many dignities as are consonant with the new local government structure. Therefore, they will retain the right to have a mayor if they choose to call him such and to retain their charter being held by trustees.

The trustees of that charter may be a new parish. The small boroughs—those which we talked about on the previous Amendment—may continue with parish status and will therefore hold their charters so far as they are not inconsonant with the charter granted to the district of which they form part.

The district may comprise larger boroughs which will not qualify for the successor parish council—the council which we were discussing on the last Amendment. It is suggested in the consultation document that in those circumstances the charter be held by the representatives of the ex-borough on the district council and that they shall be the trustees of that charter.

What we cannot agree is that the existing boroughs, although retaining their charters and their mayors, should continue to call themselves boroughs. This would cause great confusion. We must in future reserve the title "borough" to the new districts which apply for charters as boroughs. One possibility is that the existing boroughs which are retaining their charters in trust should continue to call the chairmen of their parish councils, if they are successor parish councils, mayors, or if they choose—we put this forward in the consultation paper—to retain the titles which some of them at present use for their mayors.

I do not see that the recital of those titles should be any cause for ridicule such as my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow engaged in. They are titles which are at present used by many boroughs—"mayor and warden", "mayor and steward", and so on. If the boroughs choose to retain those titles, we are only too happy that they should do so. We have suggested that there should be some distinction between the mayor of the district which has applied for borough status by charter and the mayors of the ex-boroughs which are no longer local government units in the sense of being districts but which may be local government units in the sense of being parishes. Whether the name "mayor" is demoted for the smaller units and they are called "deputy mayors" or whether the mayors of districts are promoted and they are called by a title such as "chief mayor" is a matter for consultation These are the sorts of points which we raised in the consultation paper.

One of my hon. Friends said that the House may be giving me a lead in this today. Without wishing to appear conceited, I think I took the lead some time ago when I made the proposal that we should retain the title "mayor" for the ex-boroughs, and I made that proposal at a certain town which will be well known to some of those sitting behind me waiting for another Amendment—at a meeting at Weston. The suggestion followed that district mayors should be called "super-mayors". That may be the right thing, though some may say that they should be called "nightmares".

I am sure my hon. Friends will agree that it was right to consult the local authority associations and not rush into print with an Amendment. I give this undertaking and assurance that we will make known the results of these consultations and introduce the right Amendments in another place. They will, of course, come back to this House in the form of Lords Amendments in due course, to be discussed if necessary in this House.

In the course of the consideration of the Bill I happen to have enjoyed being shot at for doing things which my hon. Friends did not want me to do. However, I do resent being shot at for doing things which my hon. Friends want me to do.

Mr. Cormack

I thank my hon. Friend and assure him that he is not an Aunt Sally or a target for all our venom and animosity. We are delighted with what he has done. However, we felt that this matter should be discussed. If my hon. Friend is going to claim credit for the declaration at Weston-super-Mare, I shall claim credit for what I did at the 510th anniversary of Ludlow's charter on 17th December last when I was, I hope, instrumental in persuading him that Weston-super-Mare should have the declaration that it did. I am content to leave it at that and I shall ask leave to withdraw the Amendment in a moment.

Whereas I am delighted, as I am sure my hon. Friends are, that the consultative document does not seek to impose any title which is alien or unwanted, and that mayors will be allowed to remain mayors if they so wish, we are a little disappointed at the finality with which my hon. Friend seemed to pronounce on the title "borough". I hope he will give further consideration to this point. He is a very considerate man, though we saw him slightly in another guise this afternoon. I am sure he is ready for his dinner. I hope he will give a little more attention to this matter because the title "ancient borough" which we propose, and which I think is a logical extension of the title "rural borough" which was conjured up in 1958, might be much more acceptable to many of the communities to which we have referred than some of the other titles in the document. If this is the general consensus of opinion. I hope that my hon. Friend will bow to it.

With that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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