HC Deb 12 December 1973 vol 866 cc539-68
Mr. Speaker

Before I call on the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. David Clark) to move his Motion, I must inform the House that I have not selected the amendment which stands in the name of the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Madel).

10.2 p.m.

Mr. David Clark (Colne Valley)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Local Government (Successor Parishes) (No. 2) Order 1973 (SX, 1973, No. 1939), dated 16th November 1973, a copy of which was laid before this House on 26th November, be annulled. A number of my hon. Friends and I feel that this order is inconsistent in that the wrong decision has been taken. We are seeking to annul the order because it creates considerable injustice throughout the length and breadth of the land.

Before I develop this matter in detail, I wonder whether we can clarify one point in regard to by-elections which may be pending in urban districts or rural districts which will become successor parish councils. As I understand the order, by-elections will have to be held within a specified period after authorities have received successor parish council status. Does this mean that by-elections will have to be held on the old register in February in the depth of winter? If that is the case, this will surely cause a great deal of inconvenience. I hope that the Minister for Local Government and Development will be able to help us on this point and will be able to say that those elections can be held later in the year, perhaps until May when a number of other by-elections will have to be held.

I am in a slightly difficult position in seeking to annul this order tonight, because in some respects I am grateful for what the Minister has done. We were disappointed in June, when he published his list of successor parish councils, to see that list was so restricted. We were pleased that he saw fit to ask the Boundary Commission to look again at the situation. However, the order shows that four out of five urban districts in my constituency have been granted successor parish council status. We should like to know why the other one was omitted from the list. Therefore, it would appear that the order is inconsistent and unjust.

Let me take a specific example of the Colne Valley urban district which applied for successor parish council status. I have been carefully through the guidelines laid down by the Secretary of State for the Environment in a letter dated 22nd January 1973. It was these guidelines that had to be satisfied if successor parish status was to be granted. I shall remind the House of these five points, because I do approach this matter not from an emotional point of view but from the point of view of fact and logic.

The first point is numbered 2(a) and it relates to size. The Secretary of State gives the guidance that many towns with populations of the order of 10,000 to 20,000 as well as those below this range might well qualify. He makes the point that these are not exact figures, though he accepts that few very much over this size will be given parish council status.

When I look at the case of Colne Valley I find that, true enough, it is just over the 20,000 mark. The population is 21,170. But even that is unjust, because we have the neighbouring councils of Saddleworth, with a population of 20,680, and Holmfirth, with a population of 19,370, which is growing all the time, when the population of Colne Valley is static. Looking at the West Yorkshire area, I see Ilkley with a population of 21,990. I then look at the population of other parishes mentioned in the order, and I find towns such as Bishop's Stortford with 22,000, Harpenden with 24,000, Kendal with 21,000 and Winsford with nearly 25,000. By any standard, although Colne Valley is above the 20,000 population range it is well below others which have been given successor parish status and below at least one in the neighbouring area of West Yorkshire. Size cannot be counted as an argument against the area.

The next criterion, numbered 2(b), says that the proportion of the district has to be below a certain ratio. This ratio is 1 to 5. If the town comprises more than one-fifth of the population of the district it will not normally qualify for separate parish council status. I repeat that the population of Colne Valley is 21,170 whereas the population of Kirk Lees is 368,869. Here again the order does not cover one application where the criterion laid down by the Secretary of State has been met.

Next I come to the strongest point, the criterion numbered 2(c), which refers to the separate identity of the town. If the right hon. Gentleman has been to Colne Valley he will know the topography. It is a valley running deep into the Pennines with high hills on both sides. It leads down to Huddersfield. It is an area of chapels and chimneys and it is famous for its wool textile industry. It has a very independent historical background. It is the land of the Luddites and is very strong in its political history. It formed one of the earliest Labour parties. Tom Mann fought the seat in 1895. Victor Grayson was elected in 1907. It has an historical identity of its own and is very much separate from neighbouring towns and areas. Here again the order is not consistent.

I move, then, to the criterion numbered 2(d) which is the comparability with other districts and makes the point that it should be physically separated. I concede that this area, in two of its wards, joins up with the neighbouring town of Huddersfield. But so what? Let us consider other towns in the order. Two of them, Saddleworth and Kirkburton, are joined respectively to Oldham and Huddersfield. Once again there is a feeling of injustice about the lack of logic in the order.

I need not talk about the feeling locally. All three political parties support it. There was a unanimous feeling among the councillors whom I met last Thursday, and a petition has been sent to the Department of the Environment on this matter. Even if one accepts that the local people feel strongly about the matter, one may say that they are wrong; but one looks for even more august evidence.

Commission for England. In July 1962, in proposals for the West Yorkshire special review area, the proposal was for the amalgamation of the Colne Valley district with the Meltham Urban District.

One turns to the Local Government The Boundary Commission, which visited the area in 1962, said: Both the districts which the Commission propose in this group would comprise a number of scattered settlements in a wide rural setting, and the Commission think that it would be better if they were constituted as rural districts, which would enable each settlement to have its local parish council. That was the position in 1962. It has not changed one iota. There has been very little development in the area. We feel very strongly that the order is based on recommendations which have not been examined sufficiently. That is why we seek to move its annulment.

But that is not the whole story. The Minister, who knows the area, obviously got hold of the wrong end of the stick. He clearly felt so sure about it that on 26th November he wrote to me as follows: As you probably know, we have been considering the Local Government Boundary Commission's further recommendations for the constitution of successor parishes from small existing boroughs and urban districts. You will be glad to know that he Commission has recommended that Colne Valley, about which I know you are concerned, should be a parish. Here we had the Minister accepting the logic and fairness of the position before the order is published, and he was writing to me saying that we should have parish council status. Yet on the same day he was publishing the order which we are seeking to annul, which does not include it.

I plead with the Minister on this matter. He has fallen into the trap. He has written and signed the letter. He is an honourable man and would want to stand by his word. He told me that we were to have parish council status. We feel very strongly that he should honour his pledge given in that letter of 26th November.

We seek to annul the order because it is unfair. I have taken just one specific example to show how unfair it is. It is unjust. That is why a number of my hon. Friends and myself will press our objections to it.

Several hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. Quite a number of hon. Members wish to speak on the order. I hope, therefore, that those who catch my eye will make reasonably short speeches.

10.12 p.m.

Mr. Joseph Hiley (Pudsey)

The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. David Clark) succeeded in getting successor status for four out of five of his local authorities. My score was nought out of three. Much as I should like to respond to your suggestion, Mr. Speaker, that we should be brief, I suppose that I ought to be entitled to about half an hour in order to attempt to convince my right hon. Friend the Minister that justice has not been done to my part of the world.

It is inevitable that those concerned closely with local authorities and who have failed in this matter should be disappointed with the results. I have three particularly forward-looking local authorities, and I share their disappointment that they—all of them—have been passed over. I do not deny for one moment that this is largely a question of prestige. It enters into the consideration of most people and particularly those who have served on local authorities for a long time. But in this day and age of lowering standards, surely it would be a good thing for us to encourage those local authorities which tend to set their sights higher than is probably the general tendency.

Many fear that the reorganisation scheme will diminish interest in local affairs, and I share that view. But if we could persuade the Minister to look again at some of his decisions and to encourage greater interest in local affairs, we might redress the balance to some extent.

Tonight in the borough of Pudsey, two long-standing members of the council have been honoured by having the freedom of Pudsey conferred upon them. Is that sort of ceremony to stop? All men and women should be encouraged to take a greater interest in their local affairs, but I fear that by denying us successor status this reorganisation scheme will make that more difficult in districts such as mine. I want to ask my right hon. Friend whether he can suggest any steps which might be taken to retain or increase the interest in local affairs and in the traditions of local authorities, which many people have served for so long.

I believe that public funds should be provided to encourage voluntary bodies within local authorities to do something to maintain their traditions. This is tremendously important. While I am not prepared to follow the hon. Member for Colne Valley in what he said, because I realise that one of the greatest difficulties of Members of Parliament is to persuade constituents that there must be a dividing line somewhere, although it may not always be applied with scrupulous fairness, I would urge my right hon. Friend to consider doing what he can to maintain the traditions of local authorities.

10.16 p.m.

Mr. David Ginsburg (Dewsbury)

I wish to support the general line of argument which has been developed by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. David Clark). I shall not go into generalities, because my hon. Friend has covered the points and the Minister is familiar with them.

I have been asked to put in a good word on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), who cannot be with us this evening. He is involved within his constituency with the urban district councils of Elland and Sowerby, which have been left out of the order which the Minister has made and to which the arguments which my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley has deployed also apply.

I wish to press the case of one local government unit in my constituency—the municipal borough of Ossett—with which some of my colleagues are familiar, which has inexplicably been left out of the order which we are considering. The Minister knows the area and was helpful to it not very long ago. It has a strong sense of local identity and has always opted for the maximum degree of independence within our local government structure. It is on record that Ossett put in its plea for parish council status early on, has reiterated it over the months, and has made continuing representations to the Minister. It wrote to him this week, following a council meeting at which all the political parties viewed his decision with dismay.

I want to make a suggestion to the Minister which he may seriously go along with. It is a comparatively late hour and there are not many Members here, which means that some of the pressure has been relieved. I should have thought there was an argument, in equity, that those Members who have come here, and whose areas are still sufficiently keen to preserve their parish council status, should receive further consideration from the Minister. If the Minister cannot give us an assurance tonight, perhaps he will put our legitimate grievances to the Boundary Commission for further examination in the light of the points that have been made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley has listed the criteria, Ossett meets the population criteria, the size criteria, the tradition criteria, and so on. It is important to remember that Ossett is separated by green belt from Dewsbury, which I represent, and Wakefield, the two neighbouring towns.

That is one reason for the Minister having had a big problem in determining its future. Even though Ossett has close links with Horbury, the links are of a social rather than of an immediately physical kind. I mention that because in the Local Government Boundary Commission Report a special point is made about the continuous built-up area being a disqualifying criterion within the metropolitan districts. It is my understanding that Ossett meets all the criteria on the Minister's list apart, possibly, from that criterion.

I have looked at the matter carefully. I have the map of the town and I know that Ossett is separated from Wakefield and, of course, from Horbury by the green belt. All that is left is about 300 yards of open country. I should have thought that that in itself was powerful enough ammunition for the Minister to refer the matter back.

There is another important consideration on which the Local Government Boundary Commission did not do its homework properly. The Minister must remember that when he initially announced the ward boundaries in the new local government set-up he deliberately put the west ward of Ossett into Horbury. However, he subsequently had second thoughts. Horbury wanted to be alone and away from Ossett. The Minister put the west ward of Ossett back where it belonged. Thereby the Minister has underlined and given recognition to the separate identity of the area.

Having examined everything carefully and being satisfied that the case is a strong one, I must ask the Minister whether the Local Government Boundary Commission has been to Ossett and Horbury and whether it has looked at the situation again. Although it is regrettable that Horbury abuts on to Wakefield and therefore does not qualify according to the Minister's rules, Ossett, which I happen to represent, meets those rules. I ask the Minister to think again and to give Ossett that for which it is asking. Perhaps he will consider the areas to which other hon. Members will be referring and give them that for which they are asking.

10.23 p.m.

Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South)

Although my amendment was not selected for debate, what I have to say about Dunstable is relevant to the general debate. As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Ginsburg), the Local Government Boundary Commission is sitting permanently. What we say here tonight we hope will be considered and referred to it by the Minister.

The reasons which I put forward for Dunstable having successor parish status are simple. First, I can give historical reasons. Dunstable has been a continuously occupied settlement since Roman times. It was granted a Royal Charter conferring status as an independent market town in the twelfth century, which status was reaffirmed by another charter in the 13th century. The town became a chartered municipal borough in 1864, and despite the coming of large-scale industry, which is now vital to British exports, Dunstable remains a small self-contained community. The people of Dunstable have for centuries enjoyed a direct voice in the town's affairs at administrative level. That is a powerful historical reason which should enable it to be given successor parish status.

Many of the present parishes in England, which will continue to have parish councils, are planning to expand to population levels far higher than the figure in the guide lines. Similarly, many of the present parishes, as well as boroughs and urban districts which have now qualified for successor parish status, are expanding. They will have populations well in excess of 20,000 in a comparatively short time. As my right hon. Friend knows, the comparison which I make in my own area is with the parish of Houghton Regis and the urban district of Leighton-Linslade, the populations of both of which are at present behind Dunstable but which may shoot up above. Dunstable itself now has a population of 32,000 and has now built itself up to its boundaries. It cannot expand any more, and the prediction is that it has a virtually static population.

What I have just said can be linked to what the Minister said during the Report stage of the Local Government Bill on 17th April 1972: I do not want to put any figures in the guidelines to the Boundary Commission. I merely wish to describe the sort of town we have in mind. I referred to 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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th April, 1972; Vol. 835, c. 101.] That is another powerful reason—the general character of the town—which I had hoped the Boundary Commission would consider, and give Dunstable successor parish status in its Fifth Report.

I come now to two important planning reasons which back up my case for Dunstable to be granted successor parish status. A parish council may request a district planning authority to send it details of all applications for planning permission which fall within the parish council's area, including details of the proposed development and the land to which the application relates.

Second, the Local Government Act 1972 stipulates that in any development order made by the Minister—that is, an order made under the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 which either itself grants planning permission or states how permission is to be granted—such order must provide machinery for the protection of parish councils' views. This protection takes the form of allowing parish councils to make representations to the local planning authority, which representations must be taken into account; and furthermore the district planning authority must inform the parish councils of all decisions made under development orders by either themselves or the county planning authority.

In view of the correspondence which I have had with the Minister, he is now familiar with the problems of the South Bedfordshire area. The fact that Leighton-Linslade has successor parish status adds weight to the need for Dunstable to have successor parish status. We are dealing with bigger district councils and bigger local authorities under the local government reorganisation. In my view, that makes it even more important that one should have parish councils which can make known the views of their area to the district council, especially in relation to the two planning matters which I have mentioned.

I hope, therefore, that my right hon. Friend will reconsider this matter and put it to the Local Government Boundary Commission, for there never was a time in South Bedfordshire when Dunstable more needed its voice to be heard as a separate unit, and this can be done only by giving it successor parish status.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

Only a week ago, I followed the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Madel) in the debate, and I agreed with some of the things he said then. I agree again now, and I hope that his request will be favourably received.

When the Local Government Bill was first produced and debated, it seemed to most of us representing county areas in metropolitan districts that there was a threat to the grass-roots activity of many of our villages and small towns. I was relieved when the Government decided to accept that parish councils in metropolitan areas could survive. One of the reasons for their decision was that they listened to the representations which they received from bodies such as the Yorkshire Parish Councils Association, which advised its constituent parishes on the efforts which they should make to bring about the necessary pressure. I am glad that that pressure was successful, but I am disappointed that the pressure exerted on behalf of so many urban districts has not been equally acceptable.

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, when winding up the debate on the Bill in the other place, was perfectly right when he said that Parliament would neglect the local councils at its peril. I believe that the Government have done just that in respect of many local authorities at this time.

In many cases, parish councils are not particularly vigorous bodies, but many of them prove their value by the way in which social opportunity and protective welfare arrangements are provided for. I have 23 parish councils in my constituency, all of them free standing, all of them surviving, and the best of them are doing superb voluntary work. However, in addition to the 23 successor parishes which exist as of right, there are two urban districts in my constituency, and it is the future social health and vigour of those areas which worries me now. According to this and the previous order, neither of these two urban districts will have successor parish status. I have supported the application of both these district councils because I believe they fit the Minister's criteria completely.

Neither contains anything like the specified maximum of one-fifth of the metropolitan district population and both have populations of between 10,000 and 20,000. Both are clearly identifiable communities and are largely free standing. Their boundaries are overwhelmingly either green belt or industrial areas. When the first order, which disappointed so many of the districts in South Yorkshire, appeared, a number of my hon. Friends and I tabled a Prayer but the old Session ended without that Prayer being debated. I recall that on 24th October when the last Prayer should have been debated several hon. Members were in their places to express their views but the Liberals were not among those present. However, a few days later the Liberal Party tabled another motion of their own.

As the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Hiley) suggested, this is not necessarily a matter for party posturing. But it is a matter which deserves most careful consideration and particularly since the Minister's replies to letters seem to be remarkably flimsy and reprehensibly inaccurate. T was informed that there were relatively few free-standing towns in metropolitan districts, although I have 27 parishes within one metropolitan district in my constituency. Most of my parishes are free-standing, separate communities, entitled to their successor status, and so are the two urban districts which are disappointed. In one case part of an urban district forms an electoral ward with two parishes, and the two parishes have successor council status. But the ward of the urban district does not, and that is an absurd illogicality.

Before entering the House I served on a South Yorkshire urban district council for 10 years. It will not acquire successor status at least for a considerable time. While there I became well aware of the value and social worth of organisations such as that. They may be imperfect but they fulfil a real rôle and serve an essential purpose in local society. Rawmarsh in my constituency is very much an industrial community dominated by steel and coal. It is sometimes said to be dirty, since much industrial pollution—often originating outside the district—still has to be overcome.

However the community is one of generous heart and good nature. It is very much involved in welfare activity. Local public houses and clubs are proud of their considerable charitable achievements. The Clarence Inn raises substantial sums for the handicapped. The Crown Inn and the Tavern do the same for the hospitals, and so on. The urban district council applauds and supports these activities and is heavily involved in them. The council has a network of outside bodies on which it is represented. These include the Aid in Sickness Funds, The Goodwins Charity, the old people's centre, the Thomas Wilson foundation and the Aged Persons' Welfare Committee.

Every year hundreds of old-age pensioners go to the seaside. This year the number was 1,300. They were led by the chairman of the council, Councillor Ted Durnan. The trip is a result of the work of the organisations encouraged by and based on the work of the urban council. That may seem parochial, but it illustrates the vast social work which the local authorities can contribute and which has very little to do with their statutory functions, which they are perhaps not best designed to fulfil.

But it is not only statutory functions which those who are interested in local government are concerned about. This sort of social activity is facing a very serious threat. Some may say that the neighbourliness of the small town is evidence of meddlesome interference, parochial gossip and so on. But I remind the House that in small towns like those I represent people do not usually the in the loneliness of the city, they are not discovered having lain dead in their flats for a fortnight. Any step which transfers the city's problems to the small towns of the industrial areas of the North would be very unwise.

One's argument is strengthened by the additions to the arrangements which the second order provides. It seems ridiculous that only two or three councils in the metropolitan county of South Yorkshire will have successor status and now a larger number in West Yorkshire, although geographically and socially the areas seem similar. It is ridiculous that Rawmarsh, with a population of 19,000, should be refused, when places such as Holmfirth, Ilkley and Kirkburton, with similar or greater populations, have been approved.

There is a particularly glaring example in my other urban district, Maltby, where my remarks about social activity in Raw-marsh apply equally well. It is very close to the urban district of Tickhill, but Tickhill is only half the size of the recommended minimum that the Minister suggested. Like Maltby, Tickhill is entirely free standing, but it is not so suitable as Maltby, since it may not be so closely-knit a community and Maltby has not undergone the same social and population changes as Tickhill in the last two or three years.

Maltby remains a coalfield town. It has an excellent, sensible urban district council, which is so well regarded that the elected leader of the metropolitan district council has been selected from Maltby, which consists of only 6 per cent. of the metropolitan district population. But Maltby is different from Tickhill, in that it is a strong Labour community, while Tickhill now has its first Labour councillor for a very long time. There is some suspicion in South Yorkshire that there has been a certain amount of party political manipulation in the allocation of successor council status. This is regrettable, because this is not an ideal subject for party political posturing, but it is serious.

I hope that some arrangement will be made which will satisfy the urban districts of South Yorkshire, which have been so badly disappointed. I have even heard a sermon preached in one of our churches in which the vicar made very sincere reference to the inadequacies of the present proposals. I am concerned because I believe that we are in danger of losing something valuable.

I should like to illustrate this by further evidence from Rawmarsh. Every year in Rawmarsh there is a civic Sunday, attended not only by councillors and officials but by representatives of varied local organisations. Afterwards, everyone marches to the council chamber, which is usually packed. There, whoever wishes to speak rises and generally offers good wishes to the council and then gives a report on the activities of his organisation during the previous year. It is sad that that event may not be held in future, sad because—perhaps I am biased—it will be disadvantageous to the many different bodies represented at that important local occasion.

I often question the wholesomeness of people engaged in the fashionable interpretation of community politics. I am concerned, as are the people in my constituency who are worried about this development, about serious community politics. We are not talking about people who are here today and gone tomorrow if the headlines and publicity have not been large enough, who appear only during an election campaign and for very little time afterwards. We are concerned about people who have been serving the community for many years and who I hope will be serving it in vigour and wisdom for a great deal longer. That capacity for the community to help itself will be eroded if the Minister does not take another look at this situation. I therefore hope that the order will not be his final word.

10.39 p.m.

Mr. David Knox (Leek)

So far, hon. Members have tended to complain about omissions from the list of successor parish councils. I would like to express reservations about one inclusion. I refer to Kidsgrove in my constituency, in the county of Staffordshire. In many respects, I welcome its inclusion on the list. Like the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy), I place a great deal of importance on community spirit. I think it is important that people should have loyalties to local communities, and clearly successor parish councils will play a part in this respect, in a way, I suggest, that the new district councils will not be able to do because they are much too large.

I believe that community spirit is very important. I believe that loyalty to institutions is important and that the smaller the institution the easier it is for people to express loyalty to it. In this respect, therefore, I welcome the successor parish council status which has been granted to Kidsgrove. On the other hand, there are two reasons why I am not so happy about it.

I have mentioned the importance of smallness in this context—smallness of institutions—which enables people to express their loyalty more readily and easily. Kidsgrove is already a group of communities. There are within the area at present covered by the Kidsgrove Urban District Council a number of areas which could easily have had parish councils themselves. For example, New-chapel, Talke and what is locally considered to be Kidsgrove itself, could have had that status. They are smaller and so it would have been better if each had had a parish council. Apart from anything else, they would not have pushed up, as Kidsgrove UDC area does, against the upper population limit prescribed by the Act.

My second reason for reservations is that the representations made to me have been five to one against the granting of successor parish council status to Kidsgrove. I forwarded these representations to the Boundary Commission and then to the Secretary of State after the Commission reported. I suspect that these fairly strong expressions of local opinion were not so much as a matter of principle but more as a reflection of fact that in the last 12 to 18 months there has been a political change in Kidsgrove.

The urban district council which was elected in 1970, 1971 and 1972 consisted of 23 members—22 Labour and one independent. There have been four resignations since, so the present state of play is 18 Labour and one independent. In the past 18 months the council in Kidsgrove has become extremely unpopular.

It has behaved in an arrogant manner. It has been insensitive to public opinion. It has been dictatorial. It has pushed through plans against the wishes of the electors in Kidsgrove. The result of this was that in the district council elections last June, the area covered by the present UDC, which now falls in the new Newcastle-under-Lyme District Council, elected 10 independent councillors and two Labour. So, against the political tide at the time, there was a strong swing against those elected in 1970, 1971 and 1972.

I think, therefore, that it is rather unfortunate that the successor parish council which has been created will consist of those people who were elected in 1970, 1971 and 1972, who have become extremely unpopular in the locality in the meantime.

I would ask my right hon. Friend to think again about whether those who were elected in those years should act as successor parish councillors until the elections in 1976. I ask him to think again about whether elections should not take place for the successor parish council rather sooner than that.

It is important that these successor parish councils should work. The one in Kidsgrove, in particular, may experience great difficulty in working satisfactorily, because the people sitting on it are extremely unpopular locally.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

The successor councils are an important and welcome modification to the Government's reorganisation plans. I do not think they will have cause to regret that they modified their approach. Successor councils will make the new system more workable, particularly in the large districts. The "hole in the blanket situation" as it is often described—whereby one place has no council of its own in a large district other parts of which have parish councils—is unfortunate. It is a pity that it will remain in some areas.

I fear that the Government are reluctant converts to successor councils. This is illustrated by the fears people have over the question of property. I hope that when the Minister comes, later, to discuss the property problem, he will be able to say that successor councils will be in a strong position rather than a weak position in relation to the districts when it comes to handing over the property of the present urban districts. The cautiousness of the guidelines further illustrates how uncertain the Government seem to have been. The shutting of the "Pearly Gates" this evening again illustrates that they may be less than keen to see successor councils in many places. None of us wants to imperil the Barn-staples and Denby Dales—the lucky ones who have got through—but most hon. Members have particular places in mind. Throughout the country there are places which will be disappointed tonight if the right hon. Gentleman cannot give us some assurances. My hon. Friends have received letters from places like Barrow Ford in Lancashire and Tonbridge in Kent.

I am surprised at the attitude of the Boundary Commission. In its Report No. 5 it says: we have reached the limit to what we feel can properly be regarded as the exceptional treatment of the criteria in the existing guidelines. It is following closely the Minister's guidelines. If we look at what the same Commission says in Report No. 6, it has a different attitude to guidelines. It says: We recall that the guidelines issued to us for our operation on formulating proposals for the non-metropolitan districts …. included …an indication that: 'once the new authorities have taken over, the Commission will be invited to carry out a thorough review of proposals for detailed adjustments of boundaries, including those of the counties and metropolitan districts'…Given the constraints outlined in this Report, we see no prospects of entering into a programme of main reviews until the electoral operation has been completed. Hon. Members can see that those guidelines have been completely overturned. The Boundary Commission has turned to the Minister and said, "Sorry, the guidelines you gave us on this subject are not acceptable." In the light of that it could take a much wider and more generous view of some of the guidelines it had been working on in the course of this review.

There are passages in Report No. 6 which bring tears to the eyes. There is a suggestion that the Commissioners are unable to carry on their present work and the programme of reviews which they originally intended to carry out. If there is a need for more staff I hope that the Minister will note that. If there is a need for more Commissioners I am sure hon. Members can suggest the names of people who will take on this work with which the Commission seems unable to cope, especially when those places which were on the borderline for this review of successor councils were not visited by a Commissioner and in many cases do not seem to have been visited by any official from the Commission. It may be that the Commissioners had to take short cuts and do everything from their attic in Church House. They say: We must organise the operation to secure that …the decisions in each case are so taken as to ensure that they carry our personal authority, as we are collectively responsible for them". If the Commissoners are to do things in such detail they cannot complain that they have too much work. If the guidelines had been wider and the Government had been ready to accept successor councils on a wider scale, the task would have been easier and the number of detailed cases the Commissioners had to examine much smaller. Here is a case where the more radical view would have been less burdensome to carry out.

The extension of the parish council system to urban areas was long overdue. The opportunities to provide local amenities, to represent local feelings and to serve as a watchdog in areas such as planning is just as important in the small towns as in the villages. It is just as important in the "village" areas of our cities where neighbourhood councils could help protect the environment and strengthen community spirit. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Tope) is to introduce a Bill seeking to extend the parish council concept to London—the London Parish Councils Bill.

There is also a number of councils which did not exercise the option to apply to become successor councils. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will remember that, if the gates are shut tonight, within the next few years some councils which did not choose to apply to become successor councils under the present guidelines will realise what they are missing. They will realise that opportunities are open to other places within their areas that are not open to them and will themselves want to become successor councils. A change in the pattern in the area reflecting different views from those now represented on the council will lead to areas wanting to become successor councils. I feel strongly that the Government should take a much wider view.

10.50 p.m.

Mr. David Mitchell (Basingstoke)

I speak on behalf of the Borough of Andover in Hampshire and at the request of the borough. The borough was granted its Charter in 1175 by Henry II and received an amended Charter under King John which was confirmed under the Great Charter of Elizabeth I. Andover was created a municipal corporation in 1935. It has thus had no less than 800 years of unbroken civic local government—a tradition of the highest order.

When local government reform was announced it was welcomed in the area because it was expected that Andover would become the centre of the new district council taking in the borough of Andover, the rural district of Andover and part of the rural district of Kingsclere and Whitchurch. There was great disappointment when it was found that Andover was not big enough to take on that rôle and the area became instead part of the Test Valley authority.

Under the Act parish councils are continued and are given increased powers. The Government are right to recognise the need for parishes. Parishes have a duty to act as focal points for protecting local interests, maintaining local traditions and providing leadership in a distinctive local community. But the Government do not allow the establishment of a town as a successor parish council if that town dominates the new district council, leading to duplication of representation and the danger of two councils covering the same area pulling in opposite directions. The Government have defined "dominance" as 20 per cent. of the district council or 20,000 people.

Andover does not fit the criteria because its population is 27,000, but it is not in a position of dominance. Only 13 out of 43 councillors on the new district council represent Andover. It is not a council within a council, and there is no duplication. It is part of a district council that has its headquarters in Romsey, 8 miles away. Romsey has its successor parish council, and every other parish in l he whole of the new Test Valley authority except Andover will have its successor parish.

Far from being dominant, Andover is not even the centre of the new district council. It is stuck away 8 miles to the north of Romsey. It has distinctive local problems—parking, open space and playing field problems—and it needs a focal point to protect local interests. It has an immense local tradition and it needs local leadership. Andover's need for successor parish council status is exacerbated by its being a London overspill town. It is an attractive, country, market town which has had grafted on to it a series of estates which, by taking people from London, are helping to alleviate London's desperate housing plight. This means that there is an even greater need for successor parish council status. Unlike anywhere else in the district council, of which it is part, Andover has the unique problems that flow from taking a vast number of new people into its area, with all the peculiarities and problems of town centre redevelopment and things of that nature to consider. I feel very strongly that this is a case where the Boundary Commission should have been more flexible and should have been given successor parish council status.

I realise that if I vote against the order tonight it will mean denying to some other parishes the right to secure their successor parish council status. Therefore, although I cannot support my hon. Friends in the Division Lobby, I shall abstain from voting. I feel that an area with 800 years of unbroken civic tradition, an area with growing local problems of overspill, should not be denied successor parish council status.

10.56 p.m.

Mr. Joseph Harper (Pontefract)

This motion gives us all the opportunity to say something about the local authorities in our constituencies and to ask why they have not been granted successor parish council status.

I have three authorities in my constituency, one of which has been granted successor parish council status. I refer to the Urban District Council of Feather-stone. The two authorities that have not been granted such status are the Borough of Castleford and the Borough of Pontefract.

There are five guidelines set down by the Boundary Commission which have to be complied with before successor parish council status is designated. It is not clear whether one or more of those criteria must be satisfied to obtain successor parish council status.

The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. David Clark) said he had an authority with a population of 19,000 which has been refused successor parish council status. Yet authorities such as Ilkley, with 22,000 population, Harpenden with over 24,000 population and Winsford with 25,000 population have been granted that status. There are inconsistencies of treatment involved in these orders which the Minister should clear up in his reply.

It is not clear how the guidelines operate because, for example, Feather-stone has been granted successor parish council status but Pontefract and Castle-ford have not yet they comply with four of the five guidelines. The only guideline with which they do not comply is that they should have a population of between 10,000 and 20,000. But even that guideline has been proved to be incorrect since two of my local authorities which have not received this status have populations of 24,000 and 25,000.

One of the other guidelines lays down that an authority should have less than one-fifth of the total population of a new district. The population of the new West Yorkshire district, at a conservative estimate is about 300,000. That gives a figure of 60,000 each. Castleford and Pontefract have populations of less than that figure: Protefract has a population of half that figure and Castleford has no more than 39,000.

One of the other guidelines relates to historic and common interests. Well, no town has more history than Pontefract. It has a famous castle and it is the place where the first ballot ever took place—indeed, they still have the original ballot box. There is plenty of history in that area. Castleford was the site of a Roman encampment, and we do not need to go back much further than that. Therefore, so far, we comply with two of the criteria laid down. There is certainly a separate identity. Do local people want it? Certainly, because they have sent petitions to the Minister.

Two of the three authorities have complied with four of the five guidelines. The other complies with all five and I am pleased to say that it has been granted successor parish status. I agree with the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Hiley) who has vast experience in local authority work. I remember hearing of him when he was Lord Mayor of Leeds and I agree with him that we have to keep some interest in local government.

When we reorganised local government we effectively took the "local" out of it so that it was not local any more. We now have to allow for neighbourhood or community councils or successor parish councils—which we are debating tonight—in order to recreate the local interest which we shall otherwise be removing next April.

I hope that the Minister will reply to all these points. I may seem to have jumped the gun because I know that Pontefract and Castleford have not taken kindly to being left out of successor parish status when one of the three authorities in my constituency has got it.

11.2 p.m.

Mr. Edwin Wainwright (Dearne Valley)

There are six urban districts in my constituency and each wants this status. For years they have looked after their own affairs and they have suddenly realised that all the power they had before has been taken from them. One of them, Conisborough, has one of the oldest castles in Yorkshire and there they have always dominated local affairs.

Mexborough is a large authority with 17,000 to 18,000 people and they also have always looked after their own affairs, as have Wath-upon-Dearne people and those at Wombwell, which is an old-established community. Darfield is a very small community, separated from any other, a marvellous community which wants autonomy.

Now Conisborough and Mexborough have gone into Doncaster; Swinton and Wath-upon-Dearne into Rotherham, and Wombwell and Darfield into Barnsley. They are wondering what will happen to their communities. Each is a self-contained area. Who is to guarantee the interests of the people of these areas on the fringes of the district councils who will look after them? Each has for generations looked after its own community and its own people. Unfortunately, they are doubtful about what is to happen to them. Who can guarantee that Barnsley, Rotherham or Doncaster will look after them? They are people living in their own little communities which they have built up. Can we be sure that the three district councils will look after them?

It is said in Documents 3 and 5 that the Government intend to see what happens, but these people are deeply worried, and to say that is to make no criticism of the authorities. It is all very well for the Government to say that they will wait and see what happens. For my own part, I can assure the Minister that unless the three district councils look after them, I shall fight very hard to see that they are looked after. Each on its own——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

Order. The hon. Gentleman perhaps does not realise that it has been agreed that the two Front Bench spokesmen should share the remaining 25 minutes. I was taken a little by surprise when the hon. Gentleman rose. Naturally I called him. I cannot ask him to resume his seat, of course, but I think that the House would like to hear from the two Front Benches as soon as possible.

Mr. Wainwright

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall watch the position very keenly to make sure that the citizens of my area are looked after and catered for properly.

11.8 p.m.

Mr. Gordon Oakes (Widnes)

One feeling has united both sides of the House and all three parties in this debate. It is a feeling of extreme injustice to many authorities, some of them very old ones and others not quite so old, but all of them with a keen community spirit, which have made application for successor parish council status.

As a result of the traumatic experience of the Local Government Act 1972, the whole of local government is still in a state of confusion. In addition, we have had the taking away of water and the removal of a number of health service responsibilities from local government. If that is not enough, we have proposals before us at present concerned with rating for local government which create complete confusion.

During the passage of the Local Government Bill, the one theme that we had from the Government which all hon. Members appreciated was the assurance that the smallest part of local government—the parish council—was left alone to carry on as before doing a very useful job. Even better, in respect of existing local authorities, the Government created, admittedly at a later stage, the concept of the successor parish council, subject to certain criteria, where there was considered to be a local demand and a local need. The Opposition applauded that action by the Government, as did most hon. Members. What have we had since then? First, the order is entitled "The Local Government (Successor Parishes) (No. 2) Order 1973 ". That alone is remarkable. We had a No. 1 order containing a comprehensive list of successor parish councils which one would have thought that the Government, having got together with the Local Government Boundary Commission in looking at that list, would have decided would be the list. But no, we now have a No. 2 order, in which more successor parishes are added.

We shall not divide the House because to divide the House and win would be to deprive some areas of successor parish status. That is the last thing that we would want to do. But we echo the sentiments of hon. Members who have spoken very feelingly and cogently about some of the local authorities in their areas.

When we consider the successor parishes and think of these authorities, we must think of them as existing parish councils. Therefore, the argument about dominance which we hear from the Government is a somewhat——

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I have never spoken about dominance. One of my hon. Friends used the word, but I do not find it anywhere in the guidelines.

Mr. Oakes

I have heard the word used—not meaning domination from the Government but dominance of one authority because of its spread over another.

Mr. Page


Mr. Oakes

One hon. Gentleman has used that argument. I want to dispel that argument because we are dealing not with an authority which will carry on but with an authority which will carry on in a very different way as a parish. It is not merely a question of the statutory duties of that parish; it is the collective voice of the parish.

Hon. Members will probably agree that at present communication between individuals, communities, local authorities or the Government is very difficult to achieve. That is why we get ad hoc groups lying in the road without consulting anyone in an attempt to stop traffic, because they do not know to whom to turn. One of the advantages of successor parishes or existing parish councils is that they are elected, organised voices of communities. They can represent a community's views to the district council, the county council and to the House if necessary, as an elected, organised voice.

The people who have applied for successor parish status and have not got it feel that they have been unjustly treated. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract (Mr. Harper) mentioned Pontefract, Featherstone and Castleford. Featherstone has got successor parish status; Castleford has not. Coming from another Rugby League town, Widnes, I understand how Castleford must feel. Why on earth has Castleford not been given successor parish status? The two towns have very separate identities and communities, as they prove when playing each other in a derby match.

There is much confusion as to when elections will be held. A Bill which is at present passing through the House relates to two parishes in Surrey and Sussex. The Government have rightly said that as they are creating a new organisation there they will have new elections because of that. Will there be new elections in these successor parishes, which are very different from the bodies which they previously were when elected as urban districts or as boroughs, or something like that. They are totally different, with different powers in every sphere.

Finally, can the right hon. Gentleman deal with the very vexed question of property? Hon. Members will have had a considerable volume of correspondence, particularly from an Essex area, on this matter and there is some confusion. There is not much confusion among those authorities which are going into the new districts, but there is confusion among those authorities which will remain as successor parishes, about which of their treasures will remain and which will have to be passed on to the district councils.

One of my hon. Friends reminded us that in another place it was said that the Government would neglect local councils at their peril, and this debate proves that that is so. Local pride counts for something. Local successor parish councils can be a voice within the new districts, and can help to express to the district councils and the county councils the collective view of the districts. I would echo what many of my hon. Friends have said.

We have had a No. 1 Order and now we have a No. 2 Order. On behalf of those hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House, who have stayed up late tonight to tell us forcibly about the representations they have had from their constituencies, I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to say that it is not too late even now to have a No. 3 Order, so that some of those successor parishes who wish for parish council status can continue to exist as separate entities and can serve their communities in a useful way.

11.17 p.m.

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

The hon. Gentleman knows that I have very great respect for his arguments, but I feel tonight that the argument which he has used is so far from the facts that it has not contributed much to this debate. Anyone would think from the tone of his argument that the Government were destroying parish councils. In the course of reorganisation, the Government have retained some 10,000 parishes which have some 7,000 parish councils; and a total of 407 applications were made for successor parish status, of which 296 have been admitted to that status. I utterly deny the statement by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), that the Government seem less than keen on successor parish councils. The whole object of the submission of the applications to the Boundary Commission was to get an independent decision on these according to guidelines made well-known, and we have accepted the recommendations of the Boundary Commission because we think that it applied those guidelines fairly and reasonably.

May I first answer the point about elections and by-elections? As regards new elections for the successor parishes, it would be wrong to break the continuity. The whole point of setting up successor parishes was to give continuity to the existing small boroughs and small urban districts. To plunge them into new elections at an early date would be wrong. As regards by-elections—which point was raised by the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. David Clark)—the 1933 Act provides that there must be a by-election held within 30 days of the declaration of a vacancy. As he pointed out, in the present order we have put the date of 17th December in place of the declaration of a vacancy so that a by-election will have to be held within 30 days of that. It would have been wrong for us to hold up these by-elections any longer; they ought to be held at the earliest possible date. I suppose there would have been objections if we had held them after the new register comes into force. We might have been told that we had not given enough time for the study of the register. I felt that it was right to have them as soon as we could.

I come now to the embarrassing matter which was raised by the hon. Member for Colne Valley when he quoted a letter which I had written to him in which, unfortunately, the names of two sets of parishes were transposed. It is true that I told him that Colne Valley had successor parish status. However, in the very next sentence I said that the other four in his area, Denby Dale, Holm-firth, Saddleworth and Melton, had not got successor parish status. If he wishes to hold me to the one, I do not know whether he would hold me to the other four and say that they have not got parish status.

Fortunately, my office noticed the error and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, on the following day, I think it was, spoke to him and apologised for that sad error. It is always the letter which one signs in a hurry which has the dynamite in it. I sincerely apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I must add that he scores out of it in having four given successor parish status as against the one which was refused.

May I now give the background to the successor parish concept. Before local government reorganisation, all rural districts were divided, as the House knows, into parishes. The populations of these parishes ranged between 200 and 20,000. Reorganisation left those parishes in rural districts untouched. It was evident that there were being merged into larger districts, small boroughs and small urban districts of exactly the same character as most of the rural parishes. There was really no logic in having parishes in areas which happened historically to have been rural districts and denying the same sort of parish status to areas within the new districts which just happened to have been in urban districts before reorganisation. But in the midst of local government reorganisation, we could not set up a massive new boundary scheme for creating new parishes, or new areas as parishes, if I may so put it. It was just not possible. We could deal only with existing units with boundaries which were already there. Therefore, we laid down guidelines for the Boundary Commission on the basis of asking it to find the areas which already had local government boundaries and which corresponded as nearly as possible to the existing parishes in character. It seemed to us right that these small towns should continue to have a local council, and that the aim should be to achieve continuity at the most local level of representative government.

One of the guidelines which I have always regarded as most important is 2(b), to the effect that the proportion of the district population comprised in the town under consideration should not be such that the town, if it were given separate local government status, would have a divisive voice in local government. If the area will have a sufficient voice within the new district, it should not be given a separate local government status, at least under this present exercise.

That is the reason why, in a number of cases, areas of considerable importance—sometimes of the greatest historical importance, as hon. Members have said—will have a strong voice in the new district. I take the example of Andover, in the district represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. David Mitchell). Andover has 32 per cent. representation in the new district. My hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Madel) referred to Dunstable. In fact, Dunstable has a 38 per cent. influence in the new district.

Mr. Hardy

Of the four urban districts in the Rotherham Metropolitan District, three have 6 per cent. and one has 8 per cent. of the metropolitan district population. The largest parish in my constituency with a successor council is nearly the same size as the three smaller urban districts.

Mr. Page

I will deal with the hon. Gentleman's point. I apologise to hon. Members who have spoken because I shall not be able to answer all their points before 11.30. I will do so by writing. The reason for the refusal of parish status to many of the areas within the metropolitan districts and metropolitan counties is the phrase used at the end of paragraph 1 of the guidelines, which says: The Government's further view, as explained in Parliament, is that small towns which are at present boroughs or urban districts should retain elected councils at parish level where such towns are broadly comparable in size and character with other small towns or villages which at present have rural parish councils. But it is the Government's view that statutory authorities should not be established at parish level (at any rate for the present) for areas which are essentially built-up areas. That is why parish status has been refused in some instances.

But that is not the end of the story. The exercise which we were able to put in the hands of the Local Government Boundary Commission was to define the areas which were like the existing parishes in rural districts and where there were already clear boundaries. Within the metropolitan districts and within built-up areas, only a very few qualified. I hope that in due course we shall go on to consider how best to provide grass root representation within the built-up areas, within metropolitan districts and metropolitan counties.

It may be, for example, in Colne Valley—that is perhaps one of the best examples I can take to demonstrate the difficulty within the metropolitan areas of deciding upon which area should have parish status—as the hon. Member for Colne Valley said, that there are a number of scattered settlements which have been formed together into Colne Valley Urban District, as it is now, which runs along the valley. I could list six, seven or eight centres which might well be parishes in themselves. There is a continued built-up area along the valley. It may be that, in time, when we come to consider the proper parish representation within the metropolitan districts, that it will be right to give an area like Colne Valley more than one parish.

I hope that it will not be long before we shall be able to formulate a policy for providing a form of parish status within metropolitan districts and within large towns in the non-metropolitan counties which have been refused parish status. It may be right to divide them into wards of some sort. That is the policy to which we should look in future. In that respect, I endorse everything which has been said about the value of something in the form of a parish in our local government structure. We need not a pressure group, not a group merely to agitate, but a group which has statutory functions, real work to do and money to spend to look after an area and to represent an area within the district council. In the meantime, if I might give some comfort to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Hiley) the district does have power to contribute money towards voluntary societies which may be keeping such matters alive. I commend the order to the House.

Question put and negatived.

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