HC Deb 19 June 1973 vol 858 cc539-49
Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I beg to move Amendment No. 145, in page 91, line 2, leave out 'district' and insert 'regional'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this amendment, it will be convenient if we discuss Amendment No. 374, in line 5, at end insert: '(2) All rights which are presently vested in the Perth local authority in relation to Perth harbour, all functions relating thereto, and all liabilities to which the local authority is subject in that connection, are hereby transferred to the Perth district council'. We can also discuss Government Amendments Nos. 146, 147 and 148.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I hope that I can deal with this amendment without disrespect to my lion. Friends and Members for Banff (Mr. W. H. K. Baker) and Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur), who are both concerned about this matter.

The arguments are fairly well known. The Government's amendments seek to restore the original provisions for transfer to regional and islands councils instead of to district and islands councils of all rights, liabilities and functions, including powers of acquisition, in respect of harbours, piers, boatslips and jetties which at present are vested in local authorities.

The Government have considered the position carefully since the Committee stage, in view of the decision that the Committee took, and we have also considered the further views expressed to us by local authorities. However, we have not seen anything which causes us to change from our original view that harbours and piers are an essential basic element in the exercise of transport functions allocated to regional and island councils under Clause 147 and functions relating to ferries allocated to regional and islands councils under Clause 150. Therefore it would be inconsistent for local authority piers and harbours to be allocated to district councils rather than regional councils.. This would result in divided jurisdiction for ferries and their terminals. For this reason the transfer to regions was recommended by Wheatley and we have followed this in the Bill.

My hon. Firend the Member for Ban[...] has been particularly interested in the fishing harbour point and has pursued the issue vigorously. We have to bear in mind the facts of the situation. Harbour revenues from the fishing industry are increasingly being collected at the harbour where fish are landed and sold. We believe that regional allocation would facilitate the reallocation of some of these revenues to the associated home ports where fishing vessels are normally berthed and serviced.

At the same time we have had to beat in mind that in the development and administration of harbours there is an increasing need for technical staff and specialised equipment. This is much more economically viable where there are larger units of administration to secure co-ordinated harbour development for transport and fishing purposes.

I appreciate that Perth is to some extent unique in that it will be the one harbour in the Tayside region under local authority control.

Mr. MacArthur

How can something be "to some extent unique"? Perth is totally unique in this respect.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I accept my hon. Friend's strictures. Perth is unique in Scotland in that it will be the only harbour under local authority control in the Tayside region. I ask my hon. Friend to bear in mind that the benefits of the harbour of Perth are not confined to the district of Perth and Kinross. In economic terms those benefits extend over a wider area and it is right that it should be dealt with at regional level.

I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend. Our real concern must be to try not to get the unique answer for Perth but to get the right answer consistent with transport policy in Scotland and to try to preserve the quality of life which my hon. Friend regards as unique. I have read what my hon. Friend said in Committee and have had discussions with him. What is unique about Perth is the element of local interest and control exercised there. I repeat the assurance I gave in Committee that there is nothing in the Bill to prevent the new regions from delegating some of the functions.

Under Clause 56 it is possible for the regions to appoint a harbour committee and so to involve elected members at local level. I said in Committee that we are prepared to send a circular to the new regions at the appropriate time suggesting that they should try to follow this through, and I repeat that assurance.

I have one small correction to what I said in Committee. I said that we would want to devolve day-to-day administration to the districts. It is possible for the regions to devolve to the districts but I was not thinking so much of that as devolving to a particular committee on which local people would serve. I certainly abide by that assurance.

11.30 p.m.

Mr. W. H. K. Baker

Is not my hon. Friend bringing in a third tier of local government by doing what he suggests?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

No. I merely suggest that it may be appropriate, as my hon. Friends the Members for Perth and East Perthshire and for Banff agreed in Committee, that in some way the day-to-day administration of these ports should be at local level. It is possible under Clause 56 for this to be delegated to the district. It is equally possible for the function to be delegated to subcommittee of the region specific to the port. I urge the regional authorities to adopt one or other of these ways of delegating the administration of these ports.

In the wider economic sense it is important, for the reasons I have advanced, that the control should be at the regional level. I hope that my hon. Friends, who I recognise are concerned about this, will be reassured by what I have said.

Mr. MacArthur

I will try to be brief, but the House will understand that the matter is one of great local importance. I want even at this late stage to try to persuade my hon. Friend to change his mind. The whole House will be grateful to my hon. Friend for saying that he has listened to representations from local authorities since the matter was discussed in Committee. I hope that before the debate ends my hon. Friend will tell me what representations he has received from Perth and what consultations he has held with the local authority in Perth.

My hon. Friend will agree that Perth harbour is excellently managed. Why, then, change the management? Further, the harbour is 22 miles inland from Dundee, in the heart of the country, and serves, not Dundee, but the wide area around Perth. Why, then, transfer responsibility for the harbour from Perth to the region, whose headquarters are likely to be in Dundee or, anyway, nearer Dundee than Perth?

There is an even stronger argument. My hon. Friend described Perth as "to some extent unique". I repeated the sin of tautology by saying that it was "totally unique". We can agree that it is unique, for two reasons. It is unique because it is the only local authority harbour in the Tayside region. More importantly, it is unique because Tayside will be the only region in Scotland with one single local authority harbour in it.

This position was recognised by my hon. Friend in Committee when he said this: … in the case of transport, it is true that Perth may be the only transport harbour controlled by a local authority within the new Tayside region. My hon. Friend went on to make a comment about the local authority harbours and said: But if he considers the position in the Highland region, for example, where there are a number of these harbours, it is obviously right and sensible that there the regional authority, with its wider economic functions, should have responsibility to co-ordinate transport in those harbours."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, First Scottish Standing Committee; 8th May 1973, c. 2147.] I am prepared to accept that, although I am sorry that the Government have decided to reverse the decision which was reached by the Standing Committee that responsibility for local authority harbours should be transferred from the regions to the districts. Even if my hon. Friend has a case as regards the High land region harbours—if there is a case, it will be questioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. W. H. K. Baker)—he certainly has no case for transferring responsibility for Perth harbour back from the district, where it was placed by the Standing Committee, to the region.

Indeed, when my hon. Friend accepted the unique position of Perth harbour he went on to say that he would be prepared to issue a circular to regional authorities requesting them to devolve as much as possible of the administrative responsibility for these harbours to the districts, and my hon. Friend has been good enough to explain that the powers of devolution are such that authority for the harbours might be passed to some new management body which might represent even greater local control than my amendment suggests.

If my hon. Friend accepts my argument about Perth harbour, which is that it is the only local authority harbour in the Tayside Region, that the Tayside Region is the only region in Scotland with a single local authority harbour, that the harbour is well managed, that it is a long way from Dundee, and that it serves not Dundee but an area inland away from Dundee, I must then ask him why he proposes to introduce this complicated rigmarole which has no guarantee of a successful outcome from the point of view of management of Perth harbour.

In Committee my hon. Friend the Minister and certain others of my hon. Friends seemed to accept that Perth harbour should be locally managed if possible. That must have been one reason for my hon. Friend's helpful suggestion that a circular might be issued. The Committee's decision placed responsibility for Perth harbour back with the district, but now my hon. Friend, in his anxiety for uniformity in the Bill, proposes to give responsibility for Perth harbour—and this applies to all other local authority harbours—back to the region.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

My hon. Friend is being a litle unfair in saying that I am doing this for the sake of uniformity. That is not the reason that I gave. We are doing this because we believe that because of the economic nature of the functions they are better performed at regional level. I took great care to point out that while it is true that Perth harbour serves the surrounding district, its economic importance extends far beyond the Perth and Kinross district.

Mr. MacArthur

I accept that to some extent, but the vast bulk of the harbour's work is in the Perth and Kinross district, and my hon. Friend must accept that this is not a harbour that serves Dundee. Because of that, because it is the only local authority harbour in the Tayside region, and because of its unique position in Scotland, there is a strong case for looking at the Perth position separately. If I have misrepresented my hon. Friend I apologise, but I do not think that I have.

We could save a great deal of bureaucratic bother and act with commonsense if my amendment were accepted. Recent events in Tayside since our discussions in Committee—I do not propose to spell out the difficulties now—have made me doubt the effectiveness of any circular which my hon. Friend may send to the Tayside Region. I should prefer the position to be established now, with responsibility for this harbour placed firmly in the district council, and I trust that even now my hon. Friend will reconsider the position and accept my amendment.

Mr. W. H. K. Baker

Unlike the last time when I spoke in these serious debates, I cannot possibly congratulate my hon. Friend and the Government on tabling these amendments.

I do not wish to rehearse at any length the arguments that were gone through in Committee for harbours having district as opposed to regional functions, except to say that I remain convinced, whatever my hon. Friend says tonight, and in spite of the discussions that we have had away from the Chamber, that the harbours, particularly the fishing harbours, in Scotland would be better served by being in the jurisdiction of district rather than regional councils.

When my hon. Friend introduced the amendments he adduced the case of piers and ferries being divorced from each other if the Bill stays as it was amended in Committee. I would not have thought that to be an insuperable difficulty for the draftsman to get over, and I cannot accept that as an argument for voting for the amendment.

Earlier, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Development called in aid the Local Government Act 1972 to bolster his case, and was to a certain extent taken to task by the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross). Under that Statute, which went through the House at about this time last year, harbours are functions of districts. I do not say that because that has happened in England we must have identically the same position in Scotland, but what I do say is that if the fishermen of Cromer can have their harbour administered by a district authority I do not see why fishermen fishing from harbours in Scotland cannot have their harbours dealt with in the same manner.

I would remind the House that there was in the Standing Committee a clear majority for our amendment, and I confidently invite the House to reject the amendment the Government have proposed tonight.

Mr. Michael Clark Hutchison (Edinburgh, South)

I support the very strong arguments by my hon, Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. W. H. K. Baker). In the Standing Committee this matter was examined very carefully, and on a free vote majority said the harbours should remain with the district authorities. During the recess I went to have a look at some of these harbours. They seemed to me to be getting along very well. I am quite satisfied that no change is wanted, and, as a Conservative, I tell the House that I am very content with this general principle, that I do not believe in pulling up a thing which is going well to see how its roots are growing. I think the Government are wrong. They have not produced an argument. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Banff.

Mr. Ross

I remember very well the discussion we had in Committee. The vote was nine to seven. Six of the nine who voted against the Government on that occasion were Members of the Opposition side of the House. In other words, the hon. Gentleman must have had the support of two Conservatives. I am sorry the Conservatives have not been able to get their civil war resolved. The saddening sight of it is with us tonight.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur) had so little faith in the decision of the Committee that he felt it necessary to propose what, I gather, is an unique amendment in that the harbour is the only one in Perth.

Mr. MacArthur


Mr. Ross

I think that that is one part of its uniqueness.

Mr. MacArthur


Mr. Ross

I am glad the hon. Member is doing his best to get my support!

Mr. MacArthur

I will stop.

Mr. Ross

I was attracted by the appeal—everyone on the Opposition side was—by the appeal made by the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. W. H. K. Baker). He started by referring to the support he had had from his town council and he finished by reminding me that I opened the new harbour at Macduff. How could I not throw in my lot with him? I have a copy of the Press and Journal of Friday 15th June, and I want the hon. Member to tell me whether this is true. I do not know whether he has seen it. It is a rather confusing report. The important part is towards the end, because it is specific. Talking about the Macduff Town Council, the article states: In fact, the town council recently accused Banffshire M.P., Mr. W. H K Baker of mistakenly alleging that they had made strong representations to him for district status. 11.45 p.m.

It then refers to the hon. Gentleman's successful fight in Committee.

And the town council's harbour committee subsequently expressed 'some surprise and concern' that in support of his case he had mentioned strong representations from Macduff. The town council have now written to Mr. Baker and the Scottish Development Department expressing disappointment at the decision of the Standing Committee in favouring district control and also expressing their concern that their views had been misrepresented. I do not propose to accuse the hon. Gentleman of anything—he will recall that last night I took one of his colleagues to task over this kind of thing—but I should like to know whether this is true and whether he can give some explanation. I assure him that he carries weight with the Opposition—such is the esteem in which we hold him—in support of his general argument.

Mr. W. H. K. Baker

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to read the first part of that article to the House to keep the balance? I admit that there is a misunderstanding between myself and Macduff Town Council, but it does not negate the whole of the argument that I advanced in Committee, particularly about the fishermen.

Mr. Ross

I think I said that the first part of this article—

Mr. Baker

That is the important part.

Mr. Ross

It does not make sense compared with the action that has been taken. It states: Contrary to reports, there is great concern at Macduff that their harbour is likely after all to come under the control of the new regional authority if a Government amendment is successful at the report stage of the local Government Reform Bill. The Government may be able to tell me whether the Scottish Office has received a letter from the Macduff Town Council expressing disappointment at the decision of the Committee. Is that true?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

indicated assent.

Mr. Ross

I gather from the silent nod in an affirmative direction that that is true. That places the Opposition, and certainly me, in considerable difficulty. That being so, I can do no other than suggest that hon. Gentlemen opposite fight this out amongst themselves. I cannot give them any help to resolve the matter in view of this misunderstanding.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I am grateful to hon. Members who have taken part in the debate.

I should like to make the last point clear beyond peradventaure. It is true that the Scottish Office has had representations from Macduff Town Council to the effect that it would prefer transfer to the new region, not to the district.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Have there been representations from any other town councils on this matters?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I shall be going on to deal with other points, because I was asked a specific question by my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur).

I do not intend to go over all the arguments again. There is a difference of view between myself and my hon. Friends the Members for Perth and East Perthshire and for Banff (Mr. W. H. K. Baker).

To get the matter in perspective, I should like to mention the feeling that has been expressed about this matter by different harbour authorities and others in Scotland. I address myself particularly now to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison).

This matter has been raised on the Floor of the House initially in relation to three harbours: Macduff, Buckie, and Perth. Latterly Macduff has been eliminated, so the argument relates only to Perth and Buckie. These are two harbours that are involved in this argument, two out of 218 local authority marine works in Scotland, the majority of which are owned by county councils, together with a number of local authority harbours outside the Highland counties which are not classified as marine works.

I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South to keep this matter in perspective. We are talking about two harbours out of 218.

The other point is that of the local authorities which control these harbours throughout Scotland we have received objections to our proposals, as they were originally in the Bill, from nine of them. We have had objections from Macduff—which has withdrawn them specifically since the Committee stage—from Buckie, Kirkcudbright, North Berwick, Perth, St. Monance, Arbroath, Pittenweem and Nairn. However, in regard to persistence in their objections to our proposals, we have made our position clear to those which have made objections, and the only ones which have pursued this further with us in correspondence or through the House and in other ways, are Perth and Buckie. Of the other seven, Macduff has publicly withdrawn from it and the others have not pursued it. We assume that they have accepted this position, although they objected originally.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South, in particular, asked us to keep things as they are. Some of us would like to do that. There are some hon. Members who would not like to reorganise local government. But a consequence of reorganising local government is that we cannot leave things as they are, as there will not be county councils left. Therefore, one has the choice of which level of government it goes to, whether to the district or to the region. The Government have proposed that it goes to the region. Of these 218 harbours only two have persisted in their objections to its going to the region. Therefore, it cannot really be said that we are overruling people's wishes. We are quite clearly going in the way in which those who have interests in these harbours wish us to go.

It is for these reasons that I ask the House to reject my hon. Friend's amendment.

Mr. Ross

The Under-Secretary said that Macduff has changed its mind. If that is so, it is fairly obvious that the impression that it gave to its Member of Parliament he truly reflected to us. It would be quite wrong for Macduff to suggest that he deliberately misled anyone. That is not something that he would ever do.

Mr. W. H. K. Baker

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I say that I would be less than honest if I did not say that there was a genuine misunderstanding on my part and, I think, on the part of Macduff Town Council as well? I should like to think that I am not entirely to blame. The point that the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) raised is that the whole essence of the argument from Macduff, as I see it—I shall always maintain this—is that it wants local control.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 146, in page 91, line 7, leave out first 'district' and insert 'regional'.

No. 147, in page 91, line 7, leave out second 'district' and insert 'regional'.

No. 148, in page 91, line 10, leave out 'district' and insert 'regional'.—[Mr. Buchanan-Smith.]

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