HC Deb 17 June 1981 vol 6 cc1024-31
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. George Younger)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to outline to the House the Government's conclusions on the recommendations of the committee of inquiry into local government in Scotland, which sat under the chairmanship of my noble Friend Lord Stodart of Leaston to review the working relationships among local authorities in Scotland and to recommend whether any transfer or rationalisation of functions was desirable and consistent with maintaining the viability of the existing authorities. The committee's report was presented to Parliament in January, and I have considered the comments received since then. I am making available in the Vote Office a detailed supplementary statement of our conclusions on each of the recommendations.

The committee recorded 72 conclusions and recommendations and we have decided to accept about 60 —subject in some cases to minor variations —and to consider a further seven in the context of the separate review of Scottish roads legislation, about which my Department recently issued a consultation document.

I comment now on some of the major issues raised by the committee. It emphasised that a change to a system of all- or most-purpose authorities would involve a major change in the structure of local government, and suggested that if this was to be pursued it should be examined specifically on a country-wide basis. The committee did not, however, recommend that such an examination should take place and, as my hon. Friend has already indicated to the House, the Government do not propose now to reopen the question whether or not there should be a single-tier system of local government in Scotland. We consider that the present Scottish system is basically sound and that the upheaval and expense of further major reorganisation would not be justified. In particular, we accept the committee's conclusions that most-purpose status for the four city districts could not be achieved without prejudicing the viability of the surrounding regions, and therefore that a marked move towards all-purpose status could not be justified.

However, like the committee, we see scope for some redistribution of functions between regional and district authorities to reduce the extent of concurrency, particularly in industrial promotion and leisure and recreation, on which our decisions are as follows.

The majority recommendation that industrial development powers should be confined to regional authorities prompted specific reservation and dissent within the committee. Reactions since the publication of the report have emphasised the important role that districts play in providing and enhancing local employment opportunities. I have concluded that it would not be right to deprive districts of their powers to provide factories and mortgages for industrial purposes and I do not propose to change the present powers available to them for industrial development, but I agree with the majority of the committee that all powers of promotion outside their areas should be concentrated on the regions. Moreover, I intend that any overseas promotion expenditure by regions should be subject to the consent of the Secretary of State. Thus, regions and districts will have the same powers available to them as at present to encourage local employment, but the concentration of promotion powers on the regions will, I hope, facilitate co-operation and co-ordination of external publicity efforts. This decision will greatly simplify the task of the new Locate in Scotland unit, set up recently in response to a report of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs.

We accept the committee's recommendations that, in general, district councils alone should have comprehensive responsibilities for leisure and recreation functions. Similar considerations apply in countryside matters, but because some facilities have a significance beyond the district boundaries we believe that there should be a defined continuing role for the regions.

In some cases it will be possible to implement our conclusions by administrative action, after further consultation with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, but many of the proposals will require legislation.

We owe a considerable debt to my noble Friend Lord Stodart and his committee for the work that they did under very considerable pressure. The best proof of our appreciation of their work is the very high proportion of their conclusions that we now accept and our determination to implement them soon.

Mr. Bruce Millan (Glasgow, Craigton)

There are a number of detailed and complicated matters that should clearly be the subject of a debate. The Government's suggestion that this matter be debated soon in the Scottish Grand Committee therefore meets with our approval.

I agree that this is not a propitious time to deal with major questions of local government reorganisation in Scotland, particularly as local authorities are already in a state of financial crisis as a result of Government policies. I agree, however, that there can be some redistribution of functions between regional and district authorities. I am glad that it is not proposed to deprive districts of all their powers for industrial development. I do not see how a major district with massive unemployment problems could be excluded from that sphere.

I do not understand what the Secretary of State has said about powers of promotion. Unless there are some powers of promotion, the other powers seem comparatively meaningless.

The idea that regional authorities should have to come to the Secretary of State for approval before undertaking overseas promotion is a further example of pettifogging interference by the Government in the rights of local authorities, and we certainly oppose it.

The statement is not at all clear as to the distinction between regional and district functions in terms of leisure and recreation. The Countryside (Scotland) Bill currently before the House has implications in this respect, so we shall wish to examine that.

Finally, I bitterly regret that the Government have not accepted the Stodart committee's recommendation that overseas promotion of tourism in Scotland should be the sole responsibility of the Scottish Tourist Board.

We welcome the prospect of a debate very soon on these and other matters.

Mr. Younger

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's response to the idea of a debate on a matter day, which believe will be widely welcomed. I am glad that he also approves of our ensuring that districts retain their industrial development responsibilities.

I hope that in due course the right hon. Gentleman will think a little further about our decision on promotion. I am sure that he is as concerned as we are that the Locate in Scotland bureau should be successful in co-ordinating efforts. If he looks into the matter further, he may agree on reflection that a number of different districts in different areas carrying out their own promotion would create only confusion at home and certainly abroad if that were allowed to happen. I therefore believe that there is a wide measure of agreement in many quarters that some element of control would be desirable.

With regard to my approval for regions to undertake promotional activity, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I would not intend to exercise this in a restrictive way. If the main effect for Scotland is to be achieved, however, it is essential that there should not be large numbers of different Scottish local authorities falling over themselves in foreign capitals. That is the object of the co-ordination.

I appreciate that the leisure and recreation decisions are somewhat complicated, but they reduce concurrency very substantially —in fact, almost entirely —and it should not in future be necessary for both regions and districts to have leisure and recreation departments.

The decision on overseas tourism promotion was announced earlier, but now that we have a Scottish Tourist Board that is able to influence the British Tourist Authority, with a proper strategy for promoting Scotland overseas, we can get the strength of the British Tourist Authority on a co-ordinated Scottish basis to put forward Scottish promotion, and that is an improvement on the previous arrangement.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that there are two abbreviated debates to follow and that the subjects have been chosen by the Opposition. A considerable number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to participate in those debates, and I think that it would be unreasonable for me to give longer than quarter of an hour for questions on the statement. As the House has heard, there is to be a debate in the Scottish Grand Committee. I shall allow questions to continue until 3.55 pm.

Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that although his statement about the industrial aspects will be very widely welcomed there is disappointment that he has not said anything today about the tourism arrangements within Scotland? Will he accept that there is no single solution for the whole of Scotland that would be appropriate? There are some regions in which it would be appropriate for the regional council to handle tourism, and there are other regions in which it would be better handled by districts. Will he accept that as a solution?

Mr. Younger

I am glad that my hon. Friend approves of the industrial development powers decision. This is not a general debate today on tourism. I am only trying to establish decisions about which tier of local government should have the main responsibility for it. I am satisfied that to put it all on the regions would be quite inappropriate in some areas, because many districts have individual tourist interests to promote. Therefore, it seems logical that districts should be the main authorities for it. I accept that regional authorities will be represented in the new tourist area organisations and that that will be the main way in which regional expertise can be brought in.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)

Does it mean that at the next general election the Conservative Party will fight on the argument that there will be no change at all throughout Scotland? That is not the feeling that I get from the Scottish Conservative Party.

Does not what the right hon. Gentleman said about tourism mean that if there is to be a continued interest at both levels of authority there will be a continued fudging of the responsibility?

Mr. Younger

I would not presume to match the hon. Gentleman's close contact with the Scottish Conservative Party. I would certainly not wish to anticipate the contents of the winning manifesto that that party will put forward at the next general election.

In the nature of tourist promotion it is most likely to be the districts that have the closest contact with the tourist needs of their areas, and it is there that the authority is firmly placed in promoting tourism.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Will the Minister agree that the report of the Stodart committee and his reaction to it represents another non-event, in the same class as the non-event yesterday concerning Scottish affairs? In view of the proven success of the single-tier authorities in the Western Isles and in the Orkneys and Shetlands, will he keep an open mind on turning the existing authorities into single-tier authorities?

Mr. Younger

On the latter point, I blush at the compliment that the right hon. Gentleman pays me, as I was the Minister who invented single-tier authorities, for which I hope he is duly grateful. I do not think that he is right in saying that this is a disappointing result. The aim was to try to reduce concurrency and other things in local government, and I have made a number of decisions that I believe to be very helpful in this respect.

If the right hon. Gentleman had been present last night, he would have heard me showering him with compliments for being sensible in not taking part in a debate on matters in which he does not believe. I think that he would agree that he does not believe in including the government of Scotland within Britain, because he wants Scotland out of Britain altogether.

Mr. Peter Fraser (South Angus)

In view of what my right hon. Friend has said, may I take it that in the passage of my Private Member's Bill through another place the Government will not seek to alter the provision that would allow for the setting up of regional parks by regional authorities? There has been some suggestion that it might be necessary to change that, in view of the Stodart proposals. May I take it that the position will be left as proposed in the Bill?

Mr. Younger

I give my hon. Friend that assurance.

Mr. David Lambie (Central Ayrshire)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his decision not to consider all-purpose authorities or to allow a further review of local government to permit the break-up of large, inefficient regions, such as Strathclyde, will be received with disappointment by the people of Ayrshire, including his own constituents? How can the right hon. Gentleman make the statement that he has made when during the general election he gave definite commitments to his own voters in Ayrshire that if the Tory Party won the election it would carry out a review of local government with the intention of breaking up large regions such as Strathclyde?

Mr. Younger

I do not know how many of my election meetings were attended by the hon. Gentleman. He will be very welcome at all of them in future. I gave no such undertaking at the last election or at any other election, but I undertook to have a review made of the working of local government in Scotland, and today I have announced the conclusions of that review. I should have thought that I had done rather well.

Mr. Albert McQuarrie (Aberdeenshire, East)

Would my right hon. Friend care to consider the need for planning in the restructuring of local government, as there are considerable problems in the complex business of planning at district level and planning at regional level, and it is necessary to achieve some form of integration? Would he accept that his comment concerning the loss of the ability of the North-East Scotland Development Association to go out for investment overseas, and its need to obtain his authority before doing so, will not be received with very great glee in the Grampian region, because that authority has been extremely succesful in bringing jobs from overseas to the region?

I accept the need for a Locate in Scotland unit, but my right hon. Friend should not deter good organisations from continuing the practice that they have been following.

Mr. Younger

My hon. Friend is being unduly pessimistic on the latter point. His own regional authority takes a great deal of interest in this question. As a matter of courtesy, the convenor always lets me know when he is going abroad, so that there is not really any great difference. I have no desire to use the power to stop people going abroad. What I wish to do is to stop them going abroad and finding that someone else is already trying to do the same thing in the same place. That has frequently happened in the past, and is very unhelpful.

There have been difficulties over planning, and so on, in the past but the Stodart committee looked very carefully into them and decided that the present pattern was more or less right.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does the Secretary of State realise that his decision to set his face against even examining the question whether a single-tier authority would be appropriate will be widely regarded as Conservatism at its worst, and that it is not right of him, in support of his decision, to invoke the Stodart committee, as the question was quite beyond its remit? Will he accept that the reorganisation of local government in Scotland into a single tier need not result in the kind of expense that resulted from the reorganisation of local government put through by the previous Conservative Government?

Mr. Younger

The hon. Gentleman is being very optimistic in saying that. My chief concern —which I should have thought would be widely endorsed in Scotland —is that the very last thing local government needs is another complete upheaval. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that it would be cheap; I think that it would be extremely expensive.

Mr. John MacKay (Argyll)

My right hon. Friend's decision that tourism should be a district council function will be widely welcomed in the tourist industry. I draw his attention to those paragraphs —from paragraph 30 onwards —in the Stodart report about the position of Argyll. At the risk of embarrassing the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Lambie), I suggest to my right hon. Friend that ha should give more thought to the question of Strathclyde, and especially to Argyll, which the Stodart report suggested did not fit into Strathclyde.

Mr. Younger

That was not quite what the Stodart report said about the Argyll question. It looked into the matter carefully and expressed great sympathy with the points made on both sides. The committee came to the conclusion that Argyll's status was not so different from that of any other authority that it would be right to turn it into an all-purpose authority, particularly as it appeared clear that the level of service available in such an all-purpose authority would probably be much lower.

Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)

What are the right hon. Gentleman's conclusions about the recommendations for community centres? Is he aware that community associations all over the country, and particularly in Ayrshire, feel strongly that community centres should remain within the community education service, contrary to the report's recommendations?

Mr. Younger

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. That is one of the matters on which we have decided not to follow the Stodart report's recommendations.

Mr. Allan Stewart (Renfrewshire, East)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is not the slightest jot of evidence to show that a major reorganisation of the purely urban areas of Strathclyde would benefit anyone?

Mr. Younger

I very much agree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is widespread dismay in the city of Aberdeen at his announcement about development authorities, because the city has just set up its own development agency? Will the proposed restrictions require legislation? Will the right hon. Gentleman define "promotion"? Does it mean that a local authority that builds an advance factory cannot advertise it as available?

Mr. Younger

No; the definition is not as stringent as that. The provision is designed to avoid the situation in which different authorities from different areas chase each other in an unco-ordinated fashion in different parts of the country and of the world. That is a real threat. Indeed, those who have had responsibilty for such matters will know, that always happen. It is high time that there was better co-ordination, and that is our object. The object is not to stop people doing things but to get them to act in a co-ordinated way, to their mutual, greater benefit.

Mr. Ian Lang (Galloway)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the successes of local government reform has been community councils? Although not strictly within its terms of reference, the Stodart committee felt obliged to comment on them. Does my right hon. Friend intend to enhance, or at least safeguard, the finance and powers of community councils?

Mr. Youner

We have covered that. Our proposals envisage that districts alone should have specific powers to finance the running costs of community councils. That is logical, given their existing responsibilities both for drawing up community council schemes in their areas and for authorising subsequent amendments. However, regions will still be able to make grants to community councils in the same way as they can make them to other voluntary bodies.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline)

Will the Secretary of State admit that he is making a false dichotomy between districts and regions in relaton to promotion? We must not allow a situation in which districts, recognising their industrial and planning functions, are in conflict with the regions over promotion. Will the Secretary of State give us guidelines on how to avoid a proliferation of activities overseas. We could then discuss the matter. He should not get into a conflict between the regions and the districts at the moment.

Mr. Younger

I shall consider whether guidance, or guidelines, are necessary. I agree that in such circumstances conflict does no one any good.

Mr. Bill Walker (Perth and East Perthshire)

As it is proposed to concentrate tourism at district level, will that not produce substantial savings at regional level, where the departments that have existed for some time will no longer be required? Does my right hon. Friend expect an overall saving and improvement, given that so many people have been dabbling in Scottish tourism?

Mr. Younger

I agree with my hon. Friend. To extend his question beyond the subject of tourism, in general, the removal of concurrency in almost all cases, as a result of these decisions, should lend itself to some staff reductions. In addition, it should mean that in most cases there will be no need for regions and districts to have departments on the same subject. I am sure that that will lead to some saving.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

If they are brief, I shall call the three hon. Members who have been rising in their places.

Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)

Will the Secretary of State comment on paragraph 255 of the report, which states that it is for the Government to decide about the problem of community councils? Has he noticed the report's reference to the frustration experienced by those in community councils because of their lack of power, authority and everything else? Will he undertake to comment on that?

Mr. Younger

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point. The position on community councils is patchy. In some parts of the country they are immensely successful and do a good job, but in other parts they seem largely to have fallen into disuse. From time to time we should consider the matter, but I do not propose any difference in their status at present.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes)? Will, his decision on industrial promotion and district authorities require legislation? Like the city of Aberdeen, Dundee district authority will not welcome the Secretary of State's decision.

Mr. Younger

I appreciate that. I think that legislation will be needed and therefore we shall have plenty of opportunity to discuss the matter. The objective is to make the promotion that is done more effective.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

Will the Secretary of State admit that the Stodart committee only scratched the surface of the problems of local government in Scotland? Does he agree that it was expecting too much of an ex-Tory Minister, now rewarded with a seat in the other place, to undo all the damage done by a Tory Government to disorganise local government in 1973? Why has the right hon. Gentleman so firmly ruled out a more radical restructuring of local government, involving a single-tier system, whereby one elected council for each area would be responsible for administering all the local government services in that area? That might also include the health services, which were also disorganised by the Tories in the early 1970s.

Mr. Younger

Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman seems to be quite out of step with everyone. Our local government system was devised after a long series of consultations and discussions, which started with the Wheatley commission report and the previous Labour Government, was taken up by the Conservative Government —of which I was a member —and was implemented by the Government whom I believe the hon. Gentleman supported. It is a long process. It is legitimate to point out that of all the options open to us, no one in Scotland would greatly welcome another upheaval that would involve great cost and upset.