HC Deb 04 December 1995 vol 268 cc115-20

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wells.]

10 pm

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

It is fair to say that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is a southerner, but nevertheless I welcome him to an important Adjournment debate for those of us who live in the north-west. It is important because of its subject, which is the future of Lancashire, and timing—a day on which England has been saved by its Lancastrian captain's magnificent innings of 185 not out.

This debate is also happily timed to commemorate another day in Lancashire's long and proud history. Exactly 700 years ago last week, Lancashire's first two Members of Parliament arrived at Westminster. According to the Library records, on 27 November 1295, Sir Mattheus de Redman and Sir Johannes de Elwyas took their places for the first time. Sir Mettheus hailed from Levens in the former historic county of Westmorland, near my own home. The second knight of the shire, Sir Johannes, was from near Salmesbury, near Blackburn, but he was also connected with Breighmet, which I take to be the Breightmet in my constituency of Bolton, North-East.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

My hon. Friend may be interested to learn that my treasurer for many years had the same name as the original knight, and our association offices are named after him.

Mr. Thurnham

I am delighted that my hon. Friend is here this evening. I thank her for all the support that she gives in the House for everything to do with Lancashire.

Lancashire's long and proud record as a county stretches back more than 800 years—to 1168, when it was first mentioned as the county of Lancaster. In 1351, the Duchy of Lancaster was created, with boundaries that have—I am glad to say—remained intact to this day. My constituency was justifiably proud of its 806 years of Lancashire history—at least, until the disastrous local government reorganisation of 1974, which created the infamous Greater Manchester county council, and attempted to tear up Boltonians' loyalties to Lancashire by trying to make them into so-called Greater Mancunians.

The Government wisely recognised their folly, when, in 1986, they abolished Greater Manchester county council, allowing Bolton its independence as a unitary authority. Bizarrely, the Government have left the Greater Manchester county boundary in place, much to the annoyance of the vast majority of the people of Bolton.

Bolton is known all over the world as a Lancashire cotton town. There may not be much left of its cotton industry, but overwhelmingly it wants to return to its historical county of Lancashire. Opinion polls by the Bolton Evening News showed that more than 99 per cent. of respondents want Bolton to be back in Lancashire. It is hard to find anyone who disagrees, other than in the Minister's Department and the Lord Lieutenant's office in Greater Manchester.

All political parties in Bolton supported the unanimous resolution of the council on 19 October 1993

that the Council re-affirms its traditional affinity with Lancashire and requests Her Majesty The Queen to appoint the Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire … to act in Bolton". Other councils throughout the north west have expressed similar views.

I was delighted last year when my hon. Friend the Minister of State accepted my invitation to visit Bolton, to learn for himself the strength of local views. He met councillors and other representatives of the Friends of Real Lancashire, and was left in no doubt about the strength of people's feelings—at a time when the Friends of Real Lancashire were raising a petition with about 30,000 signatures, calling for the return of Lancashire's historic boundaries.

The day after his visit, the Bolton Evening News carried a front page banner headline:

Red rose to bloom again". And the people rejoiced that a Minister had listened to their views.

I commend the work of the Friends of Real Lancashire under their leader, Mr. Chris Dawson, who, with others, and out of the goodness of his heart, has campaigned ceaselessly for Lancashire's proud history to be remembered and its boundaries properly restored. The Friends of Real Lancashire are a part of the Association of British Counties; I commend my hon. Friend the Coventry, South-West (Mr. Butcher) for his work for the association. I am delighted that he and 25 other hon. Members have signed early-day motion 109, calling for the marking of historic county boundaries with clear signposts on all roads as they cross the historic counties' boundaries.

Last year, I presented to the House a petition with 30,000 signatures gathered by the Friends of Real Lancashire, calling for the restoration of Lancashire's historic boundaries. It was presented on 21 March to mark the birthday of Her Majesty the Queen, who, as monarch, carries the title of Duke of Lancaster, dating from the time of Henry IV.

I hope that the Minister is in no doubt as to the strength of people's feelings about this issue, which strikes at the very heart of each person's sense of local identity.

Not only does the Greater Manchester county boundary limit the Parliamentary Boundary Commission in its work—not so happily in my case—but it has a negative effect on industries such as tourism, and on the whole sporting, cultural and emotional heritage of Lancashire's people. Surely the home of Lancashire county cricket club should be in Lancashire, especially after today? I hope that my hon. Friend will now cease to procrastinate, and will direct the Local Government Commission forthwith to undertake an immediate review of Lancashire's boundaries, with a view to restoring them for ceremonial, sporting and cultural purposes.

In 1974, the Government said, in a statement quoted in The Times of 1 April:

The new county boundaries are administrative areas, and will not alter the traditional boundaries of counties, nor is it intended that the loyalties of people living in them will change, despite the different names adopted by the new administrative counties". Perhaps 1 April was the right date for that statement, which seems to have been honoured much more in the breach than in any attempt to observe it.

In 1990, my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo), when he was the Minister responsible for local government, confirmed that the statement was still true, and the situation had not changed. In spite of the clear assurance that the traditional county boundaries were not altered in 1974, they are no longer shown on Ordnance Survey maps, and have been replaced by administrative county boundaries. In the areas affected by changes to local government in 1974, road signs naming traditional counties have been removed and sometimes replaced by signs naming the administrative counties—while other boundaries remain totally unmarked.

Travellers can no longer tell when they pass from Cheshire, Cumberland, Westmorland and even Yorkshire into the county of Lancashire. Travelling north on the M6 from Cheshire into Lancashire, drivers are not informed that they have arrived in Lancashire until more than 20 miles past the border, where they reach a sign north of Charnock Richard proclaiming that they are in Lancashire, the red rose county. Not only is this confusing for the traveller; it means that people moving into the area have no idea which county they are living in.

The Post Office is happy for mail to be addressed to Bolton, Lancashire, and I am glad to see that Bolton council now includes Lancashire in its notepaper address. Indeed, the Post Office warns customers not to put Greater Manchester on the address, as letters thus addressed may be delivered 24 hours late, having had to go to Manchester first and then be sent back to Bolton. If the Post Office can recognise Bolton as being in Lancashire, why cannot the Government?

Hitherto, we have been passed backwards and forwards between the Department of the Environment and the Local Government Commission, with each saying that the other must take a decision to carry out a review. Now that decisions are being made on unitary status for Blackburn, Blackpool, Warrington and Widnes, surely this is the time to carry out a proper review of all Lancashire's former constituent parts, so that Bolton can once more be restored to Lancashire.

I hope that my hon. Friend will listen to what the people are saying and ensure that the Government no longer stand in the way. The lord lieutenant of greater Manchester may regard the campaign as a nuisance factor, and I have nothing against that excellent gentleman's work, but the fact remains, however, that the people of Bolton do not want to be Greater Mancunians.

In a letter to me, Mr. Dawson wrote:

The restoration of the historic county of Lancashire to the boundaries that it held prior to 1974 would be no more than a confirmation of the promise, made by the Government of that day to the people of the county, that these boundaries had not changed. This could be demonstrated by ensuring that the boundaries of historic Lancashire are signposted on all major roads, including motorways, and that the boundaries of the historic county are shown on all maps. When my hon. Friend the Minister of State with responsibilities for local government visited Bolton last year, I was happy to present him with a rare copy of Henry Fishwick's 1894 "History of Lancashire". I have been able to obtain a second copy of the book, and would be happy to lend it to my hon. Friend the Minister if he wishes to learn more of Lancashire's proud history, so that he can better direct its future.

10.10 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) made the key point of ceremonial or sporting purposes. I am beginning to feel that I am the target of the ceremonial purposes, and that is certainly so of the sporting.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and on raising the interesting and emotive subject of local identity. If nothing else, I shall attempt to clarify the position on formal recognition of the traditional county of Lancashire, and the limits on what could realistically be done to meet my hon. Friend's requests.

On the point of most concern to my hon. Friend, that of common ceremonial arrangements for historic Lancashire, we had an historic lesson this evening—perhaps a lesson of history would be more accurate. We do not have the power simply to return former parts of Lancashire for ceremonial purposes. The relevant primary legislation allows us to make changes to ceremonial arrangements only as a consequence of structure or boundary changes following a review. I think that my hon. Friend is aware of that.

Changes to ceremonial arrangements for an area where there has been a recommendation for no change, for an area that has not been reviewed, or one which is not affected by changes happening elsewhere, are therefore not possible. As my hon. Friend knows, the outcome of the recent structure review of the present county of Lancashire, carried out by the Local Government Commission, was that there should be no change to the existing two-tier structure of local government in the county, and that there should be no change either to the ceremonial and related arrangements.

Following completion of the county reviews in England, we asked the Local Government Commission to carry out further reviews of districts to test the case for consistency. In some instances, the commission recommended different outcomes for what seemed to be very similar districts. Among the 21 districts referred back to the commission for further review were Blackpool and Blackburn in the present county of Lancashire, and Halton and Warrington in the present county of Cheshire.

In its draft recommendation for public consultation, the commission recommended unitary status for all four districts, with no change to the present arrangements for ceremonial and related issues. That means that Blackpool and Blackburn would be deemed to be part of the present county of Lancashire for ceremonial purposes. Similarly, Halton and Warrington would be deemed to be within the present county of Cheshire. The commission is due to submit its final recommendations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the beginning of January next year.

With the completion of the structure reviews of counties and the further district reviews, the only way in which some of the ceremonial changes called for could be further considered is if there were a boundary review of the metropolitan areas of Greater Manchester and Merseyside. That must lead to a wry smile from behind me.

Legislation does not permit the commission to recommend structural changes to areas which are already unitary. It could, however, recommend boundary changes to abolish a metropolitan county, establish the metropolitan districts within it as counties in their own right, and recommend as a consequential arrangement that those new county areas should be associated with existing counties for ceremonial and related purposes. We are considering the commission's future timetable for reviews, but given its statutory duty to undertake periodic electoral reviews, some of which are increasingly urgent, it is unlikely that it will be able to carry out the metropolitan reviews to cover all Greater Manchester and Merseyside in the near future, particularly tomorrow, as has been requested. However, as we have always said, it is possible that, in due course, we shall direct the commission to review certain metropolitan areas where there is pressure for change. Southport, in the Merseyside borough of Sefton, is an area where we are aware of strong—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"]—as reinforced this evening—and widely shared pressure for a review.

I know that my hon. Friend presented a petition of 20,000 signatures to the House in April 1994, seeking the abolition of the metropolitan counties of Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Cumbria. I appreciate the feeling that that represents, but the fact is that we cannot act on that petition alone. We have to consider it against the diversion that it would represent of considerable resources from other reviews that the commission is under pressure to undertake.

I should also emphasise that, with the further district reviews due to be finished shortly, we are seeking to conclude the major local government reviews, in the interest of minimising disruption and uncertainty. We do not wish to launch another major review unless there is an outstanding reason for doing so.

I recognise that there will be some disappointment at this response to what is undoubtedly a heartfelt issue for many people in historic Lancashire. However, as my colleagues have pointed out in the past, local government boundaries are concerned essentially with administration, and changes, whether arising from the 1974 reorganisation or as part of the current review, need not affect ancient loyalties and affinities.

I need hardly name some of these. Lancashire county cricket club was mentioned, and continues to have Old Trafford as its main ground and headquarters, and has managed to do quite well on it in the last season, despite being within Greater Manchester. Participants in the rugby league Lancashire cup are drawn from across the traditional county, and, as far as I am aware, the performance of the individual teams is unaffected by the fact that they come from the administrative areas of Halton, Wigan and so on. In fact, I recall a very well known Lancastrian—Tuigamala—who, I believe, plays for Wigan.

The Queen's Lancastrian regiment continues to maintain its traditional affiliations with areas such as Warrington, Bury and Oldham, despite their incorporation into Cheshire and Greater Manchester.

The matter of postal addresses was also raised. I doubt whether the presence of the metropolitan counties makes much of an impact on the level of misdirected mail where correspondents choose to use the traditional county rather than the administrative county in an address. Indeed, as I understand it, the Post Office is unconcerned whether letters are addressed using the administrative county or the traditional county, as long as the postcode is correct.

I hope that those examples, of which there could be many more, serve to demonstrate that an area does not have to have a formal structure in order to maintain a clear identity.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Ten o'clock.