HL Deb 18 March 1926 vol 63 cc687-99

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill, although it is short, is a little difficult to explain to your Lord- ships as adequately and briefly as I should like, for although it is short the time which it took a Royal Commission to work out the clauses was two and a-half years. I think I had better mention the genesis of the affair and how the matter came about. Your Lordships are aware, especially those of your Lordships engaged in county council work, of the difficulties which the natural growth and distribution of the population have gradually caused the local authorities administering local government since the Local Government Act of 1888. In 1921, when Sir Alfred Mond was Minister of Health and I was Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry, representatives of county borough and county councils and other local authorities held many discussions with us at the Ministry of Health and, with our colleagues there in regard to these difficulties. The chief protagonists of the borough and county councils, I deeply regret to say, both on personal and public grounds, have passed away. They were Sir Ryland Adkins, who represented county councils, and Sir Robert Fox, who represented the county boroughs.

Both these gentlemen held very strong opinions on matters of controversy, and they were very divergent opinions, but both Sir Robert Fox and Sir Ryland Adkins were firmly of opinion that a modus vivendi to regulate difficulties must be reached, as a continuance of controversy on this subject was severely damaging to the interests of local government throughout the country. In order to arrive at a decision it was settled that a Royal Commission should be appointed to go into the whole matter. This Royal Commission was somewhat different from the usual run of such bodies, for there were upon it representatives of the councils of county and other boroughs, of urban districts, county councils, and rural district councils. The county councils were represented by my noble friend opposite, Lord Strachie, by Sir Ryland Adkins and Sir Edmund Turton, and when Sir Ryland Adkins passed away his place was taken by Mr. Samuel Taylor. The boroughs were represented by Sir William Middlebrook, Sir Lewis Beard and Mr. Pritchard, and the urban and rural districts by Sir Walter Nicholas and Sir Seymour Williams respectively. The rest of the Commission consisted of people who were not directly concerned with the controversial side of the question. They included Mr. Honoratus Lloyd, who is very well known to many of your Lordships who have met him in Committees, and I should think there is nobody in this country who has a wider knowledge of the affairs before the Commission than he; Sir George Macdonogh, who had been Adjutant-General; Sir Walter Riddell, the Principal of Hertford College, Oxford; and Sir Arthur Myers, lately a member of the New Zealand Government. I had the honour of being appointed Chairman of that Commission.

The task was very difficult. We had to go into the whole controversy and examine the difficulties which urban and rural authorities both experienced in administering local government. In arriving at our proposals for a settlement we had to endeavour to make proposals acceptable both to the representatives of the county authorities and to those of the urban authorities. In addition, we had to make recommendations which the Government would implement; and which would be constitutionally acceptable by Parliament, and it was also most essential, if our recommendations were to be of the slightest use, that they should be unanimous. The Report was a unanimous one signed by every member of the Commission, and its conclusions are embodied in the volume that I hold in my hand. They are certainly voluminous, occuping 101 paragraphs of the Report, but on page 477 of the Report, if your Lordships are interested, you will find them summarised. The conclusions and recommendations fall into two categories: (1), the conclusions which require legislation, and (2), those that do not. With regard to the second category I do not propose to trouble your Lordships, because they are not directly germane to the issue, but I will deal with those that are embodied in the Bill.

The main point in the Bill is, I think, contained in subsection (2) of Clause 1, which does away with Provisional Order procedure in regard to the constitution of county boroughs. The Commission found that, while doubtless Provisional Order procedure had certain advantages—though I do not think that they were found to be so great as had appeared at the outset—yet for the purpose of the constitution of county boroughs Provisional. Order procedure had one very grave disadvantage indeed: it did not command the confidence of all the local authorities.

As your Lordships are doubtless aware, when cases are dealt with under the Provisional Order procedure one of the first things that is done is for a local inquiry to be held by the inspectors of the Ministry of Health. I do not think that there is anybody on either side who would suggest for one moment that these gentlemen are anything but impartial, or that they have not done their duty thoroughly and conscientiously. Indeed, one of the most prominent witnesses for the County Councils' Association, the late Viscount Long of Wraxall, paid a very warm tribute to the labours of the inspectors. The objections of the local authorities are, I think, to the procedure itself. County councils do not think that under this Provisional Order procedure they really have that fair chance before Parliament that they have under Private Bill procedure. Accordingly, after very careful and prolonged consideration, we came to the conclusion that it would be right to abolish Provisional Order procedure in these cases and substitute Private Bill procedure.

Rather different conclusions presented themselves in regard to extensions, which are dealt with in Clause 2. Your Lordships will see that under that clause the Minister of Health can proceed by a Provisional Order if no objection is raised to that procedure by any local authority affected. Of course, a large number of these extensions are of a subsidiary kind and do not raise any particular objection, so that Provisional Order procedure remains an easy and convenient method of dealing with them. Let me repeat that the Bill provides that Provisional Order procedure in the case of the creation of county boroughs shall be abolished, as also in the case of extensions where there is opposition. The only exception is in the peculiar situation contemplated in Clause 4, which provides that Provisional Order procedure may still be used when two adjacent boroughs are affected. In this case the matter is outside the county altogether and affects only the two county boroughs concerned.

I turn to Clause 1, which states that no borough having a population of less than 75,000 shall be constituted a county borough. The present limit is 50,000, as fixed by the Act of 1888. In that year there were 55 boroughs containing 50,000 persons or more. Now, according to the Census of 1921, there are 100, and of these 78 are county boroughs already and the remaining 22 are municipal boroughs or urban districts. At the, present time the number of urban areas (other than county boroughs already constituted) that have 75,000 or more inhabitants is only seven, and it is rather interesting to note that of these six are in the Metropolitan area and form part of Greater London, the seventh being the urban district of Rhondda, which has a population of 162,000.

The task of arriving at this figure was, I think, the most difficult of any with which the Royal Commission had to deal, and I think it was in many ways the most important. I need not trouble your Lordships with the reasons why they arrived at this particular figure. They are set forth in paragraph 1259 of the Report and in the paragraphs that follow. But I should like to say that the figure of 75,000—as indeed was the case in 1838 with regard to the figure of 50,000—is intended only to prevent unreasonable proposals being put forward. It is by no means suggested by the Government, nor was it suggested by the Commission—I think I may speak for my colleagues, and I am sure that my noble friend Lord Strachie will bear me out—that every town with a population of 75,000, or more, has ipso facto the right to come to Parliament and ask to be made a county borough. On the contrary, it is the quality of the administration by the local authority that is of far more importance than the extent of the population of the town, for the test for the constitution of county boroughs must be the same as that for extension, it must be one of quality and not of quantity.

On the question of the statutory test we heard a very great deal of evidence, but we were not able to suggest any alteration of the existing statutory test in Provisional Order procedure. That statutory test, as I dare say your Lordships are aware, is whether in the opinion of the proper authority the proposals are desirable. Many suggestions were made to us as to some statutory alterations in this test, but we did not see our way to recommend any of them. Indeed, if you come to look at the matter I do not think it would be possible to make any alteration in this word "desirable" without limiting the authority of Parliament. In this Report we have discussed various points which we think might well be considered in each case when it comes before Parliament, and, of course, each case must be dealt with upon its merits. As I say again, this question of quantity of population and numbers is not the important question. It may be a very desirable thing that a town with a population of 75,000 should be constituted a county borough, just as it may be very desirable that a town with a 100,000 population should not be so constituted.

I will next come to the financial clauses in the Bill, where an amendment is made to the Local Government (Adjustments) Act, 1913. That Act was the result of a Joint Select Committee presided over by the noble Duke, the Duke of Devonshire, and it fixed fifteen years as the maximum in assessing compensation for the increase of burden in respect of road maintenance as well as other services—all services in fact. This is a very technical matter, and is gone into at considerable length in paragraph 1242 of the Report. Briefly speaking, the argument which convinced us that an alteration in the law was necessary in this case was that circumstances have very materially altered since 1913. The expenditure by county councils on the maintenance of main roads has gone up considerably since then, mainly if not almost entirely owing to the great development of the motor traffic, and then, of course, since 1917 there has been considerable alteration in the value of money. Now we propose to alter the fifteen years to twenty-one years, and this alteration should at the present value of money enable what amounts to a permanent payment to be available to enable county councils to meet a permanent charge—namely, the increase of burden for the maintenance of main roads. With regard to the rest of the recommendations regarding the road question further legislation will be necessary, but it is proposed to include that in a Ministry of Transport Bill, as it is entirely a technical question.

There is only one other point to which I would like to draw your attention, and that is in Clause 3, which proposes certain modifications of the Borough Funds Acts. There was a good deal of evidence that in the case of large towns it is impossible to provide for a public meeting of electors before a Private Bill can be promoted. You cannot get the ratepayers of a town of 75,000 inhabitants, or even a very small portion of them, into a public hall. Similarly, provision for taking a poll in such cases was shown to us to be ineffective, and it is also costly. Therefore in the cases contemplated in this Bill we propose that these provisions of the Borough Funds Acts shall not apply. The other provisions for giving full local publicity to Bills remain unaffected. There is one other small point to which I will draw your Lordships' attention. The Borough Funds Act, 1872, prohibits Private Bills from being promoted where Provisional Order procedure can be followed. Provisional Order procedure can still be followed in the case of unopposed extensions, but if the extensions are opposed the authority must proceed by Private Bill. This clause enables them to do so.

That is all I have to say about the Bill, but I should like to make one concluding observation. The settlement which the Royal Commission unanimously proposed is a very delicate compromise. The Government in this Bill have accepted that compromise in toto. As I have already said, representatives of county and urban and[...]ee oil authorities were members of the Royal Commission, and every one of the members of the Royal Commission signed the Report without any reservation of any kind. Doubless our proposals impose sacrifices on both sides, but unless both sides are prepared to make sacrifices a settlement is impossible, and if a settlement not arrived at local government in this counts, will suffer and must suffer very severely. The Government have accepted the proposals of the Royal Commission and are prepared to carry them through. They feel that modifications in the Bill, in favour of one side or the other, would prejudice the chances of a settlement, and possibly throw the whole controversy again into the melting-pot. In these circumstances I venture to recommend the Bill to your Lordships and I trust that you will give it a Second Reading.

I ought to add one word on what is known as the embargo. The Commission's terms of reference were wider than this question of constitutions and extensions, and were divided into two parts. This Bill embodies the result of the first part. When there will be a second Report I cannot say at present. While we were considering the first part of our terms of reference Sir Alfred Mond, who was then Minister of Health, laid it down that no contentious proposals should be entertained by the Ministry. This embargo was removed last year, and a number of contentious proposals have, since been laid before Parliament.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a—(The Earl of Onslow.)


My Lords, the noble Earl has explained the provisions of the Bill in a speech of great interest, bearing witness to the careful attention devoted to the matter by the Royal Commission, and I do not desire to cause the slightest delay to the Second Reading. Questions may arise in Committee with regard to such matters as the adequacy of the provision for the maintenance of main roads, but I offer now no opposition whatever to the Second Reading of the Bill.


My Lords, I also desire to offer no opposition to the Second Reading of the Bill, which has been explained so clearly by the noble Earl this evening. There is only one part of the Bill to which I wish to make any reference at all, and that is the subsection which increases the population qualification of a borough that may desire to be made into a county borough from 50,000 to 75,000. To that I have no objection to make. I think it is a fair compromise of a difficult question. Some fifteen or twenty years ago I was for five years or more Chairman of Ways and Means in another place, and at that time this question began to assume great proportions. I hope the recommendations of the Royal Commission, over which the noble Earl so ably presided, will be received with general satisfaction.

The only reason why I rise is that I feel it, my duty to call your Lordships' attention to one case of considerable hardship that, I think, requires attention. It is the case of Doncaster. I should like to say that I have no connection with and no interest in Doncaster. To confess the truth, I have never even been to the races. But I simply raise the question as a matter of fairness. The history of the case is this. In October, 1920, the Town Council of Doncaster applied to the Ministry of Health for the issue of a Provisional Order constituting the borough a county borough. After the preliminary census figures were obtained the Minister notified his decision to make a Provisional Order in order to give effect to the proposal, and the Order was made on March 22. The Bill confirming the Provisional Order came before the House of Commons in 1922 and was passed by that House.

In June of that year a proposal was made to set up the Royal Commission on Local Government, over which the noble Earl opposite presided, and the Minister of Health in the House of Commons, then Sir Alfred Mond, stated that he would like to take advantage of the particular occasion to give notice, so far as the Ministry was concerned, that no contentious proposals for the extension of boroughs and the creation of new county boroughs would be entertained by the Ministry in the meantime. He was asked a few days later a question about the Doncaster Bill, and he stated in reply that the proposed appointment of the Commission was not intended to prejudice cases then under consideration, and that that particular Bill, being before the House at the time, had "passed from the purview of the Ministry." The Bill came to your Lordships' House, passed its Second Reading, and was referred to a Select Committee, which decided that it was not desirable that the Order should be confirmed.

I do not know what the exact motives were that led the Select Committee to adopt that decision, but, as the Chairman had stated in the course of the proceedings that the Committee were unanimous in thinking that the appointment of a Royal Commission seriously affected any decision they might eventually come to, one might perhaps make a guess that they felt that, if at that time they had given this special privilege to Doncaster, it might have somewhat queered the pitch of the Royal Commission in considering what population in the future should be the population entitling an urban district or a borough to be made into a county borough.

Then the Royal Commission sat and they made the proposal that is now embodied in the Bill that is before your Lordships, but in making that proposal they added these words, which I am compelled to read to your Lordships because they are important: If the foregoing recommendation is adopted" [namely, the proposal for a limit of population of 75,000] "it will have the effect of preventing the town councils of boroughs with populations of not less than 50,000, but less than 75,000, from making proposals for the constitution of county boroughs until in each case the population reaches the higher figure. Some of these town councils have already made proposals for this purpose under the existing law; and, as regards one of these proposals, although it is no part of our duty to express an opinion whether that proposal, if renewed, ought to be considered, we think it right to recapitulate the facts for the information of Parliament, with whom, under the system of procedure which we recommend, it will rest in future to deal directly with all proposals for the constitution of county boroughs. The attention of the Committee in another place which had the Doncaster Bill before it was called by the Ministry of Health to those words, and the Special Report of the Ministry of Health said— The question to which the Committee will no doubt wish to direct their attention is whether the circumstances of this case are such as to warrant exceptional treatment. The case of Doncaster had been specially mentioned. The Bill was promoted by Doncaster, I think, on the strength of the statement made by Sir Alfred Mond, and I may say that the Bill has passed through Committee in another place to-day.

The reason why I mention the matter is this. If we give a Second Reading to this Bill to-day, and nothing is said about the Doncaster Bill, it may be held that the fact of giving a Second Reading to this Bill, and probably passing the Bill, as we shall do before the Doncaster Bill reaches this House, may put the Doncaster Bill out of court altogether, and I do not think that that would be fair. I do not know exactly how the noble Earl, the Chairman of Committees, would construe this Bill as affecting the Doncaster Bill. Perhaps he may care to tell us; perhaps he may prefer for the moment to remain silent. But I do plead with your Lordships that in the special circumstances of the Doncaster Bill it is only fair that it should not be prejudiced by this Bill. I plead with the noble Earl that he should give an assurance that the Government are willing that the Doncaster Bill should be reserved for independent judgment by this House, and not objected to because of the Bill whose Second Heading we are now considering; in other words, that this Local Government Bill should not be intended to preclude the consideration of the Doncaster Bill on its merits when it reaches us.


My Lords. I am glad that the noble Lord has appealed to me, for two reasons. The first reason is that it enables me to join with him in expressing our gratitude for the work of my noble friend behind me and his colleagues—the wiry strenuous work of the last few years. They have given us a nice big book to read. Perhaps we have plenty of other things to read, but I am bound to say, having read a very large proportion of this Report, that I cannot think of any particular page which I think could have been omitted. Though it is a very voluminous document it is a very concise one, and, I think, will be a very great help to all of us who are concerned in this question for many years to come. I am particularly glad, therefore, that my noble friend's labours are not to be wasted, and that a first edition of the result of those labours has already appeared in this Bill, which I hope to see go through.

But when my noble friend opposite asks me how I would consider this Bill in relation to the Doncaster Bill, I am bound to confess that I feel some difficulty in construing Clause 1 of the Bill at all. I really do not know what it means. Clause 1 says that in future no borough shall be constituted into a county borough which has less than 75,000 inhabitants. That kind of clause will not bind Parliament for five minutes. Parliament can perfectly well pass a Bill next year, or this year, saying that, notwithstanding this Bill, a town of 10,000 inhabitants can be constituted a county borough. If this clause had read that no county borough was to promote a Bill in Parliament in future unless it had 75,000 inhabitants I should understand the proposed procedure better. But that is a point which my noble friend behind me has allowed me to mention to him already this evening, and he has been good enough to say that the matter will be considered before the Bill goes further.

I have, of course, read the Doncaster Bill, though I have not yet had the opportunity of seeing the evidence that has been submitted in support of it, and I would certainly go so far as to say that it is evidently certain that the Doncaster Bill will reach us, as it has passed through Committee in another place, after six or seven days' contest in Committee upstairs. I think it would be very hard on the Doncaster authorities if anything we did this afternoon precluded their case being heard by your Lordships later in the year. But further than that should not like to go. I am, of course, unwilling and not even able to express any opinion on the merits at the present moment.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Emmott, recapitulated the history of the Doncaster Bill and mentioned that the Royal Commission had put in its Report a paragraph regarding that Bill. Of course it was no part of MU duty to express any opinion whether the Doncaster proposal—of course, the Order was not confirmed when we wrote the Report—ought to be considered, but we thought it right to recapitulate the facts for the information of Parliament in case a Bill should be promoted. Therefore, we recapitulated them as my noble friend has mentioned. In the Report of the Ministry of Health on the Bill which has just passed through Committee in another place, attention was called to the mention of the Doncaster case in the Report of the Royal Commission, but no further comment was made. That is to say, the Ministry of Health have not expressed themselves as against the claim of the borough to be constituted a county borough, nor, on the other hand, have they expressed a view in favour thereof. As a matter of fact, the whole thing has really passed away from the purview of the Ministry and it is for Parliament to decide whether there are sufficient grounds for the borough to be made a county borough.

I think that is all I can say on the subject at the present moment. It is a matter which is in the hands of Parliament and Parliament must decide it. I am very grateful to the noble Lord opposite for having made us aware of his intention regarding the Committee stage. I am grateful also for what was said on the subject by the Lord Chairman and I must express my surprise at his industry in having read the whole Report.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.