HL Deb 01 June 1932 vol 84 cc523-30

LORD GAINFORD had the following Notice on the Paper—To ask His Majesty's Government whether the Minister of Health is contemplating the making of an order under Section 46 of the Local Government Act, 1929, for including within the urban district of Caterham (Surrey) two undeveloped ridges of hill and two valleys in the parishes of Tandridge and Godstone and also the whole of the parish of Woldingham, all in the Godstone rural district; whether the inhabitants of Woldingham (which is separated from Caterham by the two other parishes above mentioned) have shown their strong hostility to the proposal by a unanimous vote at a public meeting and by means of a poll of the electors of the parish; whether there is, or has in the past been, any complaint as to the local government of any of these parishes; and whether having regard to recent decisions of Parliament he will be prepared to consider any proposals which may be submitted to him under subsection (5) of the said Section 46; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, you may wonder why I am interested in this particular matter, which stands in my name as a Question on the Notice Paper. The only association which I have with this district is that I happen to be a director of an electric supply company, and facts have been brought to my attention which, I think, do justify a Question of this kind being asked in your Lordships' House, in order that a matter of a momentous character connected with principle should be exposed. Since I placed this Question on the Notice Paper I have received many communications from people in Surrey who are going to be affected by a decision of the Ministry of Health against the wishes of the inhabitants of small rural areas. I have received a complaint from Sir Jeremiah Colman, a large landowner in Surrey, in which he sends me a resolution which was passed at the end of last week, as a result of a communication received in connection with the decision of the Ministry of Health in regard to county boundaries, which appear to be altered under a decision of the Ministry of Health at the instance of the county council.

This resolution of a parish reads as follows: Resolved, that this meeting has received with dismay and profound sorrow the communication of the Minister of Health of May 6th, conveying his decision to confirm the county council's proposal to surrender the rural parish of Gatton in its entirety to the Borough of Reigate, leaving it no independent civil rights. This meeting deplores the announcement that the Minister, notwithstanding the unanimous wishes of the parochial electors, duly recorded, and what is believed to be the emphatic wish of every inhabitant.… and so on. That is only one instance to illustrate the case to which I am going to call the attention of your Lordships, in connection with the Questions which I have put down on the Paper.

I think the Questions are quite clear in themselves, but they really require a little elucidation. From the information which I have received the county council, at the instance of one or two persons only, and possibly of one or two officials, are trying to ride rough-shod over the wishes of small rural areas in Surrey. The case of Woldingham seems to me to be a case which does require special consideration by the Ministry of Health, as the circumstances do not justify the inclusion of a rural area of that kind in the area of an urban council such as Caterham, which is about four miles off. I hope that the noble Lord who is going to reply to my Questions will not give me the ordinary stereotyped reply that this matter has been fully considered by the Ministry, and that after all the representations which have been received the matter cannot be further considered. I know well enough how busy a Minister is, and how often he has to be influenced by his officials, and has to accept answers which are prepared by his staff. He gives them in good faith, but we all know that the Ministry of Health has been very busy, and all I am asking, to-day, really is that the Minister should be prepared to reconsider one or two facts in connection with the decision which he is about to take, or which he has informed the county council that he is about to take before he actually makes the order.

On Wednesday last, in another place, in reply to a member, a reply was given rather of what I call a stereotyped character. It was one of those Questions which have only received a Written Answer in connection with this very same matter. The Ministry of Health is reported in the House of Commons OFFICIAL REPORT to have said: The provisions of the subsection referred to are not applicable in the circumstances of this case, and I could not consider any representation under it. That attitude rather surprises me, and I do not quite understand it, because when the Minister of Health on May 6 wrote to the county council, he used these words: In all cases where the Minister has proposed modifications to the county council's proposals he will be prepared to consider any observations which the county council and any local authority affected, including parish councils and parish meetings, may wish to submit to him within three weeks of the date of this letter. An application has been sent within three weeks of the date of that letter, and I think the Minister is in honour bound to reconsider the application under the terms of that letter. But apart from that, before the order is made I believe that technically he can consider the whole of the facts connected with this case.

What I wanted to draw your Lordships' attention to is that this is a compulsory absorption of a comparatively small and harmless rural area four miles from Caterham in which there are, between Caterham and Woldingham, two other parishes which possibly may be absorbed with advantage to Caterham. But the parish of Woldingham has 960 electors and all of those 960, except twenty-six, are opposed to this absorption. Therefore you have an overwhelming majority of a community who have no identity of interest with Caterham opposed to this absorption. They object to many of the urban services being forced upon them. They do not want them, they are not required, and in addition to that there is, as I understand, a very large debt owed by Caterham, and they are pro- posing to spend very large sums of money. In any case what appears to be inevitable for the comparatively poor people in the Woldingham rural parish is that they will be called upon to contribute in increased rates and increased expenses for an urban population which is four miles away, and which is hardly accessible to them owing to there being three ridges of hills and three valleys between them and the urban district of Caterham. In addition, we all know that the larger the area the more likely it is to be extravagant. It means also that officials would have to be compensated in the districts not retained and in the rural district, and it would also probably mean the creation of more officials in the case of the urban district which obtains a larger administrative area. The increase of rating is, of course, objected to by a rural population.

Having served on municipalities and for many years on county councils I recognise that there are cases in which these boundaries have to be extended where districts become more or less urban in character, but this is not a case in point. No new road has been made within the last eleven years in this rural district of Woldingham, and there is no prospect, I am told, of its becoming a big residential district, like some of the districts round about. The population very much resent this autocratic attitude of Caterham in forcing them into that urban district. The only identity of interest between this area and Caterham is that an arrangement was made some time ago that, in the event of a fire occurring in the rural area, they might have the assistance of the fire brigade of the Caterham authorities. The people in the district naturally take a keen interest in their own affairs, and the conditions in the rural area, I am told, are not likely to change. The expenditure on large sewage works contemplated by Caterham is not a matter in which they really are interested, and they can deal with their own sewage in their own way.

But it is the principle which I am fighting for to-day, the principle of the people of a district being consulted in regard to matters which really affect them personally. Your Lordships have on various occasions asserted the principle that the interests of the people of the district have to be taken into con- sideration. When there was a Liverpool and Bootle amalgamation it was laid down as a principle by the Committee that it should only be effected by mutual consent. When there was recently a Birkenhead extension before your Lordships' House, the late noble Earl, Lord Kintore, stated quite clearly in this House that no Provisional Order for borough extension should be brought before Parliament for confirmation which had not previously received the substantial support of the areas proposed to be incorporated. Then a statement was made before the Royal Commission by Sir Edward Holland on behalf of the County Councils' Association that Objection to absorption, if entertained by the majority of the inhabitants of the area proposed to be added is, subject to an overwhelming case of public interest as defined in paragraph 15 above, a conclusive ground for refusal of the extension. In 1931 your Lordships will remember that we debated a measure promoted by Stoke with a view of absorbing Newcastle-under-Lyme. Your Lordships threw that out because the people were not prepared to be absorbed in the larger area. And that principle obtains generally.

May I refer to the letter of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, to The Times, in which he lays down the principle very clearly? He said: Cases of this kind, it would seem, should be governed as far as possible by the principles laid down by the Royal Commission on Local Government regarding county borough extensions. Here the wishes of the inhabitants were prescribed as being of such importance that the weight to be attached to them should be so great as not to be over-ruled unless it could be shown that there were considerations of public importance more weighty than the decisive wishes of the inhabitants. He goes on to say in a later paragraph: It seems, therefore, that parishes which are dissatisfied with the proposals of county councils should consult together and put forward alternative suggestions. That is exactly what has been done in the present case.

On May 6 the decision of the Minister of Health was intimated to the county council, and the areas have considered the matter de novo. They have practically fresh proposals to make of an alternative character to those which have already been submitted, and they maintain that under subsection (5) of Sec- tion 46 of the Local Government Act, 1929, they have an absolute right to make representations to the Minister in regard to a modification of his proposals. I am not an unreasonable man, I believe, and I hope, in the answer which His Majesty's Government may make to the Question in this House, that at any rate I may be assured that these facts will be fairly considered by the Minister before the order is made, and that he will receive further representations of a character which will be new and which are really not directly in conflict with the decision of a general character which he has already made. I beg to move.


My Lords, this is a question arising out of a county redistribution scheme which it is the duty of the Minister to consider together with any objections to it that may be put forward. I think it is by no means an uncommon experience, in the course of these very extensive reviews over the whole of England, to find that certain parishes, and even larger units, take the very strongest objection to the proposals of the county councils. According to the procedure followed in the Ministry of Health, if the Minister's decision in regard to any particular part of a scheme confirms the view of the county council that decision is final. If the Minister modifies the county council scheme, there is then a further opportunity for objections to be made, but only to that particular modification. I think it is fairly natural that you should insist on some procedure of that sort, otherwise there would be no finality in the making of an order.

As regards the particular area to which the noble Lord refers, the Minister's decision has been given, and it confirms the view of the county council. No order has yet been made, but there appears to be little chance that under this Act the decision can be changed. The noble Lord has criticised the decision that the Minister has made. I do submit, with all deference to the noble Lord, that there are certain difficulties in adequately defending the Minister's decision and in answering the points made by the noble Lord. I have no desire to be evasive in this matter, but let us consider the facts. The Surrey scheme, as everyone knows, is a very complicated one. It has taken several years to prepare, and it has been followed by a local inquiry which lasted the abnormally long time of seventeen days, and in the course of that local inquiry the views of Woldingham received, so I am informed, the most careful consideration.

In the summary from which the noble Lord quoted, the Minister, in announcing his decision in relation to Caterham, says: The Minister has fully considered the representations put forward on behalf of objectors, and appreciates their point of view, but he has arrived at the conclusion that the county council's proposal is in the best interests of local government of the area, and should be confirmed. To give a proper explanation of this decision it would obviously be necessary to go in some detail into such questions as the future requirements of Caterham and also of Godstone in regard to water supplies, sewerage, roads, and so forth, and future developments of various sorts that will probably take place there within the period before the next review. I desire to give every possible information to the noble Lord, but I do feel he will agree that it is an almost impossible task to perform adequately, and one can only do it in the most superficial and incomplete way. I hope that the noble Lord will be satisfied with a stereotyped reply with a certain addendum made to the actual summary of the reply.

I am authorised to say that the issue of such an order is contemplated, that the Minister is well aware of the attitude of the inhabitants, but that he has not received complaints regarding local government except one some years ago of the alleged contamination of a well. There is, however, a case for consideration as to whether some further services should not be provided when the time is opportune. I may add that this is not a case to which Section 46, subsection (5) applies. That subsection gives the Minister power to make a change where a county council has failed to do so. In this case the complaint is that the county council have been too active. It is quite true that this is a stereotyped reply, but it is impossible to make a full and complete answer to the noble Lord without going into very great detail, which is really a difficult matter to do upon the floor of the House. I will, however, assure him that any new facts which are brought forward will be carefully considered by my right hon. friend. I cannot possibly give any assurance as to what action my right hon. friend will take on that matter, but if any new facts are brought forward my right hon. friend will consider them with a view to any subsequent action that he may take.


My Lords, the reply of the noble Viscount is very much the kind of one I anticipated. The point I put has not, I am afraid, been made quite clear—namely, that this is a new application made to the Minister in connection with another alteration of the boundaries, which will be a modification and not a direct contradiction of the decision at which the Minister has arrived and on which he will make an order. It is, as I understand, open to the Minister of Health to reconsider his decision in the light of a new application from a different local authority under subsection (5) of Section 46, to which I have referred, because it is a fresh and alternative application. What I think I can ask the noble Viscount is that he will bring that point clearly before the Minister in order that the Minister may see whether he cannot do justice to the alternative proposal, so that the community shall not suffer in the way it is anticipated it will suffer. The House will realise that to force small rural districts into urban districts against their will does not promote good government, but raises a lot of hostile feeling; and it is most undesirable. Therefore the interests of these small communities should be fairly and fully considered under all the powers which the Minister possesses.


I will certainly put that before my right hon. friend.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.