HL Deb 30 June 1948 vol 157 cc144-52

4.50 p.m.

VISCOUNT GAGE rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they have any statement to make relating to the Local Government Boundary Commission's Report. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, on March 11 last a Report of great importance to all local authorities was presented to Parliament; but in spite of its importance little reference has been made to it in Parliament. That may be because all sides wish to consider the wide implications of this Report before expressing any opinion upon it, and it may also be that some consideration is being paid by the Government—and possibly by other Parties, too—to the question of whether this Report is likely to be popular at the next General Election.

We are told by those who study these matters that there are not many votes in local government reform. If that be true, I can well believe that this particular Report is not likely to prove an exception. Nevertheless, whether this Report is popular or not, its publication has put a great many local authorities in considerable doubt, both as to their future areas and, to a less extent, as to their future functions. Although I do not claim to speak with any authority in this matter, I think noble Lords who know about local government will agree with me in thinking that, unless these doubts can be to some extent resolved in the fairly near future, some considerable difficulty may arise. As the Report itself points out, all local authorities are to be engaged in either preparing or completing a number of important schemes, chiefly deriving from recent legislation, dealing with such matters as education, town and country planning, children, old people, fire protection and so forth, most of them demanding the recruitment of new staff and perhaps the erection of new buildings when that can be done. It is surely a little difficult to make satisfactory schemes if you do not know the area for which you are to provide, and it is surely not surprising that you should tend to give the lowest priority and to spend the least money, if indeed any at all, in those areas which you have some reason to think may be transferred to somebody else.

Then there is the point that the Commission, having completed their review of the major authorities, are now in the process of considering the minor authorities, without any real knowledge of the line that the Government or Parliament are likely to take about the main recommendations, in spite of the fact that the one is clearly dependent on the other. And so when they report, or even make orders—as they are entitled to do—with regard to the minor authorities, we shall have a fog of uncertainty descending on a whole range of local government activities. I do not think it can be a good thing for the efficiency of local government that this should go on longer than is absolutely necessary. I have no doubt that much will depend on the negotiations which I believe the Government are to have with the various associations. It is certainly right that that should be so, but I do not think everything depends on that, because this Report goes a long way beyond mere boundary extensions. It is, indeed, a most unusual sort of Report.

I think the most remarkable feature about it is that it should have been made by the people who have made it and at the time when it is being produced. If this Report is implemented, it will mean not only a good deal of legislation which the Minister of Health himself has described as likely to be very contentious, but also a complete administrative upheaval in local government. It will also mean a considerable breach of tradition in certain places, involving the disappearance of certain boroughs—and, indeed, counties—which have had long histories as separate entities. Yet all this is being suggested, not by a group of arm-chair theorists who do not fully know what they are doing, but by a group of people of great experience, who have recently had a unique opportunity of studying conditions all over the country. A good deal of interest surely must attach to the reasons why this Commission should have deliberately stirred up a hornets' nest, at a time when all local authorities are under a great strain in trying to digest the spate of legislation and the accompanying orders and regulations.

An explanation is given, or partly given, in Part III of the Report, which is entitled, "Causes of weakness in local government." From that section it appears that while the Commission believe that efficient local government is a good thing, it has to be local and has to be government. It is also quite clear that, for a variety of reasons, they do not regard it as very effective at the present time. They point to the disparity in size and resources between different local authorities, and they make comprehensive recommendations for dealing with that. Then they refer to the sort of "cold war" that goes on between town and country, particularly at the time when these periodic boundary reviews take place. I think their suggestions in that respect are rather ingenious, but when they come to the haphazard way in which Parliament has devolved various functions to local authorities, or to the degree of centralised control exercised by the Ministries, it is clearly outside the scope of the Commission to make any specific recommendations. I think they have gone rather far as it is. They refer to these things and even go so far as to say that if centralised control is carried much farther, it will cut at the whole roots of local government. But they cannot do anything about it; nor, I think, can any local government association.

It seems to me that what the Report really demands is not only a change in the structure of local government but an entirely new relationship between the local authorities and Whitehall. I am wondering whether the noble Earl can say anything about that question, and whether in any circumstances at the present time the Government will be prepared to modify their present practices and policy. Are we to be told, for example, that while shortages last, the present system of controlling most of the materials, and a good deal of the labour, used by local authorities has to be continued? That system provides the Ministries with an immensely powerful lever over the detailed policy of the local authorities. In the matter of housing, for example, the Ministry of Health lay down the exact number of houses that each local authority can build at any one time. The site, the plans and the cost have all to be approved by the Ministry. They lay down the proportion of privately built houses that can be licensed. At one time it was four council houses to one private house; then it was no private houses, except for a few agricultural cottages; and now it is back to the four-to-one ratio. In education the position is much the same. Indeed, in my county we calculate that 88 per cent. of our expenditure on education is altogether outside the control of the local authority. In regard to labour, we have been told—no doubt other counties have been told in the same way—the exact number of county road men that we should retain, and the exact number that we should dismiss.

The fact that Acts are passed giving powers to local authorities does not necessarily mean that the local authorities can use them. For example, last summer the Agriculture Act was passed with some urgency through your Lordships' House. Yet a few months later a circular was issued by the Ministry of Agriculture saying that the old Part IV of that Act should be put virtually into cold storage for the time being. In passing, I may say that the Ministry of Agriculture set us rather a problem in official interpretation, because they ordained that Section 86 of the Agriculture Act should be in operation, but not in force. That is a difficult state to understand—possibly it is rather like the condition to which some members of the Labour Party would like to reduce your Lordships' House! There are a great number of other circulars which descend on us almost from day to day. I do not criticise any of them; there are probably excellent reasons for them all. But it does seem to me that, if that kind of action has to continue, it will tend to reduce local authorities rather to the status of agencies of the different Ministries.

If it has to go on, too, it is difficult to see exactly what advantage is to be gained by adopting all these other drastic changes proposed in the Report. We shall not have effective local government as desired by the Commission; we shall simply be setting the stage for a new play, and shall then find that we have the same old performance all over again. If, on the other hand, it is possible for the Government to promise, in return for a drastic revision of the structure of local government, some real devolution of responsibility, I think that something on the lines suggested by the Report could well be tried. I should hope, however, to see some concessions to local sentiment. In a humble way, I agree with what the Commission say. I agree that the present state of affairs is not entirely satisfactory. I cannot see that a system under which so many decisions have, as it were, to emerge as the result of a great deal of conversation between a large number of people, is either particularly satisfactory or particularly efficient; and certainly it is not rapid in operation. But that is a personal view which I have no wish to develop at any length to-day.

My object this afternoon, as I have already said, is to try to secure information. I wonder whether the noble Earl can tell us something of the procedure under which the Government intend to deal with this Report, so that, if we cannot be told to-day where we stand at least we shall have some idea as to when we shall be told. Can the noble Earl give us any clue as to whether the Government are to consider this Report with an open mind? I hope the noble Earl will not think that this is an inopportune time to put these questions. If he does, I must remind him, in self-defence, that this Report has now been issued for over three and a half months, that the summer Recess is not far away, and that all the time we are supposed to be preparing these quite important schemes. I beg to ask the question standing in my name.

5.7 p.m.


My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, has asked this question and that he has put it in this form. In particular, I would like to develop one aspect of his question by asking the noble Earl, who I understand is to reply, precisely what this Report is intended to be. In the first place, the Report does not seem to me to be consistent in itself. When the Commission was set up under the 1945 Act and Regulations were subsequently issued, the purposes of the Commission were stated, and one notable purpose of the Commission was to make orders to alter where necessary local government boundaries. In 1945, before the Act was passed, it was stated quite clearly in a White Paper (Command 6579) that the time did not appear to be ripe for recasting local government structure. It is, presumably, for that reason that it was not within the Act, nor within the terms of reference of the Commission, to make recommendations for recasting local government structure. But that is precisely what this Report does. The Report, as a matter of fact, falls into two parts. It makes wide and far-reaching recommendations about the whole organisation of local government, which was not within its terms of reference; and it makes recommendations for the modification of local government boundaries. But it has not made any orders to alter any of those boundaries.

The more I read the Report the more surprising I find it. It is full of contradictions. On that particular issue, may I draw your Lordships attention to the first one. On page 3 of the Report it says: .…we wish to say at the outset that the system"— that is, the system of local government— as a whole has proved surprisingly adaptable is view of the fact that there has been no thorough-going overhaul for some time. Then on page 5 the Report refers to: The failure of the local government system to keep pace with the changing pattern of modern industrial England. That type of contradiction finds a place not only in the generalities in the beginning of the Report, but more particularly in the recommendation which it makes on the structure of local government itself.

Before turning to one or two points in that connection, I would like to protest very vigorously against the Report having been published without a map. There was no attempt to clarify the recommendations of the Commission in any respect by any map whatsoever, and the Report is, in fact, incomprehensible without a map—and in certain respects I think it would be incomprehensible with a map. That is notably true of the recommendations in regard to Staffordshire. There cannot be any reason why, upon an important subject like this, there should be no map. An example was set quite recently by the Report on the New Forest, to which I have referred previously in your Lordships' House. That is an admirable document in every way, and it is equipped with first-class maps to explain the recommendations. I regard the publication of this Report—which affects the life of everybody in the country and every local authority—without a map as something in the nature of a discourtesy to the public.

In regard to the recommendations themselves, I do not want particularly to take up one with which I have been associated in the past, but I do want to say that the recommendations of the Commission set forth in the early part of the Report are not consistently carried out in the body of the Report. The Commission have decided, somewhat arbitrarily, that a unit of 200,000 inhabitants is the appropriate size for a local government unit. Nevertheless, they make recommendations which are completely at variance with that decision. One of the most amusing—if these things can be termed amusing—is in regard to the Isle of Wight. On page 33 the Commission recommend that the Isle of Wight, with a population of 92,000, should be left as an independent local government unit. To use the words of the Report, the area …is far below the desirable population minimum, but it is an island and cannot conveniently be united with the mainland. Now we should agree with that. But we then turn to page 40, where we find that the Commission recommend that Anglesey, which is also an island, shall be united to Caernarvon. They go on to say: We do not forget that Anglesey is an island and in consequence has not the same common interest with its neighbour Caernarvon as it might have were it on the mainland. But we are not at present satisfied that, because it is an island, it ought to continue as a separate administrative county. That is one of the Report's many inconsistencies.

The further point which strikes me particularly is that in dealing with county boroughs and in finding that a large number of those in existence are much too small, the Commission recommend the creation of many more county boroughs of approximately the same size. That will be found in Appendix C. The smallest of the county boroughs to which reference is made is Canterbury, with only 25,000 inhabitants. So far as I can find in the Report, Canterbury is to be left alone, and is not to be amalgamated with anybody. Proceeding to the part dealing with the various sizes that units ought to be, we find that the Commission are at variance with every recommendation that has been made in recent times. The Report does not propose that the Tyne area shall be amalgamated in one local government unit, because it is too big, and would have a population of 850,000. Therefore, the recommendation of the Commission is completely at variance with that of the Royal Commission of 1937. The Tyne area, therefore, is not to be united but is to remain in two portions. On the other hand, both banks of the Tees are to be amalgamated into one administrative unit and be transferred from Durham to North Yorkshire. Those are only a few examples. I could go on. There is the extraordinary recommendation about Poole and Bournemouth, which is virtually incomprehensible to me. It says that Poole ought to be joined to Bournemouth, but if Poole were joined to Bournemouth, Dorset would suffer so much that the only alternative is to take Bournemouth and transfer it to Dorset with Poole.

May I now turn to the recommendation regarding Staffordshire? I do not know how many of your Lordships have followed, or have tried to read, what is said about the future organisation of Staffordshire, but, if your Lordships will permit a colloquial expression, it seems to me nothing less than what has been described as a "dog's breakfast." The county is cut up into little bits, and the division runs across all existing areas of government and all existing tradition. I could dilate on these anomalies for a very long time, but I certainly do not intend to do so. I have mentioned these points in order to inquire whether the noble Earl who is to reply for His Majesty's Government considers that a Report of this sort forms the basis for a reorganisation of the whole structure of local government, about which the Commission was not invited to make its recommendations. I also wish to inquire whether, if a reorganisation of local government has to be made, some attention will be paid to geographical considerations, which appear to be completely foreign to nearly all the recommendations made in the Report. The existence of geography as a factor is certainly recognised by the Commission, but it is not followed out. If your Lordships would like me to do so I could give about half a dozen other examples on that subject. A notable one with which I have been associated is the case of Worcestershire and Herefordshire, but I will not go into that.

However, I want to say that even if the answer to the question is that this Report is to be a basis for the reorganisation of local government, I submit that it is unworkable. It is premature, and has not been thought out. In final evidence of that, I would draw your Lordships' attention to the part which deals with Wales, where the Commissioners have, in fact, said: "We have many very good ideas about Wales here—four of them—but we cannot make out what we want to do ourselves." Is there any justification for throwing this very important question, to which the noble Viscount who has now just sat down referred—the whole basis of our future local government—into the melting pot in this way and at this time, on a Report which is as jejune as this one?


My Lords, I think this would be an appropriate time to adjourn for the Royal Commission.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.