HL Deb 30 June 1948 vol 157 cc153-65

Debate resumed.

5.40 p.m.


My Lords, I do not want to detain your Lordships for more than a few moments this evening. On first reading this Report of the Commission, I considered it a penetrating analysis of the problem of local government; but since listening to the noble Lord, Lord Rennell, I have come to the conclusion that this Report is nothing like so penetrating as his criticisms of it. I think your Lordships may wish perhaps to consider this Report in a rather more judicial manner, and I would draw your Lordships' attention to the Commission's own remarks as to their difficulties in dealing with this subject. They are contained in two arguments that they put forward in Section VIII of the Report, which I should like to quote to your Lordships, because I think they are extremely relevant.

The Commission say: First, we have come to the definite conclusion that 'effective and convenient units of local government administration' cannot everywhere be procured (and that is our primary task), without a fresh allocation of functions among the various types of local authorities, particularly where the larger towns are concerned. Then, they add: Secondly, none of us is anxious to be forced to make Orders which would weight the scales so heavily in favour of"— either one side or the other. I will not delay your Lordships by quoting any further. That seems to me to be a weighty reason for the action they have taken in presenting this Report. Further, I would like to comment on what they describe as part of their statutory duty, to draw up effective and convenient units of local government administration. What does that mean to-day?

Local government has been turned upside down by the legislation that has been passed through your Lordships' House in the last three years. There is, practically speaking, no function of local authorities that has not been altered, extended, taken away or given to Government Departments; the whole picture has been radically changed. Therefore, it seems to me that some scheme of drawing out or drawing up these new areas is vital to-day, because at the present time local government is staggering under the burdens which have been placed upon it. I think that is no exaggeration. The only radical method of providing a solution is to make a reasonable alteration in many of the functions, as described in the recommendations of the Report. As the noble Lord, Lord Rennell has said, that may well be outside the scope of the Commission's mandate; but if they are to deal with this matter in a states-manlike manner they must go outside their mandate to find the answer. That will undoubtedly lead to a need for further legislation, and on page 42 of the Commission's Report is set out the method necessary, for giving effect to these Recommendations. It is not unreasonable at this time to ask the Government what are their intentions in this matter.

My noble friend Lord Gage has pointed out that until the areas were over which any one local authority will operate have been effectively determined, the immense amount of work involved in implementing the legislation proposed and passed by the present Government cannot be efficiently carried out. It is true at the present time that an enormous amount of paper work is being done—paper work which probably will go into the waste paper basket. Why is that? Because local authorities do not know what their future statutory areas will be. Surely there is quite enough work to do to-day without having to do work that will go into the waste paper basket. Therefore, I think it is reasonable, and not too soon, to ask the Government their intentions in this matter. I do not think this is the time to make any comments on either the one-tier or two-tier system; there are a great many things to be said for both. But surely it is for the Government to give a lead to local government at the present time, and I take it that that is the reason for which my noble friend put down his question.

There is another point on which I should like to touch. Unless convenient and reasonable areas of local government are produced within the next few years, the smaller areas—whether they be county councils, borough councils, or non-county borough councils, will not be able to employ the right type of official to carry out the duties now imposed upon them. It will be quite impossible for a small urban district council, a small rural district council, or a small county to employ highly trained technical officers at the salaries which they are able to afford. Therefore there must be some form of rationalisation of convenient areas; and the convenient areas will have to be determined largely on the financial capacity of these authorities to pay the proper salaries for what noble Lords on the other side of the House would call "the job." To be efficient a local authority must be able to pay the rate for the job; of that I am quite certain.

I would add one thing. Considerable play has been made of the fact that counties may lose their historic names, and so on and so forth. But that is not so; if you read this Report you will see that Yorkshire will remain Yorkshire. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Calverley, agrees with that; no doubt, he has read the Report. There is no intention that a county shall be abolished. The intention is that, if necessary, counties should act together in a joint county council, and so all their—shall we say—historic traditions will be maintained. In any case, I think that that might be considered something of a red herring in dealing with a question of such magnitude as this. The important thing is to get effective units of local government. Therefore, I hope that when the noble Earl replies for the Government he will be able to give us some indication with regard to this matter. The Boundary Commission, from the very nature of their task, must cause a great deal of disturbance—and the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, has referred to the sort of disturbance which will occur. It means that areas which have been taken away from county or from urban districts or county boroughs will receive less than their fair share of attention during this period of turmoil—for that is what it is now. In my view, there is every reason, in order to maintain and improve the standard of local government, why the Government should be prepared to say what they think on this subject.

5.52 p.m.


My Lords, I desire to join with the noble Viscount who introduced this question in asking His Majesty's Government that some action should be taken, not only on this Report but also on the previous Report of the Local Government Boundary Commission. In doing so, I would like first to deal shortly with some of the criticisms of that Commission which have been uttered by the noble Lord, Lord Rennell. I have no authority or duty in any way to speak for the Commission. But there is, of course, an answer to all the points which the noble Lord made. For instance, he did not mention that the Isle of Wight has almost double the population of Anglesey, or that the one is connected with the mainland by two bridges and the other by none at all—a point which surely makes some difference. It is easy to criticise the Commission for distinguishing between these two cases. I am certain that if the Commission had recommended that all islands having a county council should have that county council united with the neighbouring mainland county council, the noble Lord would have criticised the Commission just as much for making a sweeping generalisation and applying it to all islands. That is just an example. Incidentally, I would like to point out that Canterbury is mentioned in the Report. There is a definite recommendation on page 52 that Canterbury should be a non-county borough.

The noble Lord's strictures remind us of the fact that, admittedly, the Commission have gone out of their way to make recommendations for fresh legislation, but I do not think that they should be blamed for that. If they had remained quite silent about opinions which they must have formed on this subject, I do not think that they would have been doing the best service. What has happened is that, in making their detailed investigations into the matter of boundary changes, they have, time after time, come up against difficulties connected with the "present local government structure"—to use the noble Lord's own words. I think, therefore, that they are justified in suggesting alterations in that structure. In particular, I would like to mention one or two of them. The question of whether the country should be governed largely by county boroughs or single purpose authorities, as they are called, or by the two-tier system, in my view is a very difficult one, and I venture to think that the Commission have hit on a happy compromise in their suggestion that the larger towns should be retained as single large all-purpose authorities and that a large number of the existing county boroughs should, for some purposes, revert to the geographical or administrative counties in which they are situated. I think that that would be a good solution of a very difficult problem, and I ask the Government to give it favourable consideration.

There are one or two other difficulties which could surely be put right at an early date by legislation. I would refer to the recommendation in the 1946 Report of the Commission that the distinction between boroughs, urban districts and rural districts should be done away with. That seems to me to be eminently sensible. I have never been able to understand why a very small borough, just because, centuries ago, it obtained a charter, should enjoy privileges of a concrete nature in local government over a neighbouring urban district. It may be that it was all right years ago but now you get this sort of situation (and it is a fact), that in the matter of population the largest urban district is two hundred times the size of the smallest borough. And yet that tiny borough has certain privileges over that enormous urban district. I cannot think that that is right, and I suggest that the least that could be done would be to say that, for administrative purposes, those two places shall be equal. By all means let the borough retain its ancient privileges so long as they do not interfere with expediency and efficiency.

That leads me to say that I have never been able to understand why tradition should be allowed to interfere with progress. I am all for tradition so long as it is harmless. The noble Viscount, Lord Gage, mentioned it in the speech with which he opened this debate. He said that counties with long histories were going to suffer. Maybe they are. But if that is going to be for the benefit of the community at large, I think they should. As the last speaker pointed out, the recommendations are exaggerated in order to make out a case against them. Yorkshire has a long history and a long tradition, as we are frequently reminded. Here, I must contradict the noble Lord who spoke last. He said, I think, that Yorkshire will remain Yorkshire. I would like to point out that, so far as local government administration is concerned, there never has been a Yorkshire.


I am sorry, but I really must interrupt the noble Lord. Of course everyone knows that there never has been a county council for Yorkshire. I must point that out.


There is no recommendation here that there ever shall be a Yorkshire. But, be that as it may, there is one other point which I wish to ask the Government particularly to note. It is the difficulty which exists, owing to what I call a flaw in the 1945 Act, that it is not possible for the Commission to divide a borough. It is possible for two boroughs to be united, but it is not possible for any one of them to be divided between two others. If we have three boroughs, A, B, and C, we can join A to B, or B to C, but we cannot divide B between A and C. I do not know whether that was intentional or accidental, but I should like to ask the Government to put it right, because I know that large schemes of suggested groupings and amalgamations have been handicapped by that flaw, as I have called it, in the Act of Parliament. There is great objection to the suggestions of the Commission for uniting county and other authorities.

But I would urge this on His Majesty's Government. It is a strange thing to say, perhaps, but I hope that they will not be too impressed by any great degree of local objection. The Act says, and rightly says, that the wishes of the inhabitants shall be one of the factors that shall be taken into account, but it is only one. If it were the only one, no changes would ever be made at all, because, strange though it is, these suggestions for changes are always opposed by the local inhabitants. I go so far as to say that, whilst their opposition should be heard and should be considered and weighed, it should not be allowed to upset a decision which, after that process, is nevertheless decided upon. After all, it must be said that the local people are judges in their own cause. I do not think it is possible for a person who lives all his life in one locality to be entirely impartial in deciding whether his area should be joined to another.

Finally, I should like to mention a part of the country which the noble Lord, Lord Rennell, mentioned—namely, Wales. The noble Lord criticised the Commission, I venture to say, unfairly, because, whilst they had made several suggestions for dealing with Wales, which they say is a difficult area to deal with, they had not come down in favour of any one of the five different alternatives suggested., It is easy to make that sort of criticism, but I think it is unfair. What they have done is to put these five suggestions in their Report and say that for twelve months they can be considered, discussed and debated, not only in Wales but elsewhere, and everybody can have a chance of thoroughly studying them, and in twelve months' time the Commission themselves will make a recommendation. What could be more just than that? I am aware that there is particularly strong objection in Wales to these proposals, but nevertheless I say, although I may be alone, that I very much hope that His Majesty's Government will make some drastic alterations in the Welsh county boundaries. As the Commission point out, the Welsh counties, in particular, are far too small to get the best out of the local government structure. I am convinced that the Welsh people themselves would be greatly benefited if the number of authorities in Wales were largely reduced.

I hope that the Commission's recommendations for reducing the counties to not more than five will be adopted, however strong the opposition may be. Some of that opposition, I am quite satisfied, is absurd. For instance, in my own part of Wales there is great opposition to the union of three counties, but, when I examine the matter, I see that if that union were carried out, those three counties together would still be smaller, not only in population but also in area, than the county of Devon. And the county of Devon has remained unaltered as a single county council area since at least 1888. Nobody has ever suggested that it should be divided into three, and if it were suggested now there would be equally violent opposition to the suggestion. This brings me to say that I am afraid that most of the opposition comes from the fact that everybody is naturally conservative and opposed to change just because it is change. If the Government have the courage, as I hope they have, to support the Commission's recommendations, and to carry through these changes in spite of some objection, I am quite satisfied that not only will the Government be rewarded for their courage, but that before long the changes themselves will be welcomed rather than opposed in the areas which they affect.

May I mention one more argument in favour of change? There is a widespread tendency nowadays for the powers of local authorities to be taken away from the smaller authorities and given to the larger, and from the larger and given to the Ministry—a very noticeable and continuing tendency. Why? Just because those authorities are too small. If they had been larger and stronger and richer, I am convinced that there would be far less of this taking away of their own powers, and I wish that some members of those authorities could see that point. I therefore desire entirely to support the noble Viscount who introduced this question and to join with him in asking the Government to implement this Report as soon as possible.

6.8 p.m.


My Lords, I do not wish to go very deeply into the findings of this Commission. Some noble Lords have praised their work, and my noble friend Lord Rennell has condemned it roundly. But we are faced with this Report. It may be that if the Commission had not made the bold recommendations they have, they would have been merely tinkering with this problem. At any rate, they have made the recommendations, and some of them are obviously good. It is obviously good to have wider police services than we have had; it is obviously good that some of the county boroughs should pay some of the cost of the roads in the county districts surrounding them, because a great deal of the wear on these roads comes from their use for commerce or pleasure by those living in the county boroughs. I do not wish to go fully into the Report, except to say that we ought to know at the earliest possible opportunity—I hope this afternoon—what are the views of the Government upon it. The Report was issued three and a half months ago. It will have been read in every area affected by it. In the few moments during which I am going to speak, I would like to draw the attention of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, to some of the effects it is having in the locality which I know well—a locality, incidentally, referred to in this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Rennell, when he spoke of the absurd conclusions about Bournemouth and Poole—the county of Dorset.

We down there, especially those of us who live in Poole, do not think they are absurd at all. It is clear that all existing tradition would have been offended if Bournemouth had been allowed to swallow up the Borough of Poole. Incidentally, Poole sent more ships to fight the Armada than any other town on the south cost—at a time when Bournemouth did not even exist; nobody even knew the name of the little stream running through its delightful central garden. In the view of many people, it is a wise provision that these two should be equally new county boroughs, sitting side by side, both having the same status. Neither of them will be wishing to gobble the other up, and I hope they will be able to work amicably next door to one another. Indeed, some extra authority will be given to the county of Dorset, through which so many of the people who stay at Bournemouth 'proceed to see the beauty spots of Dorset, so causing a considerable wear on the roads of the county.

To get away from that particular point, I want to draw the noble Earl's attention to the kind of effect this is having. If you get, as you have in his case, a recommendation that Poole shall be one of the new county boroughs, then, according to the recommendations of his Report, it will have complete charge of its education services. At the present moment the education services are over the county of Dorset at a whole. That county had plans prepared, even before the war, to build a large new technical college in the Borough of Poole, where there is the bigger part of the population. It is the kind of college that would cost about £250,000 to build. The authorities have in mind other educational developments, such as a school of art, lager grammar schools, and other plans of that sort. What is at present happening, slice there is no decision on this matter, is that, naturally, the county authority are not over-anxious to spend the money of all their ratepayers on these big developments which, if Poole becomes a separate educational authority, will not be available for the remainder of the county, but will serve only that borough. The same thing is happening in regard to the planning of the health services. In both these matters, things are being held up until the local authorities know what is to be the attitude of the Government towards this Report. I am not saying what that attitude ought to be, but things are really held up because everybody is in the dark as to whether this Report—or how much of it—is to be adopted by the Government.

I would like to refer your Lordships to one part of the Report—namely, the concluding sentences. Your Lordships will see that on page 44 the Report says: If changes are to be made, the disadvantages of delay seem to us to be very substantial. They then conclude by saying: …recent changes in legislation…have already created a very large disturbance in the economy of local authorities. The setting up of our Commission, too, with a procedure which provides a simple method of asking for changes of area or status, has itself created unrest. The sooner this sense of unsettlement is removed, the better for local government. Those phrases are obviously sound. I would ask the noble Earl if he can tell us whether His Majesty's Government have come to any decisions on this Report; if so, what they are; and if they have not, whether he can promise us that we shall have that information at an early date.

6.16 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, Viscount Gage, for his willingness to change into a question the Motion which he had originally placed on the Order Paper. The Government are not yet in a position to express any opinion on the merits or demerits of the recommendations in this Report of the Local Government Boundary Commission, or, of course, to reply to points raised for or against the Report in an extended debate on the subject. The procedure which the noble Viscount was kind enough to adopt has made it clear that this afternoon the Government spokesman should listen to the views of noble Lords, mark and digest them, and also see that those views are transmitted to the Ministers and Government Departments concerned, instead of himself making a statement about a policy that has not yet been decided.

I am also grateful to the noble Viscount—and I am sure the House shares my appreciation—for the opportunity which his question has given for the expression of opinion about this Report by noble Lords, all of whom have had considerable experience of local government. From the point of view of the Government, it is important that we should have the views of Parliament on this Report before our policy is decided, in order that we may reach the right conclusions from the standpoint of the maximum efficiency of local government. This is particularly desirable in the case of these recommendations, because, as several noble Lords have pointed out, if they were carried out they would involve a piece of legislation which I believe would be somewhat controversial—certainly on the basis of the speeches to which we have listened this afternoon. This short debate has served an extremely useful purpose in informing the Government of the views held by a number of noble Lords, both for and against the Report, and I can assure your Lordships that those views will be carefully weighed and considered by my right honourable friend the Minister of Health.

The noble Viscount, Lord Gage, asked if the Government would consider this Report with an open mind. That, I can assure him, the Government will do. We shall consider the Report without bias or prejudice. We shall endeavour to make up our minds in the best interests of efficiency and of an up-to-date system of local government. The noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, said that one of the great difficulties to-day is that everyone is conservative, and opposed to change just because it is change. I can assure the noble Lord that we are not conservative; we are not opposed to change because it is change. In the last three years, in fact, we have probably brought about more changes than any other Government in the course of this century. I hope that we escape the noble Lord's censure in that respect.

The noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, asked a legitimate question when he inquired whether the Government will make up their mind about this extremely important matter as soon as possible. Of course, the answer to that question is that we will not interpose any more delay than is necessary for a thorough and careful consideration of the whole question. As soon as our minds are made up, and it is possible to make a statement of policy, naturally that statement will be made to Parliament.


The noble Earl realises that it is rather urgent?


I entirely agree with the noble Lord about the urgency of this matter. The Annual Report of the Local Government Boundary Commission for 1947 raises issues of great importance to all local authorities, and it is essential that adequate time should be allowed for discussion of the principles involved before any final conclusions are reached. The Government would be glad to receive, in due course, the views of the representative associations of local authorities on the Report, and I am advised that those bodies are actively considering the Report at this moment. In the meantime, the Government do not contemplate any immediate legislation. As this Report appeared only in March, I do not think that sufficient time has yet elapsed for a full consideration of these important issues by local authorities. My right honourable friend the Minister of Health fully appreciates the magnitude of the issues raised in the Report, which suggest changes in the functions and boundaries of existing local authorities, and he will give to these recommendations the care and consideration which they undoubtedly merit before a final conclusion is reached.