HL Deb 05 February 1964 vol 255 cc144-53

3.3 p.m.


My Lords, there are two Orders before us this afternoon. They are made under the same provision of the Local Government Act, 1958, and are similar in content. The first applies to Luton and the second to Solihull. I think it will probably be for the convenience of your Lordships if we take the two Orders together, in so far as any discussion may proceed upon them. Of course, I will move them formally and ask for their approval separately.

If that is the wish of your Lordships, I would go on to point out that the purpose of these two Orders is to make the boroughs of Luton and Solihull county boroughs with some alterations to their areas. If they are approved by the House, these two towns will be the first county boroughs to be created since 1927, and therefore it is somewhat of a landmark. In 1927 Doncaster was successful in obtaining county borough status by means of a Private Bill. On this occasion, however, the procedure is no longer one of private legislation but of Orders made by the Minister of Housing and Local Government under powers contained in the Local Government Act, 1958.

As your Lordships will be aware, that Act set up a local Government Commission for England and gave it the task of reviewing the organisation of local government and of making proposals for such changes as appeared to the Commission to be desirable in the interests of effective and convenient local government. The Commission have divided the country up into various review areas and Luton and Solihull are respectively situated in the East Midlands General Review Area and the West Midlands Special Review Area. It is the Commission's task to investigate the circumstances of local government in these areas, to prepare and publish draft proposals and later to hold statutory conferences with the local authorities to discuss their representations about the draft proposals. The Commission's final report and proposals are later presented to the Minister of Housing and Local Government who is required to publish the report and to hold local inquiries into objections to the Commission's proposals before deciding whether to accept them with or without modification or to reject them. In cases where they are accepted, the Minister must make and lay an Order to give effect to the changes proposed. The two Orders we are considering this afternoon are the first to be made by the Minister under the Act of 1958.

I should now like to say a word about Luton. It is, as your Lordships know, a busy and vital town, renowned at one time for its hat industry and now perhaps better known as a major centre of the motor industry and engineering. Under the Local Government Act a population of 100,000 is deemed to be sufficient for discharging the functions of a county borough council. The Act does not say that all towns above this level of popula tion are to be county boroughs, but it indicates that where the issue turns on population, then 100,000 is to be the figure. Luton, of course, is considerably bigger than that, having a population of 136,000, and as a county borough it would have a very large rateable value per head of population.

When the Commission came to consider Luton's claim for county borough status they had little difficulty in concluding that the size and resources of the town were sufficient. But they first satisfied themselves, as they have to do, that the administrative county of Bedford would be able to function satisfactorily if deprived of its largest town. They also decided to recommend certain boundary changes. When the Commission's report was published no one objected to Luton's becoming a county borough, but Dunstable did object to the proposed alteration of their boundary with Luton. The Commission proposed the transfer of a strip of land 36 acres in extent on the eastern side of Poynters Road on which Luton were building houses. Dunstable, on the other hand, thought that the whole of the Luton area lying west of the motorway M.1 should be transferred to Dunstable. In accordance with the procedure laid down in the Act, the Minister held a local inquiry into the objection, but after considering the Inspector's report decided that this part of Luton, which contains a very big council housing estate, was very much part of the town and should remain in Luton. The boundary amendment proposed by the Commission seemed to be an improvement and was accepted by the Minister. Apart from one minor modification, the Minister decided to accept the Commission's other boundary proposals and, of course, its main recommendation of county borough status.

The sketch map on the back of the Order shows the line which has been adopted. If the Order is approved by the House, Luton will gain about 9,000 people most of whom live in the built-up areas in the rural district which are a continuation of the northern part of the town. The whole of Luton airport, to the south-east, would also be brought within the county borough.

I should now like to turn to Solihull, which lies on the south-east border of Birmingham and is at present in the administrative county of Warwickshire. Solihull is largely a residential town, but, like Luton, it owes some of its prosperity to the motor industry. Its growth has been very rapid, for it was still a parish in a rural district as late as 1932. In that year, however, with its population standing at 25,000, it became an urban district, and in 1954 it was successful in its application for a borough charter, when its population was over 70,000. Now, ten years later, it stands on the brink of county borough status with a population just over 100,000 and still growing.

Solihull asked the Commission for county borough status and its claim was not opposed. The Commission decided that its loss to Warwickshire would hardly reduce the county's effectiveness, and, since Solihull is somewhat isolated by its position from the rest of the county, that Warwickshire would be no less convenient to administer. They proposed, therefore, that Solihull should become a county borough, but recommended that its area ought to be substantially reduced by excluding as much land in the green belt as possible. This land was not of course built upon. They also recommended some minor boundary changes between Solihull and Birmingham.

The Minister received three boundary objections, but there was no objection to the creation of Solihull as a county borough. Two objections related to technical questions concerning boundaries running along highways, and in one case the Minister decided in favour of the objectors. The third and principal objection was made by the residents of Solihull Lodge, an estate which lies in the extreme north-west of Solihull, and they opposed the Commission's recommendation that their area should be transferred to Birmingham. In the event, the Minister decided in favour of the residents that the whole of the built-up part of Solihull Lodge should remain in Solihull.

The sketch map on the back of the Order shows the future area proposed for the new county borough. If the Order is approved, it will be seen that Solihull loses a substantial area, most of which stays in Warwickshire as part of the green belt. But a small part in the north-west is transferred, for convenience, to Worcestershire.

I propose now to refer briefly to the contents of the two Orders. The most important provisions are in Article 5, which declares the two towns to be county boroughs and goes on to alter their areas and those of the adjoining counties and county districts. The rest of these substantial Orders is taken up with necessary consequential or transitional provisions. Article 6, for example, makes changes in the wards of the boroughs and the electoral divisions of the counties. I understand, however, that Luton and Warwickshire are preparing to carry out a more thoroughgoing review of the electoral arrangements in their areas under the customary provisions of the Local Government Act, 1933. Other Articles make detailed provision for the transfer of services and functions from the county councils to the new county borough councils. For example, there are provisions dealing with the fire service, with children, youth employment, education, town and country planning, and health and welfare. These Articles are all designed to facilitate the transfer and to avoid uncertainty and doubt about the various administrative matters which will arise.

The transfer of some local authority officers is necessary to match the transfer of services and the changes in areas. It is provided for in Article 54. It happens that nearly all the county council officers who will have to be transferred are already working in Luton and Solihull under the direction and control of the borough councils. This is because the two boroughs have been running a number of services under delegated powers. Almost certainly these men and women will continue in their present jobs, but the Article protects their terms and conditions of service on the lines laid down by Parliament in the London Government Act.

One consequence of attaining the status of a county borough will be that Luton will be free, under the law as it stands at present, to set up their own police force. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has indicated in another place the Government's view that there are already too many separate police forces in this country; and in legislation which I hope will shortly come before your Lordships' House the Government are proposing to strengthen the powers available to the Home Secretary to amalgamate police areas. The Luton Town Council told my right honourable friend last year that they intend to exercise their right to establish their own police force, and he told them then—and I think it only right that I should repeat his warning now, as we are asking for the approval of this Order—that he will feel free to reopen the matter if the relevant provisions in the legislation regarding police forces now before Parliament are enacted in their present form.

If these Orders are approved, April 1, 1964, will be the appointed day for the changes in the status and areas of the two towns. This is the beginning of the financial year, and is generally the most convenient time to make changes. The provisions mentioned in Article 2 come into operation at once, however, in order to give the local authorities concerned a chance to make the necessary preparations in advance of the appointed day.

In conclusion, may I say that one of the most satisfactory aspects of these two pieces of reorganisation has been the manifest good will which the authorities concerned—both the counties and the borough councils—have brought to the settlement of the many problems posed by these changes. I am sure your Lordships would wish to extend congratulations to Luton and Solihull on their attaining their desired aim of county borough status, and to wish them well in the future. Now, with your Lordships' permission, I commend both these Orders to the House, but I will move only in the first place that the Luton Order, 1963, be approved.

Moved, That the Luton Order, 1963, be approved.—(Lord Hastings.)

3.16 p.m.


My Lords, I do not think these Orders ought to go through without some interrogation and observation. This business about the police is a little curious. Under the law as it stands in the Act which was introduced by my right honourable friend Mr. Chuter Ede, the basis of police forces was to be counties and county boroughs with, I think, the exception of one—it may have been Cambridge, but I am not sure, where the police were retained by Cambridge town. Here it is intimated that, although Luton is to be a county borough, the Home Secretary may see to it in due course, under a future Act of Parliament which has not yet been passed, that it does not become a police authority. If that were to be so, I should have thought it would have been more straightforward, if it were lawful, to make such a provision in this Order so that it could be argued out on the Order to make Luton a county borough, rather than pick it up by a side wind in a Parliamentary Bill which is not yet passed.

The other thing I should like to know is how far Her Majesty's Government, especially the Minister of Housing and Local Government, have something like a set policy in this matter of local government changes. Are the Commissions for England, Wales and Scotland, absolutely free, starting from a completely blank sheet, so that they can reach an objective decision on their own responsibility and receive evidence on their own responsibility, or have the Government got a state of mind about this matter? Have they got a state of mind as they had about local government in Greater London, for example, about which it was quite clear that the Government had a state of mind before the Royal Commission was set up? Do the Government indicate to the Commission on Local Government for England, or the others, the kind of conclusion they would like to reach—not by specific direction, but by an intimation of the philosophy that the Government have behind these things?

As the House will know—and I am not going to pronounce upon a matter which is not essentially a partisan issue—there has been over the years a steady combat going on between the counties and the county boroughs, or boroughs that want to be county boroughs, which is a natural thing in the story of British local government. But it is an important matter, because in this case Luton will reduce the rateable value of the County of Bedford, and Solihull will reduce the rateable value of the County of Warwick. These things have important financial consequences for the administrative counties, and I am not pronouncing as a matter of judgment which is right, counties or county boroughs. But, nevertheless, it is an important contest; and either the Minister of Housing and Local Government should be absolutely impartial, leaving the Commission absolutely—not nominally, but really and absolutely—free to recommend what they like, or, if he has a philosophy, a point of view, upon the matter, then he should publish it and take the consequences of the policy for which he is declaring.

My belief is that he has a point of view and that the Department has a point of view, and the Department in this matter is as important as the Minister. I think that the Department and the Minister have a point of view. If they have, and if it is known to the Commission, then to that extent the Commission's objective freedom is possibly somewhat impaired. And if they have a point of view and they bring it to bear, then the Minister should publish it in Parliament; he should announce it in Parliament and let the debate proceed.

I am furthered in my apprehensions in this matter by the recommendations as to Tyneside which will come up in the subsequent debate, but it is relevant to the point I am making. The Tyneside recommendation is for a continuous county for Tyneside, together with a series of amalgamated boroughs which will be most-purpose boroughs, not county boroughs. This has happened on the recommendation of the English Commission and will be before the Minister for approval or otherwise. This scheme for Tyneside bears a remarkable similarity to the London Government Act, 1963—a remarkable similarity, which leads to my feeling that there is a philosophy, a point of view, behind the Minister which is influencing the English Commission on Local Government. I say on that only that he may be right or he may be wrong; but, if he has that view, the Minister should say so publicly in Parliament and open himself to criticism, to support or to condemnation, as the case may be.

I am sorry to have had to hold up the decision of the House, but I think that the points I have raised are important. Moreover, the discussion which I have initiated will, I feel, be a useful preliminary to the debate which is shortly to be opened by the noble Lord, Lord Meston. I hope that the Minister speaking for the Ministry of Housing and Local Government will be able to give us specific and clear-cut answers to the points which I have respectfully raised with him.


My Lords, my noble friend has asked me to reply to the one point about the police, which is a Home Office matter. The position about the local police force is this. Under present legislation neither the Home Secretary, nor the Government, have power to prevent a county borough with a population of more than 100,000 from having its own police force if it so desires. As the Police Bill, to which the noble Lord referred, is going through the other place at this moment, my right honourable friend suggested to Luton Town Council that they might hold their hand a bit; and he pointed out to them that—whatever he eventually decides to do, after a local inquiry in any part of the country, about amalgamation of police forces—if and when that Bill becomes an Act he will have power of control. And as the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, has said, it might mean having two bites at the cake. The Luton Town Council were therefore warned by my right honourable friend that that might happen. He did not say that it would happen, since the Police Bill is still before the other place and is not yet an Act. In spite of his warning, Luton have decided to go ahead with their scheme to have their own police force; and the Government, I repeat, at this moment have no power to prevent that.


My Lords, the noble Lord opposite would no doubt like an answer to his other question; his main theme that the Minister of Housing and Local Government, and the officials of the Ministry, may have some particular philosophy which has been clearly indicated to the Local Government Commission but not to the public at large. I feel that it would be more appropriate if I were to dwell at length on this aspect of the matter in the debate which follows. In point of fact, the speech which I propose to make will give a very clear answer to the noble Lord opposite. Very briefly, however, I can tell him now that the Commission are absolutely free to make up their own mind: they do so with a considerable degree of flexibility, and no kind of indication is given by my right honourable friend as to the way in which the Commission should draw their conclusions.

On Question, Motion agreed to.