HL Deb 05 February 1964 vol 255 cc153-6

3.26 p.m.

LORD MESTON rose to call the attention of Her Majesty's Government to the working of the Local Government Commissions in reviewing local government areas in England and Wales; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: As your Lordships know, under Part II of the Local Government Act, 1958, a Local Government Commission was set up for the purpose of reorganisation of local government in England outside the Metropolitan area and to make proposals to make it more effective and convenient. A separate Commission was established for Wales. The 1958 Act laid down special review areas for the Commission—namely, the conurbations on Tyneside, in West Yorkshire, in South-East Lancashire, Merseyside and the West Midlands. I might just draw a distinction, which is probably known to your Lordships, between the general and special review areas. In the case of the general review areas the Commission can propose alterations, amalgamations and other changes in counties and county boroughs, including creating new ones and abolishing existing ones. In the case of special review areas the procedure is the same but the Commission can go further. They can make proposals relating to county districts as well as to counties and county boroughs, and they can propose what is known as a continuous county; that is to say, a county in which there are no county boroughs. They can also redistribute the functions between the various authorities. Reports have been submitted to the Minister in final form on the West Midlands general and special review area, the East Midlands general review area and the North-Eastern general review area, which includes Tees-side. I may tell your Lordships that these reports constitute most fascinating reading and I strongly recommend your Lordships to read every word of these interesting and exciting documents. There are some further proposals, as yet only in draft form, in the hands of the Minister, including the report on Tyneside.

As to the procedure, this has already been explained. I understand that in the first place the Commission report to the Minister, who hears any objections and can call a public inquiry for the purpose of hearing these objections. The Minister then makes an order and, finally, the order is laid before Parliament. I must refer again to Tyneside, which is such an important industrial area. Broadly speaking, the draft proposals recommend the division of Tyneside into four Tyneside boroughs under a Tyneside County Council, thus creating a continuous county, which involves the abolition of all county boroughs. At present the area in question is divided for local government purposes between twelve authorities of different size and powers. If one continuous county is created to cover these twelve authorities there is likely to be criticism. For example, take the County of Durham. As your Lordships know, only the best people come from the County of Durham. If these proposals are carried, the County of Durham will have its population cut by 165,000 and its rateable value reduced by £2,635,000. There is also objection from the County Borough of Gateshead and some opposition at the level of rural district councils. It is only fair to say that the Commission have come up against similar opposition in other review areas. In many cases, though not in every case, it is a question of reconciling division with efficient local administration.

The Commission have to consider many factors, such as population increases, improved communications and increased standard of living, in arriving at the most appropriate local government for the area. As to the membership of the Commission, while the members are all people of integrity and efficiency, it is fair to ask whether on-the-spot knowledge is present or lacking. In this connection, it might be helpful if permanent members were given power to co-opt two local representatives from the area which is the subject of the review.

My Lords, these are the only observations that I wish to make. This Commission have now been in operation for some years, and I am desirous of obtaining from Her Majesty's Government some statement as to their work and their general progress. I await with interest the classical disquisition of the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, upon this important subject. I beg to move for Papers.

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Meston, has made a statement about the way in which this Report found expression in the Tyneside area and the North generally, and I suggest that the Commission might take serious note of that, because all kinds of rumours spread abroad last week about this matter. One of the first reports was that part of Durham—Jarrow—was going into Northumberland, and in the present disturbed state of Durham County, particularly as a result of its peculiar economic position, it is easily understood that the people would become alarmed about a statement of that kind.

I suggest to the noble Lord, the Minister, that the Commission might take some steps to deal with false reports and also to give accurate information to the people of that community. Will the noble Lord believe me when I tell him that the people of Durham were very much alarmed about this report that Jarrow was to be linked up in Northumberland. I made inquiries about it, and I was told that Jarrow was going to be linked with Shields in some way or other. I tell the noble Lord that in order that he may understand the need to see that accurate, full and careful information is given to the public upon these matters.

One reason I have risen is to say that I think the House will understand that Durham County has been in a very disturbed and a somewhat dolorous condition in recent months, and I am afraid that that state of affairs will continue throughout the mining areas. That makes all the greater the need for accurate and full information to be given to the people at this time. I hope the noble Lord will believe me when I tell him that the people were rather alarmed, not only about the economic position but because it seemed that a very precious heritage of ours that is rooted in Jarrow was to be taken away. While I do not think that everybody will be aware of the fact, scholars will know that a very great work by St. Bede was written in Jarrow. He was buried first, for about a century, in Chester-le-Street. He is now buried in the Durham Cathedral. So, although nearly two thousand years have passed, one can understand that a people who know their history, men and women who as children have had this hammered into them, become concerned when reports like that get about.

There is another point I should like to make. Durham is in a very bad way; it is really heartbreaking to hear of the hundreds of children who have to report at what they call the "dole schools". I say this only because I think that such reports, particularly throughout the mining areas, will become quite common. It is therefore necessary that the Government should not only give accurate and full information upon matters of this kind, but also set up a commission to look into the economic conditions prevailing in this country in order to give accurate information about its living conditions. I know that it is outside the subject we are discussing, but it affects the thoughts and minds of people, and so I ask the Government particularly to give very careful consideration to setting up another commission to deal with and warn people about the economic conditions that prevail in the various parts of this country.