HL Deb 05 March 1964 vol 256 cc227-35

3.41 p.m.


My Lords, it might be convenient for the House if the two Orders were taken together, the Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely Order, on the one hand, and the Huntingdon and Peterborough Order, on the other—they are made under the same provision of the Local Government Act, 1958, and are very similar in content—although I will move them separately. The House will recall that the Luton and Solihull Orders which were recently approved were the first major measures of local government reorganisation outside London for a quarter of a century and the first Orders to emerge from the process of reorganisation set under way by the Local Government Act, 1958. The Orders now before your Lordships are the second product of this procedure. Their purpose is to constitute by amalgamation two new counties of Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely, and Huntingdon and Peterborough, and to make some other alterations to county boundaries. If the Orders are approved by Parliament, these will be the first new administrative counties to be created since the Isle of Wight was separated from Hampshire in 1890.

The Commission dealt with the four counties of Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, the Isle of Ely and the Soke of Peterborough in their report on the East Midlands General Review Area which, as required by the Act, has been laid before Parliament with the Orders. At an early stage of their review of the area the Commission found that the problems of local government structure in these four counties were so interconnected that they ought to consider them together. There were three main problems. The first concerned the local government structure in the Soke of Peterborough where there was a lack of balance between town and country. Eighty-one per cent. of the county's population and 88 per cent. of its rateable value lay in the City of Peterborough. Special joint authorities, on which both city and county were represented, had been set up for some services like education, police and civil defence. This lack of balance was likely to become more acute when the city's population reached 60,000 and it would then become entitled to claim delegation of health and welfare services.

The second problem arose out of the local government structure in the county of Cambridgeshire. Difficulties arose partly because Cambridge City had half the population of the county and two-thirds of its rateable value, but was entitled to only minority representation on the county council, and partly from the city's special needs as a regional centre and university town. As the Commission put it, the city was too big a fish for the Cambridgeshire pond; either the fish had to be taken out of the pond or the pond had to be enlarged.

Finally, the Commission thought reorgansation essential for Huntingdonshire, the Isle of Ely and the Soke of Peterborough, which are among the smallest counties in England, if their services were to be improved. In considering this problem, the Commission tried to get a general impression of the conditions under which the main services had to be provided, and the extent to which services could be developed beyond a minimum. From these studies they concluded that Huntingdonshire, the Isle of Ely and the Soke of Peterborough were, by comparison with larger counties, far too narrowly limited in their population, resources and case loads. These limitations affected the range of staff with special experience and the range of special institutions which they could afford to carry. As the Minister told the Commons on August 2 last, when the county amalgamations were discussed on the Adjournment, there is no criticism of the members or officers of the authorities; it is just that effectiveness of services is substantially determined by size.

The Commission went on to consider claims for county borough status from the Cities of Cambridge and Peterborough. Peterborough's claim was rejected at an early stage because its population, then just under 60,000, was far short of the figure of 100,000 which under the Act is presumed sufficient for the discharge of the county borough functions. Cambridge City, on the other hand, with a population of 94,000 had a much stronger case. The question was whether a pattern of county administration could be devised which would withstand the loss of the City of Cambridge.

In their draft proposals the Commission attempted to find such a pattern. They suggested that Cambridge should be given county borough status and that the rest of the four counties should be merged into a single administrative county. Apart, however, from the cities of Cambridge and Peterborough, the draft proposals were strongly opposed by the local authorities and particularly by the county councils. The opponents said that a single county would be so inconvenient as to be ineffective, and they were strongly against taking the population and resources of Cambridge City out of an area otherwise generally sparsely populated and poor in terms of rateable value.

The Commission were impressed by the weight of these arguments, and also by the support given by three of the four counties to the alternative idea of leaving Cambridge as a non-county borough and forming two new counties by amalgamation on a North-South basis. It was this plan which the Commission proposed on their final report. There were a number of objections to the Commission's proposals and a public local inquiry was held into them at Cambridge in October, 1962. Copies of the Inspector's report on the inquiry and of the Minister's decision letter have been made available to noble Lords in the Library and the Printed Paper Office.

The decision letter makes it clear that, after considering the objections and representations and the Inspector's report on the inquiry, the Minister came to the conclusion that the present local government structure of these four counties was unsatisfactory and unsuitable for the future. He agreed with the Commission that the primary aim must be to strengthen the counties. In choosing between the two possible ways of doing this, he thought it right to give a good deal of weight to the fact that the two-county system commands a large measure of local support. He therefore accepted the Commission's proposals for the amalgamation of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely, on the one hand, and of Huntingdonshire and the Soke of Peterborough, on the other hand.

Before going on to outline the provisions of the Orders, it may be helpful to deal with the boundaries of the two new counties. The Commission proposed some twenty alterations in the boundary between the two new counties and in their boundaries with Bedford, Essex, Hertfordshire and Northamptonshire. There were objections to 5 of these 20 proposals. The proposals and objections concerning the boundary between Northamptonshire and Huntingdon and Peterborough have been left for consideration along with any proposals which the Commission may make for Stamford, which is in the Lincolnshire and East Angia area and still under review.

In the other four cases public local inquiries were held. After considering the reports on these inquiries, the Minister rejected the proposal for the transfer of Royston from Hertfordshire to the new county of Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely, and also the proposal for exchange of parishes on the Huntingdonshire-Cambridge boundary. He accepted the proposals for the transfer of Thorney Rural District from the Isle of Ely to the new county of Huntingdon and Peterborough, which were supported by the district council, and also, with modification, he accepted the proposal for the transfer to that county of the Bedfordshire township of Eaton Socon which adjoins St. Neots. The boundaries of Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely with Norfolk and West Suffolk remain the present ones pending completion of the Commission's review of those two counties in the Lincolnshire and East Anglia General Review Area.

The contents of the two Orders are very similar. In many respects their provisions are similar to those contained in the Luton and Solihull Orders, which the House considered recently. Other provisions follow wherever possible the general lines of the London Government Act, 1963, and of the Administration of Justice Act.

The object of the Orders is, of course, to create two new counties, and this is done by Article 5. Article 5 also deals with the changes of county boundaries and the consequent changes in the areas of some county districts and parishes. The other provisions of the Orders are consequential on these basic operations. There are a substantial number of them, and I propose to mention only a few of the more important ones.

The new counties will not come into existence until April 1, 1965, but the councils will need some time to prepare for the amalgamations. For this reason, Article 8 provides for elections to the new county councils to be held this autumn. Article 8 also lays down the number of councillors for the new county councils. Article 7 keeps the existing county councils in office until they hand over their functions to the new authorities on April 1, 1965. This provision avoids the inconvenience of holding elections in April of this year for councils which will be in office for less than twelve months. This proposal has been welcomed by the county councils.

The Articles on administration of justice provide for each of the new counties to have a single court of quarter sessions and a single magistrates' courts committee. The new counties will also each have a Lord Lieutenant and a Sheriff. Other Articles make detailed provision for the transfer of services from the present county councils to the new ones. For example, in the case of Huntingdon and Peterborough, Article 22 deals with the education services, Articles 25 to 31 with the health and welfare services, and Article 34 with planning. To start with, the new county councils are required to maintain the services provided by the present authorities. They will, however, need to reconsider and replan their services in the light of the greater scope which increased population and resources will afford them.

The Orders also contain provision for the transfer of local authority staff and for the protection of their terms and conditions of service on the lines laid down in Section 85 of the London Government Act, 1963. All the staff of the present county councils and of the Peterborough Joint Education Board will be transferred to the employment of the new county councils. Local authority employees for areas to be transferred because of boundary alterations will move to the employment of the new authority.

These Orders provide, in the Government's view, a good solution to the local government problems of these four counties. It is a solution which has the disadvantage of not meeting Cambridge City's claim to be a county borough; that is true. But it is a solution which will strengthen county government very greatly. First it will improve the internal balance of the counties incorporating Cambridge and Peterborough cities; and, secondly, it will substantially raise the resources of the counties in population and wealth. These two new counties should be able to provide good services over the widest field, attracting the necessary specialist officers and running the necessary special institutions on a scale which hitherto has not been possible. Moreover, they should draw strength from existing county loyalties; for the great merit of the reorganisation the Government are proposing is that it attracts the maximum possible amount of support in the counties. Even in the case of the Isle of Ely, which has stoutly maintained its claim to independence, there is good reason to hope that the new county will evoke support and enthusiasm.

The Minister is indeed indebted to the members and officers of all four county councils for their ready assistance with the Orders, and is encouraged by the signs that they are ready to come to grips with the problems which will face the new county councils. My Lords, this is perhaps rather a long introduction, but in view of the importance of the alterations I think it is necessary to explain this matter at some length. I beg to move that the Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely Order, 1964, be approved.

Moved, That the Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely Order, 1964, be approved.—(Lord Hastings.)

3.56 p.m.


My Lords, I do not want to say anything about the merits of this Order. I have not had very much time to examine it, but it looks all right. I should like to pay a tribute to the Minister for the very clear and careful way in which he has explained what has happened. What I am a little concerned about is the position of Cambridge City. It has to-day a population of 94,000. It is within reach of the target for becoming eligible to be a county borough, and it seems to me that it will not be very long before it will strike that figure of 100,000. On the face of it, I should have thought that Cambridge is eminently suitable to be a county borough.

This arrangement seems to me to be permanently excluding Cambridge from becoming a county borough. Cambridge is becoming so important a factor in the new county that to remove it later on, even if it were to obtain a considerably larger population, would destroy the viability of the new county. I wonder whether the Government have considered that point. It seems unfair to Cambridge that, apparently for all time, they should be precluded from becoming a county borough simply because the county, as now reorganised, will not be viable without Cambridge. This is possibly a matter for the future, although the not too distant future, and I shall be very grateful if the noble Lord can give us the Government's view on this point.


My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Silkin, I do not propose in any way to criticise the Orders which are before us this afternoon. But, as the Minister knows, there has been considerable opposition in the area to the proposed amalgamations and alterations which we are considering. I should like to thank the noble Lord for his courtesy in informing me of what is now the procedure for making known the views of the local government commissions. The reports are available in the Printed Paper Office and the Library. I was wondering whether they had just been made available, or when they were available, and, if it has not been done, whether in future in the document which is circulated to Members an indication could be included of the papers which are available, sometime before the Orders are submitted to the House for consideration and agreement.

3.58 p.m.


My Lords, if I may reply first to the noble Lord, Lord Burden, I think it is true that the various Papers to which he is referring are put in the Printed Paper Office and the Library at the time of the Orders. He will remember that in my letter to him I drew attention to the fact that decision letters are issued a long time before, so that the Orders may be prepared, and they are available to any noble Lord who is interested. I will, however, go into this particular point and see whether perhaps these facts can be made available, or at least notified, at a previous moment. But the real information the noble Lord wants is in the decision letter, and I think that is a quesion of noble Lords' asking the Ministry of Housing and Local Government if they might have a copy. I think that would be the best solution.

To turn to the problem put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, of course this was really the basic problem that had to be solved by the Commission. In their first proposals, as I said in my remarks, the Commission suggested that Cambridge City should have county borough status, but they pointed out that the only way in which that could be considered the really appropriate solution in the circumstances of the whole area would be if at the same time the other four counties came together into one unit; because the noble Lord was talking about viability. Even now, if Cambridge City is taken out of the two counties, Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely, the rest becomes not viable. How much more would that be the case if Cambridge City were taken out of Cambridgeshire by itself? In terms of population and rateable values, Cambridgeshire would become as small as the Soke of Peterborough is now—in fact it would become poorer, because it would not have Peterborough to support it, as the Soke has.

When it came to trying to get agreement on the single unit for the four counties without Cambridge City, it proved quite impossible, and all the county councils objected very strongly. Even Peterborough, which at one time was in favour of that solution, because it foresaw that it might be the capital, so to speak, of the administrative unit and eventually perhaps get its own county borough status—when the two-county proposal was put forward, changed sides and supported the present proposal which is the subject of the Order. Cambridge City, of course, would soon be entitled to ask for county borough status, but in the meanwhile I think this is the best solution that can be obtained in all the circumstances. We shall have to see what happens in the future. Maybe Cambridge City will be quite content with the new arrangement and let it go along for many years. If it does make an application, we shall have to consider it at that time.


My Lords, would the noble Lord suggest to his right honourable friend the possibility of siting one or more New Towns in that area, which would add to the viability of the county and so make it possible for Cambridge City to apply for county borough status one day?

On Question, Motion agreed to.