HL Deb 12 December 1966 vol 278 cc1469-96

4.3 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, I rise to express in a very few sentences my support of the three previous speeches on the question of Torbay. The fact is that between the date this Order was made by the Minister and its presentation to Parliament there has been a revolution in thinking in the Ministry. If any proof of that is needed, I would cite my own district of South-East England, where we had our own plans and had spent a great deal of time and energy on conceiving and drafting those plans, but were not able to present them because the Boundary Commission was abolished before they came to us. We have had to wait, and if Torbay had been in South-Eastern England instead of South-Western England, it would have had to wait, too.

The reasons for this change have been expressed in Ministerial speeches. Generally the theory is that this cold war between county boroughs and county councils must be superseded by something better. The case we are considering to-day is an example of a cold war. I do not know anything about Devonshire or Torbay, but I do know something about local government. If there is a big shake-out or redeployment, it is always a matter of great difficulty and, very often, some pain. This is found in other areas of political life. To have two shake-outs, two redeployments, in a matter of three years seems to me too painful, too unnecessary, and I therefore support what my noble friends Lord Amory and Lord Amulree have suggested.

4.5 p.m.


My Lords, so much has already been said on the demerits of this Order that I do not wish to repeat and go to the length my noble friend Lord Leather land has done in the detailed way in which he has destroyed the validity of this Order. I would rather rely on the Special Orders Committee, who said, in effect: "Do not pass this Order". They say that it is in order—they were bound to say that. The Committee were bound to say that the people who ought to consider it are your Lordships, which again I would consider to be quite proper. But when the Report says that, having regard to the fact that the Royal Commission are expected to report at about the time this Order will become effective, and therefore should receive the careful consideration of your Lordships, it seems to me that that is tantamount to saying that it really ought not to go through.

I should like to deal with one or two points that have been made, and I will do so very briefly. The apology of the Minister for bringing this Order to us is that the Minister announced in June, 1965, that he was proposing to accept the proposals of the Local Government Commission, subject to some minor amendments. This is an argument put forward now as being a reason why this Order must go through. But I would submit that we are not governed by Ministers. Ministers have their job to do, but if the Minister's word is to he the final word on this matter, why has the procedure been arrived at of presenting the Orders to the House for approval?

I strongly resent the idea that because a Minister has said something it must necessarily be accepted in this House, or in another place, as being a necessary reason for something going through. We are not concerned with which side Ministers come from: I am referring to Ministers in general. We know that on both sides Ministers change their minds, and do so quite frequently. Therefore, the final decision must be what your Lordships decide, or what is decided in another place. In these circumstances, the appropriate date for considering this matter in relation to the time scale is now and not June, 1965. In June, 1965, it was not proposed to abolish the Boundary Commission. It might have been in mind, because of the difficulties which the Boundary Commission faced and which everybody recognised. But certainly there was no public pronouncement on this matter until the following year.

Therefore, had we been considering the Torbay Order in June, 1965, although I think the Order itself is not a good one, we should have considered it in a different light. I should probably have accepted it as not being very good but, in the general light of what was being done by the Boundary Commission, as perhaps not too appropriate but nevertheless as something that might be permitted. But having regard to the fact that the Boundary Commission was wound up, not because it was inefficient, but because so much water had flowed under the bridge since it was appointed, or since the Act which permitted its appointment was passed, the facts that it had to consider for the purposes of local government reorganisation were no longer valid. If they were no longer valid, obviously they can be no longer valid for things which were in the pipeline. This is the basis of my case.

I need not go over the ground, but it is already accepted generally that 100,000 population is not necessarily the appropriate minimum figure for county borough status. Do not let us run away with this magic figure of 100,000. It is only one of the factors to be taken into consideration in considering whether a county borough should be created. There are all sorts of other factors which come into this matter, and here it would seem to me that the bulk of the case is against the Torbay Order.

Some reference has been made by the Minister to the question of the relief which will be available to the Devon County Council as a result of this massive transfer of rate able values from the county to the proposed new county borough. I think he might have told us the whole of the story, because by the time this transfer becomes effective we shall be under the new grant system, which provides for a total ceiling of Government grants—not with anything added to it, but a total ceiling. Below the ceiling the amounts to be paid to the varying types of authority, individually or collectively, may be varied, but the transfer of any sum of money to a particular authority, or type of authority, will need a reduction to another type of authority.

The Government are glibly talking about £500,000 being available. I would respectfully say to your Lordships that this is another £500,000 of the taxpayers' money which will be provided in a par- ticular area because of the action taken by the Government in reducing the rate able value of the County of Devon. This seems to me to be a good reason why most local authorities will not look at it in quite that way when they realise that if Devon gets another £500,000 some of them will get less.

Nor should we be led away by the idea that there will be vast new sums of money available. We know that £30 million will be made available, but this is for the relief of the domestic ratepayers and there will not be any more than £30 million. We do not even know that there will be any addition to the figures of last year. It may well be that there will not be sufficient monies available to deal with normal increases, and therefore we should be rather circumspect in suggesting that if Devon gets another £500,000 that will ease the way and we need not worry very much.

Apart from the financial aspects there is another question I wish to discuss. I was concerned in the negotiations between various associations from the early 1950's up to the time of the setting up of the Boundary Commission. The figure of 100,000 even then was never a sacrosanct figure. It was reached by a bit of Dutch auctioning as to the minimum which would be acceptable to the County Councils Association, upon which agreement could he reached between ourselves, the rural district councils and the urban district councils associations. So that figure was never very firmly based. It was accepted as a compromise. This has proved itself to be ineffective and quite out of reason in the light of present-day developments, which, my noble friend has already said, is referred to in the evidence submitted to the Royal Commission.

If it is argued that the Royal Commission are not going to report in two years, I, for one, would want to know what the Government are doing, because the Minister said that we were setting up a relatively small, high-powered Commission in order that they could report in approximately two years. The speed with which the Royal Commission have been working to get in the written evidence convinces me that they will endeavour to live up to the proposed timetable. If the Minister says that the Government will be so dilatory in dealing with the report that it will take years to frame legislation, I am sorry, but that will be no reason for not dealing with this Order, because it is fairly obvious that Torbay will not remain as a county borough. Therefore what is now being done will merely have the effect of changing the position, and by the time it becomes effective it will need to be superseded.

What shall we have done? We shall have created a new set of officers. What will be done as a result of the creation of the county borough will be that quite a number of officers in small districts will become redundant and will need to be compensated. This is happening in London at the present time. And if, within a relatively short time, it is found necessary to change the status again to fit in with a different pattern of local government over the country as a whole, there will be more redundancy. Everything that has been said by the Government on this matter convinces me that, had it not been for the fact that this proposal was in the pipe-line, it would not have been proceeded with; the fact that it is in the pipe-line ought not to preclude your Lordships from turning it down.

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, I regret I did not hear the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, make his opening remarks, but having listened to the last four noble Lords who have spoken in opposition I cannot believe that the case put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has not been completely demolished. The last four speakers all have great knowledge of local government and local government reorganisation. They have spoken as one against the proposal of the Torbay Order. The effect of this Order, even if it were carried out—which I very much hope it will not be—would be to create what perhaps is one of the weakest forms of local government; that is to say, a weak county borough. A weak county borough has so many disadvantages. It cannot afford to do what a county borough ought to do—namely, to provide the services for which it is set up. I know myself, after thirty years as a member of a county council, that a weak county borough is never able to bear the financial burden of its duties, and the result of that is that the so-called county boroughs often have to borrow and to be subsidised in order to carry out their duties.

Surely this is the last moment at which to set up this rather ramshackle new county borough which has been described by my noble friend Lord Amory and by the two noble Lords opposite. From what we have heard to-day it will not be a viable unit, and if the Government, in their wisdom, set up a Royal Commission to iron out the non-viable units what on earth is the use, at this moment, of setting up what is bound to be a non-viable unit, a few months before the Royal Commission report? I cannot believe that it makes sense at all.

I should like to refer to a most important point that was made by the noble Lord, Lord Pargiter, when he referred to the half a million pounds subsidy that might be found for the County of Devon by the Exchequer. No doubt that would he agreeable for the county concerned, but the noble Lord demolished that case because he pointed out that this half a million pounds will only come from other local authorities, county councils or county boroughs, which will he receiving subsidies from the central Exchequer. The other counties will be short of this half a million pounds, which is to go to Devon for the only object of relieving it from what it loses by setting up this weak, non-viable county borough of Torbay. I cannot believe your Lordships would be right in passing this Order to-day and I support as strongly as possible the Amendment that has been moved.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, I feel on this occasion more than usually like a voice crying in the wilderness. None the less, it leaves me no less convinced that I am right, and I may perhaps be able to convince your Lordships that there is another side to this picture. It has been painted all black and one-sided to-day. I rise to support this Order and to express the hope that your Lordships will give it approval. Perhaps I ought first to say that the noble Lord, Lord Ilford, whose knowledge of local government and experience in it is respected on all sides of this House, very much regrets that he was unable to be present here to-day owing to important pre-engagements, and the views that I am going to try to express to you are those that he would have expressed very much better had he been able to be here.

To begin with, may I deal with one point from a previous speaker which rather shocked me. The noble Lord claimed that the Special Orders Committee had more or less recommended the rejection of this Order. They did nothing of the sort. As I understand it, the Special Orders Committee merely stated that as a question of policy and principle was involved it would be proper for your Lordships, in making a decision whether to approve or disapprove, to be cognisant of a view which was held by many people. The debate to-day seems to me, if I may say so, to have rather swamped the main question in a mass of detail, no doubt based on knowledge. I know that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing but I feel to-day that a lot of knowledge is often more dangerous, because it is liable to emerge and to swamp the point at issue.

The question is whether a major change should be made in the structure of local government in the Torbay area having regard to the probability that the change will take effect only a short time before the Royal Commission maybe expected to make its Report. The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, and other speakers have elaborated the reasons why in their view your Lordships should deny your approval. On the other side of this question, I would ask your Lordships to consider to what extent a general principle such as has been stated to apply should be applied so destructively in the overriding circumstances of the particular area which, after all, we are supposed to be considering. In view of some of the very derogatory remarks which have been made by one speaker about the Local Government Commission, I would say that surely their words merit some attention. In their Report they said: We feel that the proposed county borough of Torquay is an imaginative proposal which, with the assured goodwill of so many who arc concerned, could have far reaching effects on both the standard of services and on the future prosperity of the area as a whole whilst still leaving the County of Devon a strong and effective instrument of local government. You cannot just sweep that aside.

The Local Government Commission has been attacked by another speaker, but that again is distorting the truth. When the announcement was made of the winding-up of the Local Government Commission and the setting-up of the Royal Commission on Local Government there was no suggestion that the reason was the incompetence of the former Commission, and the work they had done was expressly preserved. In short, the standstill pending recommendations by the Royal Commission was not back-dated; it is not to be assumed, in other words, that all the work of the former Commission was so bad that their knitting will now be unravelled. I think one should bear that in mind, too, especially as none of us knows, what the Royal Commission will report.

The noble Viscount, Lord Amory, I think, referred to the danger, which apparently will be caused by approval of this Order, of the coast of Devon being tremendously over-built. I am unable to understand how that can be deduced, how there can be any greater danger, because the local people, who will be most affected by what is done, are in charge. Would not the danger be equally great when the control was far away from that particular area? That, at any rate, is the way I personally should look at it.

After the Minister of Housing and Local Government announced his decision to approve the formation of a county borough in Torquay, the councils of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham established a joint co-ordinating committee, as I think the noble Lord introducing this Order stated—but apparently it has been disregarded by speakers—to assist in the implementation of the Minister's decision, and for this purpose it was given delegated powers. I do not want to waste the time of this House by going into details, but I must mention a few, in view of the completely false picture which I think many speakers have left of the issues here. Various sub-committees were appointed to consider all the aspects of integration—departmental structure, establishment matters, schemes for the various departments and services of the new county borough. Nothing has been neglected, from the equalisation of water rate differentials to trade union staffing, setting up of a manual workers' joint consultative council, from accounting to engineering—in fact, every question relating to the amalgamation of the services at present separately administered by the towns of Torquay, Paignton, Brixham and the parish of Churston Ferrers.

I am surprised at the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, proposing the denial of this Order, because special attention has been given to the organisation of health and social services. Administrative plans have been drafted in which an attempt has been made to break down the traditional watertight divisions so often found in the local authority health and social services and to try to provide a really integrated service reorientated to the individual or family whom it is sought to benefit, rather than on the administrative echelons of professional workers. For several years there has been enthusiastic co-operation and a real spirit of local pride which has produced a very unusual unanimity of effort. Can one seriously contemplate killing the enthusiasm of those who have worked so successfully to achieve agreement?

It may be suggested by those opposing the Order that a county borough of 100,000 population is likely to be condemned. But this is pure speculation. Indeed, it is probably more likely that the existing county council structure will be affected, and so an area such as the proposed Torquay County Borough, possibly enlarged, could be envisaged as a unit to perform the functions which, of necessity, must be administered by an authority which is local.

I have been noticing a paper, to which I have not the reference at the moment, but I can do without it. It is far more likely that the Royal Commission, when they Report, will deal with county councils as regions, and will possibly leave outside a county borough such as Torquay, because it can be left efficiently to function beneath whatever the region may be, and be left outside, as was done in the original reorientation of local government. But I would only say, with respect, that to suggest that at this stage the Order should be abandoned because of the impending Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government is not a realistic position to take up when one remembers the years that must pass before the Commission's recommendations, whatever they happen to be, are implemented.

One material point which I feel sure should be emphasised is that in the formation of a county borough for Torbay there is the opportunity of gaining experience of the administration of a larger local government unit of the type and nature likely to evolve from the finding of the Royal Commission. Surely the real advantage of the unification of this area rests upon the fact that, to be a really efficient and enterprising international resort, which it is likely to become, much to the profit of this country, Torbay should be administered as one unit, with all the benefits that would derive from this sensible arrangement.

May I emphasise, too, that the coordinating committee charged with the task of the formation of the proposed county borough have worked hard, and most successfully, and I am sure that many of the aspersions cast upon them this afternoon were quite unjustified. In the minds of any listener who was not acquainted with the facts, what has been said would leave the impression of complete muddle and disorder, though any such impression would have not a vestige of truth in it. The whole of the Torbay area is united in its desire for county borough status. Surely it would be a pity to throw away all this preparatory work for the problematic and remote reasons which have been advanced this afternoon. I venture to express a hope that your Lordships will refuse to decree a paralysis of progress of indefinite duration by denying approval of this Order. I believe that the question before this House this afternoon is: Are you in favour of action, or inaction bolstered by hatred of change to a better organisation?

My Lords, There is a tide in the affairs of men… I hope that your Lordships will recognise it by approving this Order.

4.35 p.m.


My Lords, I will not trespass upon your Lordships' time for too long. Listening to the most interesting debate that we have had, I felt impelled to say a few words about the Order that is before us. Unlike the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, I am not familiar geographically with the area to which this Order refers; therefore, I cannot speak about Devon with the same competence and authority that he can. Nor is it my intention this afternoon to go into the merits or otherwise, which have been reflected in the Local Government Commission proposals recommending that this County Borough of Torbay should be created.

The only point I wish to make, in the few words that I have to say, is that since the recommendations were made (we have heard quite a lot from the noble Lord, Lord Leather land, about this), and since the decision of the Minister was given in the early part of this year, circumstances have changed. May I say that this may not be the last Order of its kind that we shall have? I am advised that, in the not too distant future we shall have a similar Order so far as the proposals respecting Sheffield, the Derbyshire County Council and the Chesterfield Rural District Council are concerned, and there may be others. All that is an indication that this is not the last time we shall hear of this particular subject.

May I say, in parenthesis, that I entered local government as a local councillor more than forty years ago, and from that moment one of the topics that has been most discussed in local government circles by those who are closest to it, has been the reform of local government. On that point I have discovered that there is complete unanimity—no one objects to it. But when the various suggestions are put forward about what kind of reform it shall be, my experience has been that it immediately produces a verbal civil war. One of my hopes is that the Royal Commission set up this year will grasp this nettle, and will deal with the structure of local government and set it up more on a satisfactory basis than it is at the moment.

In the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, I would say that I found that his Act of 1957 on this particular subject really lacked teeth. It is true that it provided for promotion to county borough status, for demotion from county borough status, for amalgamations of certain authorities, and that if a new authority resulting from amalgamations reached a population of 60,000, then certain delegation of services would come to it by right and not as a result of the good disposition of the county council. But there we are. All this has been going on for a long time.

What, then, are the changed circumstances which have come into operation during the past few months? The first is that the Local Government Commission, which was set up under legislation passed in 1958, has now been abandoned. Secondly, a Royal Commission has been set up to look at the structure of local government, and it is hoped that they will make their Report by not later than the middle of 1968. What a coincidence it is that this Torbay Order may come into operation almost at the same time as the Royal Commission make their Report. Nobody can anticipate what the Royal Commission may say, but, in view of the possibility of far-reaching proposals regarding the structure of local government and having regard to the evidence which has been submitted by the various local authorities, it is not an exaggeration to say that it is quite possible there may be rather larger units than is the case at present. So far as Torbay is concerned—and indeed other areas, too, such as Sheffield and Derbyshire County Council—I would suggest that, rather than run the risk of two changes in so short a time, it would be advisable to have a complete standstill until the Royal Commission on Local Government has reported.

I noted that the Special Orders Committee did one thing of significance. They rejected the petition of the Devon County Council in relation to a new inquiry, and when one reads all the evidence and sees the arguments which have been put upon more than one occasion—at the meeting with local authorities, at the statutory meetings and in the inquiry itself—one has to conclude that the matter has been threshed out quite sufficiently and that the Special Orders Committee were quite right to refuse an inquiry. But what was significant was that they went on to say (and I feel that this is most germane to our debate this afternoon) that the question of the proposal of a Torbay county borough raises a matter of policy and principle as to whether a change in the structure of local government in the Torbay area is desirable at this time.

I am against the Order, not on the basis of a consideration of the merits of the matter, but on the basis of the timing involved. I repeat that, in view of the fact that the Government have created the Royal Commission on Local Government, it would he wise to observe a standstill and let the whole thing be held in abeyance until the Royal Commission report.

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, one thing is quite clear to-day, and that is that this Order, like so many others, is not a Party matter. We have had opinions from both sides of the Chamber which differ fundamentally, and, of course, in another place the same thing happens. It is always the same: the county which is going to have parts of it removed, usually into an existing county borough, in this case into a new county borough, says that it will no longer be viable and mobilises the support of the county representatives in another place. The borough, or what is to become a borough, says the opposite and argues—and there is a great deal to be said in favour of it—that it is growing and getting too large to remain a part of a county without going independent on its own. These broad points are bound to happen in a country where there is a movement, for good or for ill, to the outskirts of towns, and where existing towns in most cases aret getting larger. I remember that I had exactly the same sort of experience in regard to the position of Northampton in Northamptonshire. I do not think there is a county in the country which has not had this sort of situation in one form or another. It is certainly nothing new. Then the matter moves from that situation to vituperation. The vituperation consists in the county borough saying, "What about Rutland?", and the country replying, "What about Canterbury?" Neither Rutland nor Canterbury by any orthodox standard is viable. That, then, is the broad question which always arises.

Machinery was set out under the Local Government Act to deal with this type of question. It is quite untrue to say—and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, will agree with me—that those who thought about the matter and set up the Local Government Commission did not have this type of problem in mind. It is the most frequent problem of all. What happens is that the Local Government Commission goes into the matter in detail, it hears both sides, perhaps even to excess, but it does so under the machinery of the Act. In this case the business took seven years. Its recommendations are followed by a decision one way or another by the responsible Ministers.

The case which is before us to-day is a very interesting borderline case, because the Local Government Commission changed its mind. Furthermore, it looks to me as though the county council changed its mind, too—at any rate it raised no very active opposition. It conferred delegated powers and led many people to suppose that it was not going to object, until the last moment. That does not matter very much, but this all indicates that it is a borderline case. I will not got into the merits of the matter, for I could not hope to compete with my noble friends who have long and detailed experience of local government. Indeed, I am not sure it is our duty to go into this kind of question. This is the sort of matter which the Local Government Commission and, in turn, the Minister of the day have to consider—questions such as whether they can afford a police force of their own, whether they, like Rutland, will have to borrow their books from the neighbouring county, and similar matters. It takes time. There is no question that people are not fully heard about it. There is no question that evidence is not fully available to the Local Government Commission. Then you come to the Minister's decision later as you did in this case, and then the matter has to go before both Houses of Parliament.

Those of us who have served in another place know this story very well. As a rule, most Members leave the Chamber, except the local Members, and those who have to be there on Government account or on Opposition account, sometimes. The Chamber empties a bit, and there you are. There is the county borough Member putting one case—and in this instance the Conservative Member for Torquay put it—and there are the county Members, in this instance almost all of them Conservatives, putting the other side of the matter. It is not a Party matter at all. That is the position in the Commons, and in the Commons it is quite clear that there are Members who are elected Members, and who represent the local interests in a different sense from any which your Lordships can claim to have.

I noticed—and I hope I am allowed to say it—that this particular Order was passed by a very large majority—I think I have the figures right-166 to 10. Of course, on this non-Party issue, the Member for Torquay borough voted in favour of the Order and, on the whole, the county Members did not. Some of them did not vote. One Member whom I should have expected to vote, and who spoke about it from the Conservative Front Bench, did not vote. I do not know what the feeling was, but there is no doubt about the decision. The decision was an overwhelming one in favour of the Order.

With respect to everybody, I do not think it is the function of either House of Parliament on these occasions to go too deeply into the questions that have already been considered by the Local Government Commission, unless of course there is some question of principle involved. I would say at once that there was a little discussion about the cost of a new town hall, or county hall, which had in fact been fully examined elsewhere. That sort of thing inevitably happens. But at the end of the day it seems to me that the governing principle in another place must be, "What are the wishes of the inhabitants of the area, and how are the services for which the local ratepayers are going to pay to be best provided?"

I am aware that there is a list of rather longer considerations which have to be before the Local Government Commission, but it is those two particularly which seem to me to fall to a House of Parliament to consider. With that overwhelming weight of authority behind it, not only the Local Government Commission after long deliberation, not only the Ministry who have a rather special knowledge in these cases, which I think one is bound to recognise, but also the House of Commons by an overwhelming and unusually large majority, the Order comes up here to be considered. I would merely say to your Lordships, with very deep respect, that I am not quite clear what function we are performing if we think that we are entitled to reject this on grounds which arise out of either of the two matters which I have been talking about: one is the wishes of the inhabitants, and the other is the provision of proper services.

I say quite frankly—there is no use beating about the bush; it may be King Charles's head for all I know, or it may be the obstinacy of Cato, who put off getting a classical education till he reached the age of 80, by putting into every one of his speeches, "Carthage must be destroyed", but I do not quite know where Carthage is in this connection and perhaps we had better leave it at that—that I cannot think that it is the function of this House, or indeed of either House, to raise questions here about the detail of services, or the broad general question of what is to be done with growing communities on the fringe of a borough, except in so far as the Commons has a special right to represent the wishes of the inhabitants.

I feel that your Lordships must necessarily have rather limited functions. I am not saying that your Lordships do not have power to turn this Order down. I should not deny that for a moment. I just point out to your Lordships what the result would be. Seven years of a great deal of deliberation, a great deal of evidence, the services of a large number of members of my own profession of the law, would have been for the moment wasted, and if the matter is to arise again then they would have to start from scratch, and this in spite of the decision below.

There remains the question which led the Special Orders Committee to ask us to consider the Order, and that is the connection with the Local Government Commission sitting, I think I noticed the other day, in the same offices which were occupied by the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources at one period—and very nice they were, too—for quite a time. That point, too, was answered pretty fully in another place, and no point that I can see was taken about it other than the mere point that it is too near the moment when they come to their conclusions to do anything. I should have thought that was a question which the Minister of the day must have considered; and, indeed, a point raised in another place was that he had considered it and, rightly or wrongly, was following certain principles.

Is it right for us to tell the Minister that this question of timing in relation to a Royal Commission is one of such importance that nothing ought to be done and that seven years labours should be wasted? I find great difficulty in accepting that as a reasonable proposition. I do not know how much he knows about the deliberations of the Royal Commission. A great deal of the evidence has been made public. There may be some indication—I do not have it—of what they are going to do. But I cannot believe that Ministers on either side are half-witted, and I should have thought that if he really felt this was an utterly useless Order to bring in he would not have put it forward. Surely one can trust a responsible Minister of the Crown to that extent, apart from any Party question—and I repeat, this is not a Party question.

So, for all those reasons, I feel it would be inappropriate for your Lordships to exercise your undoubted powers to turn this Order down, and to do it on any of the grounds which have been so well put forward by those interested in the fortunes of the County Councils Association. When this sort of question comes to this stage, it goes beyond the interests either of that body or of the Association of Municipal Corporations, or any other of the local authority associations concerned. They have important functions but it is the Act which, as I see it, tells us what the Local Government Commission ought to do and I think, by implication, makes it quite clear that we ought not to repeat in Parliament the deliberations which must necessarily have been before that Commission and the Ministry of the day. I am not saying that your Lordships have no power to turn this Order down—of course your Lordships have that statutory power; there is not the least doubt about it—but I am saying that I respectfully suggest it could rarely be appropriate to exercise that power and that it would not be appropriate to exercise it in a matter of this sort, which, whatever else may be said about it, has certainly had full consideration as a marginal case.

5.0 p.m.


My Lords, I think that if this matter had been under discussion a year ago to-day I would have been able to agree with almost everything the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, said, at least until he came to the part where he was dealing with the Report from the Special Orders Committee. It may well be right that we in this House ought not to go into the complicated matters of the wishes of the inhabitants, or into the admirable or not so admirable carrying out of the county services, when one of these Orders gets to the very last moment before it is finally put into force. But if this House has this afternoon not given a very friendly reception to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, or to his Order, I do not believe it is because we are trying to infringe the sort of principle that the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, was enunciating.

Nor do I believe for one moment that we should wish to pour any sort of scorn upon the work of the Local Government Commission, or, indeed, on the enthusiasm of the citizens and the councillors of the local authorities which it is proposed should make up the new County Borough of Torbay. The Local Government Commission, which produced this scheme, were working on the criteria set out in the Act and the regulations made under it, and I think—in fact, I am sure—they were doing the best they could in the circumstances. So far as the people in the Torbay area are concerned, they may well, of course, be disappointed if, through a change of circumstances, the conclusion of the matter for which they had hoped is not reached. But it is in no way meant to be a criticism of what they have done, or what they have hoped for, if we now suggest that the circumstances are a little different from those in which they first formed these hopes, and that we should discuss the matter upon that basis.

There are few of the detailed matters that I wish to touch upon, because other noble Lords have dealt with them already. The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, dealt with the unity which was displayed among the people in Torbay. I should have thought that this was a quite obvious prerequisite for the whole matter, and that it would have been lunacy to go ahead without it. So the matter is not perhaps of particular importance, although it will be to the function of the new county borough when it is set up. So far as size is concerned, whether or not this proposed new county borough was just or right under the old criteria may not now be so important. What I think is important is that, having had this proposal to set up a new county borough, there are services which it now seems better—indeed, it may have seemed better all along—should be shared. If that is the case, it is for the same reason, I suspect, that this question is now the subject of the whole of the Royal Commission's inquiry; that is to say, that the size of local authorities with which we have been so long content is not now thought necessarily to be the right size for the future. And so Torbay, in accordance with the trend, considers that the police, fire and other services would be better administered over a wider area.

If what had to be considered was simply the local balance of advantage at the time the Minister made his decision, or when the Commission reported originally, then I would think that, the difficulties on Devon's side having been set out, as they were in paragraph 235, I think, of the Commission's Report, and discussed thereafter, it would be entirely justifiable to come to the conclusion which the Commission and the Minister reached: that, taking all balances into account, this was the right thing to do, and Torbay should become a county borough. But the difficulty was that the setting up of the Royal Commission was then announced. The situation was explained in another place, and I expect your Lordships remember what the right honourable gentleman the Minister had to say about the decisions which either had already been announced or were just about to be announced by him as a result of inquiries under the Local Government Act 1958. I think the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, quoted half of it, but I should like to quote the whole. The Minister said: Where decisions have been already announced on proposals by the Commission, the necessary orders will be brought before Parliament as soon as possible. Other proposals on which decisions have not yet been taken will be considered on their merits, in the light of the decision to appoint a Royal Commission."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 724, col. 644; 10/2/66.] My Lords, on the latter class of decisions I do not believe that any disrespect was meant to the Local Government Commission, or that there was any intention to hurt the feelings of the people concerned, if the Government subsequently decided that at this moment it was not necessarily right to give a decision which would otherwise have been correct within the criteria. I know of twocases—that of Rotherham and that of Norwich—where after the date of the announcement of the setting up of the Royal Commission, a decision was given restricting the county borough in each case to very much the area it had before. I do not know why that was so decided, but it may well be that the Government thought that at that juncture, whatever might happen later, it would be better to leave the status quo for the moment. As I say, I do not know; but that might have been the reason, and it might have been a good reason.

That would have been a comparatively minor change, looking at it side by side with the creation of a new county borough. I believe this to be a unique occasion. There are no other new county boroughs which have been recommended for creation by the Local Government Commission whose decision was given, but not implemented, before the appointment of the Royal Commission. It is because of this situation, and because of one other consideration, to which I should like to come in a moment, that I think the House has a special duty, as our Special Orders Committee indicated, to look at this, not as a local matter, in the terms of the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, but as a matter of timing and of principle.

My Lords, the other point with which the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, dealt in part (it was also dealt with in another place), and which worries me a little, is the financial side. As I understand it, the position is this. At the present moment, Devon County Council, which includes the Torbay area, is receiving a certain grant in total from the Central Government, and it is and was said—and this was the basis of the Local Government Commission's decision—that if the Torbay area was taken away and turned into a new county borough then the Devon County Council would get a higher general and rate-deficiency grant. I do not know whether the Torbay County Borough would also get a grant—perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, could tell me that; hut' as I understood the noble Lord this afternoon, he was saying that the effect of the new system of grants under the Local Government Bill will be this. Whereas, if the old system had stayed, the Devon County Council would have received a higher grant after the removal of Torbay, and would thereby have remained viable, though we have a new form of grant system under the Bill, it will also receive the same sort of higher grant. I should very much like the noble Lord, if he would be so kind as to do so, to confirm in a moment whether or not that is so—and I believe that although, of course, it cannot be accurately computed, under the new system the figure will be a fairly large one.

It seems to me, therefore, that we have two matters of principle to deal with: first of all, the question of the Local Government Commission and the Royal Commission; and, secondly, this financial question. I should very much like the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, to tell the House this about the Royal Commission this afternoon, because I believe that we shall be guided very much by what he says. Assuming that the time scale is something of the order of what he said. in other words, that one might possibly get implementation on the ground of what the Royal Commission has to say in something in the region of seven, eight or perhaps ten years, is the noble Lord certain that it is in the general public interest and the local interest that we should divide up the local government structure in South-West Devon for that sort of period without knowing what is going to happen at the end? Is it really necessary at this time to do something which might easily prejudice the reconsideration of that area on the basis that it might easily last for something in the region of only seven to ten years? Are the noble Lord and his colleagues in Government convinced that we must do this now in the general and the local public interests? Perhaps he could say whether this is his opinion and that of his right honourable friend.

I would agree, supposing that the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, should feel like raising this point, that this is not a matter for your Lordships; but, because this matter has been clarified since the whole affair was discussed in another place, I should like the noble Lord to tell the House whether it is right that the Devon County Council will have to receive as a result of this Order more money in grants from the Exchequer than would otherwise have been the case, and, possibly, if the noble Lord, Lord Pargiter, is right, more money at the expense of other local authorities elsewhere in the country. Are the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, and his colleagues convinced that this is the right time to put the extra burden on the Exchequer? The noble Lord and his Party I am sure are right in saying that many local government projects must be shelved for lack of funds; yet, apparently, this is the time the Government bring forward this Order which, as I understand it, has this effect. Can the noble Lord say whether that is so?—because I believe that the House will be content to judge the Government's Order and the noble Lord's Order upon the basis of his answer to those two important principles.

If the noble Lord and his colleagues are convinced that, at this moment, this is in the public interest—both the matter of prejudice to the future local government in the area and that we should give this extra money to the county council because of this division of responsibilities at this time—then, no doubt, the noble Lord will say so. But it seems to me possible that the noble Lord would like to consider again, possibly in consultation with his right honourable friend, whether it is really the right thing to do to-day to bring forward this Order; or whether, alternatively, at any rate for a moment or for a period of time, the noble Lord might like to take it back for consideration—as I believe he could—and see whether he would not be able to give a rather fuller explanation to the House why it is that the Government consider this to be in the public interest. The local interest I think we have adequately dealt with. I hope that the noble Lord can answer me to-day, but I believe the House would be content if he were to do so on another occasion.

5.15 p.m.


My Lords, we have had a longer debate than I expected. I will try to take up a reasonable proportion of the points which have been made in the debate; then we can consider together what to do next. The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, introducing his Amendment, raised the question which was to become the leading theme of our discussion; namely, the question of the time-lag between the introduction of the new Torbay county borough and the introduction of the legislation which might follow the report of the Royal Commission for Local Government. A later speaker, I think, said that this period might be that of a few months and asked what point there was in setting up this new county borough and destroying it a few months later. I think it is clear that it will not be a few months; and I shall have something more to say about that later. But let me remind the House that the Prime Minister has said that he expects the Royal Commission to report within little more than two years. It was set up in the spring of this year—it was announced in February—and we expect its Report (and at present there is no reason to revise the timetable) towards the end of 1968. As I say, I shall return to this point again.

The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, also qualified as serious for, I think, the Devon County Council the explanation that I gave of the kind of figures they were going to get in the form of grants in the future. I shall be sorry if anybody got the impression that the situation for the county council was to be serious. My purpose in giving that involved explanation of the new sort of grant was to show how far from serious the position would be; that in some respects the Government knew that they would gain, and in other respects the Government believe, though nobody could say with certainty, they would also gain. To this point also I shall return a little later. I should like to deal now with some of the more detailed points. The noble Lord mentioned the band of undeveloped land which comes half way along the proposed area, the gap between Churston Ferrers and Brixham which is being partly built over. I think, the rest is mainly used as a golf course and land which is kept open for other amenity purposes. If we are to reckon golf courses and amenity land in the middle of conurbations as something which ought to be left to the counties and not taken into the county boroughs, we shall find ourselves in a curious position indeed.

I have noticed a contradiction in the speeches made by two noble Lords, both of whom were opposed to the Order, and I thought I should bring it to the attention of the House. The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, welcomed the possibility of an amalgamation between the health and the social services with representation of the housing department within the proposed new county borough. My noble friend Lord Leatherland attacked the concept of the new county borough because certain services would, at least for a time, have to be run in common by the new county borough and the county. It does not seem to me to make too much difference. I think one will amalgamate services, run them separately or jointly as seems the most appropriate. I would suggest to the House that this particular issue should not count too much in either direction. If the Government were to base their case on this possibility we should not get far.

The noble Viscount, Lord Amory, whose experience in the county council field we were glad to benefit from and whose powers I certainly would not admit for an instant are declining, took me up on what I think may have been a lack of clarity in what I said. He asked: What difficulty could it cause for the Royal Commission if we leave things as they are? It would cause no difficulty to the Royal Commission whether he had a change or not. The Royal Commission, by the time it comes to decide what it wants to be done with local government in England, will face a situation in which there are a great many county councils and county boroughs, and whether or not we add slightly to the number of county boroughs and subtract a little from the population of this or that county will not make difficulties in either way. I should have said that it would be equally possible to introduce almost any imaginable pattern of local government as a result of Royal Commissions recommendations, whether or not we set up a new county borough area in Torbay. I hope that I have explained myself more clearly now. It was badly put before.

I should like to answer one or two points put by my noble friend Lord Leatherland. He asked: If we were starting de novo, should we commend this Order to the House? If by "de novo"he means, if we were to imagine the former Local Government Commission still in existence and about to commence its review of the South-West area would we tell the House now that we should be likely to introduce the proposed change in seven years' time, the answer, of course, is, "No." This brings me to the crux of the question the matters which are in the pipe-line. Up to this point Orders have been made, but certain outstanding suggestions for change made by the Local Government Commission will not be embodied in Orders, and one of the difficulties the Government are facing is deciding where we stop making these Orders.

My noble friend Lord Leatherland raised the question of certain services under this proposed Order, and I should like to take the opportunity of making clear the effect that this Order will have. My noble friend said that the police will not be a separate force. Of course they would not. As the House knows well, under the Home Secretary's new proposals the trend is towards the amalgamation of existing police forces all over the country; it is far from being towards the creation of new ones. We should not regard the fact that eventually the new county borough will not have its own police force as a reason for not setting one up.

The question of the fire brigade is more complex. The fire service property is to be vested in the new county borough but, at the suggestion of the county council, it has been agreed to operate the service jointly for a period of five years, after which the position will be reviewed. It is not the position that the new county borough have said that they are too weak to run their own service, but that the county council have suggested that it should be a joint one.

The question of the ambulance service has been discussed a good deal at Torbay. The new county borough is to provide its own, but will have a joint radio movement centre with the county council, again an arrangement suggested by the county council. All these arrangements are provisional, until new elections are held for the united county borough, and largely for this reason we are giving the new county borough council a year to consider all this before they get fully into operation. If they do not like these proposed changes they can make other proposals.

The noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Cuirass, said that there were two overriding questions. I accept his assessment of this. One relates to the Royal Commission and the other to the financial situation for the County of Devon. The noble Viscount asked me to confirm whether it would take seven or ten years from now until we had a new system of local government. I could not confirm it. I think that any member of the Government who confirmed such a proposition would be rash indeed.


My Lords, I was not, of course, asking the noble Lord to confirm that. I was simply asking him to say whether he thought that that was roughly the right estimate.


I would not even agree that it was roughly the right estimate. Whatever one may think in general, we do not know what the Royal Commission are going to recommend. Nobody does. It is being pressed in different directions by different bodies, different individuals and different institutions. Most of those concerned are giving evidence which does not press them in any particular direction, but which consists of background material.

It would be wrong to say that the Government want a particular pattern to emerge. If the Government knew what they wanted they might never have bothered with a Royal Commission and might have gone straight to legislation. Still less can we assess when the Government can put through Parliament legislation based on the Royal Commission's recommendations, It would be rash for the Government to suppose that it would be in ten years' time. It is hoped that the Commission will report at the end of 1968. The Government hope to get good proposals which they can adopt and put through swiftly. But we do not feel justified in backtracking on proposals which are coming through the pipe-line from the former Local Government Commission, because of our certainty of getting a new system through rapidly after the Royal Commission report.

On the financial question, the noble Viscount asked if the increased grants to Devon would put an extra burden on the Exchequer. No, they will not. The proposal under the Local Government Bill is that the aggregate of Exchequer grants to the local authorities shall remain unchanged, but because of the introduction of the new system of grants, there will be a new distribution between one recipient authority and another. It is obvious that when we are lowering the rate able value per head of the county the county is going to expect a higher grant per head than it did before. I tried to give some outline of how this is going to work in my opening speech. If we are reducing the population, at the same time we are reducing the rate able value per head for the remaining population. It may be that the aggregate sum will not be higher, but assuming that it is and that it does not come from the Exchequer, it is obvious that this is going to fall on the local authority. There are local authorities whose needs are decreasing for various reasons, just as there are others whose needs are increasing, as in the case of Devon. All have to be handled together under the Local Government Bill.

I should like to confirm what my noble friend Lord Mitchison said. I do not think that we in this House should be too confident in seeking to put this matter right. We only consider it for a few hours, though I know that some noble Lords have considered it for a much longer time. We are a body of amateurs considering this for one afternoon. This issue was raised first by local opinion in Torbay. The Order is wanted by the people who live there. Devon County Council do not want it. The matter was therefore referred to the Local Government Commission to assess. The first opinion was that it was a bad plan. The second opinion, after they had been more fully into the proposals, was that it was a good plan. They so reported. The Minister sent an inspector, who went into it all over again and reported that it was a good plan. The Minister himself then went into it on the basis of his inspector's report and decided that it was a good plan. He so informed the House of Commons, who discussed the matter under the Affirmative Resolution procedure and decided by an overwhelming vote that it was a good plan.

If my noble friend Lord Leatherland maintains that Torbay have been scampering out, trying to drag in this and that village, and monkeying with the figures as between the Census and the Registrar General's figures—and what I say was based on the Registrar General's figures—that, in short, they have been trying to pull the wool over the eyes of all those institutions whose duty it is to assess, to judge and to decide this issue, I think that he is seeing a lot of villains on one side and a lot of fools on the other in this sector of our national life. I know the House will join with me in disputing this.

Nevertheless, we must not regard all such considerations alone, and in view of the considerable weight of opinion and learning which I judge exists in the House this afternoon, and in view, frankly, of my own wish to get together again with my right honourable friend the Minister and examine what has been said in your Lordships' House, I should like to make the following suggestion to the noble Lord, Lord Amulree. If he will withdraw his Amendment, I will withdraw my Motion. I would point out to the House that this does not have the effect of slaying the Order, but simply of withdrawing it from the Order Paper for this afternoon. It may be reintroduced later. On that basis, I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, to withdraw his Amendment.


My Lords, in view of what the Minister has said, I ask your Lordships' leave to withdraw the Amendment, on the understanding, of course, that I shall be able to move it, should I wish to do so, when the Order is debated again. Before I sit down, I should like to thank noble Lords who have spoken in the debate and have given me a great deal of support.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.