HL Deb 05 May 1966 vol 274 cc521-47

7.5 p.m.

VISCOUNT AMORY rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Exeter Order 1966 (S.I. 1966 No. 135) laid before the House on February 18 be annulled. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, the Order referred to in this Prayer deals with the transfer of the built-up areas of three parishes—Alphington, Pinhoe and Topsham—which under the Order are transferred from St. Thomas Rural District Council in the administrative county of Devon to the City of Exeter. This transfer, I understand, involves a population of 9,300, about one-quarter of the population, and about the same proportion of the rateable value, of the rural district council. The reason why I have put down this Prayer, and why I think some of my noble friends are going to speak against the Order, is that according to all the evidence I have had this transfer is being carried out against the strong wishes of the very big majority of the people concerned. In those circumstances, I feel that some pretty strong reasons need advancing for a compulsory transfer against the wishes of the majority of the people concerned, and the reasons I have so far heard do not seem to he sufficiently strong.

The case against the transfer was, I thought, cogently and forcefully argued in another place on February 28 last, when the Member of Parliament for the Tiverton Division, and certain other Members for other Devon constituencies—the Honiton Division being one—put their case very effectively against. I thought that on that occasion the Parlia- mentary Secretary dismissed the protests rather light-heartedly, and hardly seemed to feel that a strong justification was needed for a compulsory transfer of this kind.

If I were arguing this case on Party political grounds I think I should be inclined to welcome the transfer, because the electors concerned have been brought up in two very enlightened constituencies, and their adhesion to the City of Exeter, if the transfer goes through, will, I feel sure, help to assure my Party of many future electoral triumphs in that city in the years to come.

May I give, very briefly, the reasons that I think are against this transfer? The first one is that referenda were held. I understand, in the three parishes concerned, undertaken under the auspices of the St. Thomas Rural District Council, and these referenda indicated majorities of those voting against the transfers of 91 per cent., 74 per cent. and 81 per cent. respectively. I know that in the debate in another place the Parliamentary Secretary indicated some criticism of the wording of the questions asked, but, in fact, without any doubt I think those voting understood the very clear question which they were asked: whether they wanted the properties they occupied to be transferred to the City of Exeter. One parish council—I believe Topsham—was at first not against the transfer, but subsequently changed its mind. So all three parish councils were strongly against it.

The second reason is that under the transfer these parish councils will disappear, and so the electors concerned will lose that tier of responsible local government. I think that is a pity; and I should have thought that the present Minister would have regretted this, because I believe he personally is an admirer of parish councils. The third reason is that I understand that those transferred are going to find themselves with a substantially higher level of current rates, with no compensating advantages or benefits of which I know. Then there is the point that these three parishes have been well served with schools and amenities, both by their rural district council and by the Devon County Council. Those seem to me to be arguments against the transfer.

Now what are the arguments the other way? What reasons have been adduced by the Exeter City Council? The first argument that one would perhaps have expected is that this area was desperately needed for development and expansion, but I understand that that argument has not been adduced by the Exeter City Council. In the first instance, I think, Exeter City made no demands for these or any other substantial boundary extensions to the Commission, and did so only on second thoughts, rather late in the day. The fact is that Exeter is at present not a densely built-up area. For myself, I hope very much that it will never become a really densely built-up area; but I understand it is one of the two county boroughs that are in receipt of Government grant on account of the sparsity of their population in relation to their area. So I understand that the case has not been advanced that Exeter needs these areas for either immediate or future development.

The argument has been advanced by the Parliamentary Secretary, and otherwise, that many inhabitants of these three parishes look to Exeter for their employment, their shopping, their entertainment and their professional services. They do; but so, nowadays, does practically everyone within a radius of ten or fifteen miles of a city like Exeter. So that would not be a good argument to press very far. At any rate, I think anyone who did so would find himself advancing something that was rather ridiculous.

Then there is the argument that this proposal results from a recommendation of the Boundary Commission. That is not an argument, I should think, that the present Minister would wish to use, because not only has the Boundary Commission since been declared redundant—it is, my Lords, quite a fashionable attitude to take towards Commissions at the present time, to declare them redundant—but in another distressing Devon case the Minister has announced his intention of making an Order for a boundary change which is in direct conflict with the advice of the Commission. So I advise the noble Lord who is to reply to scratch that argument out of his brief forthwith.

Lastly, there is the argument that Exeter, with her present population of about 82,000, needs an increase if it is to avoid the danger of losing its city and county borough status. Now I cannot believe that in fact the ancient City of Exeter, with its long and honourable history, the capital of our county and the seat of a university, is in the slightest danger of having its city status withdrawn. I think no Minister would dream of suggesting such a course. If he did, then I am sure all of us in Devon would be up in arms, because we are extremely proud of our county capital. So it is no part of the grounds on which my noble friends and I are protesting to-day that Exeter does not deserve its present city status. Of course it does; and I hope it will always retain it.

I have attempted to summarise, very briefly, the points for and against this transfer. The one I feel most strongly about is that there are no sufficient grounds for disregarding the express wishes of the local inhabitants to remain with their parishes and their rural district council, and as part of the Devon county administration. My Lords, our local government is a very precious thing. It is one of the constitutional developments of which this country is rightly proud, and it is greatly envied throughout the world. I have always felt that the principle on which it ought to be conducted is that local government should be carried out at the most local level that is consistent with an acceptable standard of efficiency. So far as I know to-day, there have been no arguments advanced for this transfer on the ground that it will result in greater efficiency. Therefore, I doubt whether such grounds as have been advanced are strong enough to overrule local wishes. Therefore, my Lords, I would express the hope that the noble Lord who is going to reply will give us some stronger reasons for this compulsory transfer than his colleague did in another place. I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Exeter Order 1966 (S.I. 1966 No. 135) laid before the House on 18th February be annulled.—(Viscount Amory.)

7.17 p.m.


My Lords, I doubt whether I can give stronger reasons than are to be found in the Boundary Commission's recommendation or than were advanced at the hearings. If I may briefly run back over the history of this matter, I think that all the noble Viscount has said on the historical side, wih one exception to which I shall come in a moment, was correct. The Local Government Commission started their review of the boundary between the City of Exeter and the County of Devon in 1959, seven years ago, and they published their draft proposals in 1961. They then held a conference, as they are hound to do by Statute, at which they discussed their draft proposals with the local authorities concerned. That was at the end of 1961.

Their final proposals were published in 1963, and the next step was a public inquiry into the objections to these proposals. This was held in October, 1963, by an inspector appointed by my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing—or I should say my right honourable adversary, as he then was. The Local Government Commission, as the House knows and as the noble Viscount said, are now being wound up, but the winding up of this Commission does not entail that everything they recommended, and all action being taken in pursuance of their recommendations, should be abandoned forthwith. This particular boundary change is one which was accepted quite a while ago, and the intention to put it into effect has not been affected by the subsequent decision to wind up the body which recommended the change.

We have, therefore, the Commission's inquiry, the discussion with the local authorities and the public inquiry—but that is not all. As the noble Viscount said, a Prayer against the Order was moved recently in the House of Commons, where the matter was discussed very fully. That Prayer was rejected by a large vote—and I would point out to your Lordships that, in a case of this kind, if one House successfully prays against an Order, it is always open for the other House to seek to re-pray against any contradictory Order which may be made. It is possible to keep batting the issue, back and forth, from House to House, I believe, for quite a long while.

There was no question of enlarging the City of Exeter for fear that it might cease to enjoy its status as a county borough unless it were enlarged. My right honourable friend does not regard the figure of 100,000, or any other particular figure, as a passport to county borough status; and I would ask the House to put out of its mind any suggestion that this move was sought or approved for that reason. The reasons for the extension are perfectly straightforward. It is a routine case of the expansion of a city over what were, in common sense, separate villages but no longer are so because they have become dormitory suburbs of that city. It is going on all the time. Two of the villages are physically contiguous with the City of Exeter. The third, the village of Topsham, is, I understand, separated from it by land which looks green but is mainly given over to market gardening, recreation—


Oh, no!


—and other uses of a sort usually regarded as something you can find equally inside as outside a city. As I was saying, the purpose is a straightforward gain in convenience and effectiveness in local government.

I do not think there is anything special in this case. The Order was not made to give the City of Exeter room for development or powers to develop in areas where hitherto it did not have such powers. It is true, as the noble Lord has said, that there is already room for more building within the former boundaries of Exeter. That is not the reason. It is one of convenience. As to the question of whether or not the arguments I am advancing might be extended to include all places up to fifteen miles from a city from which people commute, your Lordships should recognise that these places are not fifteen miles away from Exeter and are in no sense overspill places or long-distance commuting places. They are what were villages and have now become suburbs.

My Lords, I turn now to the very important matter of the wishes of the inhabitants. At the inquiry the rural district council maintained that two of the parish councils claimed that the majority of the inhabitants were against the changes; but as the inquiry developed it appeared that there was not particularly strong evidence of public feeling against the change. The inquiry was over in less than two days, which I understand is almost a record short time for an inquiry arising out of a proposal by the Local Government Commission; and a parish meeting called by one of the parishes to discuss the changes was attended by only ten people. The third of the three parish councils at that stage expressed a wish to change.

After the decision was issued, the rural district council of St. Thomas conducted the referendum to which the noble Lord referred. I think it is important in deciding how much weight to attach to the evidence produced by this referendum—it was done by postcards—to see exactly the question asked. The noble Lord said that the question asked was whether the inhabitants wanted the property they occupied to be transferred within the City of Exeter. I do not think that intepretation of the words used is an adequate one. The words used were, I understand:

Are you for or against the inclusion in the City of Exeter of the rural district of St. Thomas in which your premises are situated? As the noble Lord correctly stated, the transfer is of one quarter of the population of the rural district of St. Thomas; but I believe that anyone coming to the matter with a fresh mind, whether he were one who has been required to answer the postcard or whether indeed one of your Lordships present, would conclude that this wording meant: "Are you for or against the transfer of the entire rural district of St. Thomas in which you live?".

But even if we assume that there is a marked degree of local objection, which I do not think we are entitled to assume, in a case such as this decisions can be taken only on the evidence offered at the public inquiry. To admit the principle that one could reverse a decision taken on the evidence given at a public inquiry because of later evidence, by whatever means obtained, would, I submit, throw a tremendous spanner into the whole works of local government adjustment. The noble Lord spoke of the importance of safeguarding local spirit and local government in these villages. I do not believe they need really fear that when they find themselves within the City of Exeter rather than within the county anything is going to prevent them from doing anything they have done previously. On the contrary, they may find that there are a large number of services and activities available to them which were not available to them before, and there is no reason to fear that local services will be any less efficient.

My Lords, I turn now to the question of rates. It is true that the rate in the city this year is higher than the rate in the rural district. But this is by no means the whole of the picture. The inhabitants of these places will be getting city services which, in general and in theory, are in some respects more extensive and more expensive than county services. There is a provision in the Order itself, as your Lordships will see if you turn to Article 43, which is designed to give a special measure of relief in certain cases. The effect is that the ratepayers in the parts of Alphington and Pinhoe which were transferred will pay 4d. in the pound less than the ratepayers in the rest of the city; that is, those who were there before. The rates in the rural districts are lower than in the city. That is to say, the county rates are lower; although if you add the parish rates the overall figure is brought up slightly; and, moreover, there is no guarantee that the rates which these people would have been paying if they had stayed in the county would have remained as low as they are, or indeed, as low as they will have to pay in the city.

I will not say more at this stage. It is a routine matter. It has been discussed and discussed again in all the proper forums; it has aroused public debate. That debate has been fully aired in another place and has given rise to a resounding declaration there of unwillingness to reopen the matter. I should like if I may to ask your Lordships' leave at a later stage in the evening to speak a second time if points are made in further debate which I have not already dealt with.

7.27 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Wade was to have spoken to this Motion, but he, unfortunately, cannot be here and he has asked me to apologise to noble Lords for his inability to attend. We should like to support the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, in praying against this Order. The main point at issue relates to the alteration of boundaries. Certain parishes have been excluded from the county borough of Exeter and other parishes have been included. The alteration of these boundaries always raises strong feelings. No one is ever satisfied. The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, will, no doubt, agree that it is very important that any alteration of the boundaries affecting local authority wards should not be determined by political considerations. Furthermore, it must be clearly seen that political considerations do not enter into the matter. On this, a question of principle arises.

I understand that the plan approved by this Order was drawn up by a Parliamentary committee which is a sub-committee of the Exeter Council. The noble Viscount was quite right in saying that if it had been a Party political matter he ought to have been quite pleased, because the sub-committee, I understand, is largely dominated by one Party. Subsequently this plan was amended by the council as a whole and the majority of the council clearly preferred the amended plan. The boundary change proposed by the Parliamentary Sub-Committee was, I was informed, supported by the Conservative Party. The amended proposal, which the council as a whole preferred, was supported by the Liberal and Labour members.

The inquiry was held, and I think that there is a feeling in Exeter that the council's case was not, perhaps, presented as well as it might have been by the deputy clerk; or, at any rate, if it was presented as well as it might have been, it was presented in such a way as to put the council's protagonists in this case on the wrong foot and take them by surprise. At least, I think it appears to many members of the council that Mr. Freeman, who held the inquiry, may not have been sufficiently well-informed as to the grounds on which the council preferred the amended plan.

Mr. Freeman reported to the Minister in favour of the original plan put forward by the Parliamentary Sub-Committee, and the Minister accepted this, as he was entitled to do. In view, however, of the feeling that insufficient consideration was given to the views of the majority of the council, would it not be as well to have a fresh inquiry? I understand that on two separate occasions the council expressed their support of the amended scheme and against the scheme put for- ward by the Parliamentary Sub-Committee, which the Minister has accepted. Should not the same attention be paid to the views of the majority of the council?

There are two other points which have been put forward against the scheme as adopted by the Minister. The first is that the scheme involves a maximum dislocation of ward boundaries, and the second is that the new boundaries do not take sufficient account of the community interest of the people living in the particular area affected. Boundaries have been drawn for reasons of administrative convenience rather than to meet the wishes of the people. These seem to us to he at any rate reasonable objections; but the main criticism is that the alterations ought not to appear to be based upon political considerations, and I think that there is a feeling in Exeter that they may have been. We therefore support the noble Viscount.

7.32 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add my wholehearted support to the views put forward by my noble friend Lord Amory in favour of the annulment or, if it is thought preferable, the suspension of this Order. He made his case eloquently and convincingly, and certainly there is no noble Lord in this House who is better qualified to do so. For many years the noble Viscount was a distinguished member of the Devon County Council, and in that capacity, and also for many years as the Member of Parliament for Tiverton, he acquired a vast knowledge of the needs of Devon and of Exeter. He has contributed greatly to the welfare of the County of Devon and of the City of Exeter, and of its University of which I have the honour to be a member of the Court.

I speak as a resident of East Devon and a former elector in the Parliamentary Division of Honiton, which is one of the divisions affected by these proposals. In that capacity my particular interest lies in the fate of Topsham, that ancient seaport town whose complete elimination is envisaged in this Order. I do not know whether the noble Lord, who spoke, I thought, rather lightly about this whole matter from the Government Front Bench has ever been in the town of Topsham; but it is in fact a beautiful little town, a very ancient seaport, with 17th century houses with Dutch gables brought over by the seafaring men of those days from their travels. During the 17th century the town of Topsham was the second trading town in Britain with Newfoundland, and second only to the City of London; and this little seaport town it is now intended to eliminate utterly.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he has any evidence that the City Council intend to pull it down?


My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord need be facetious. This is a matter on which people down in Devon have very strong feelings.

The noble Lord referred to the fact, or mentioned the fact, that he understood it was nothing but market gardens. Of course, that is not so. They have their little seaport, and the villages surrounding have dairy farms and cattle, and sheep will be found there, too. At the same time I equally support the case of the other areas concerned; that is to say the villages of Pinhoe, and Alphington, on the other side of Exeter. If ever there was a bureaucratic mountain which has arisen out of a small molehill, it is this proposal for the incorporation of these areas into the City of Exeter.

Originally all that was proposed was a very slight adjustment of the boundaries. I think it is quite clear that at the time the City Council and everyone else would have been satisfied with this. As has been said, this proposal was altered, and in due course it was transferred to the Local Government Commission. It is as a result of the latter's Report that these wholesale changes are now being advocated. As my noble friend said, the Minister concerned surely has shown how little respect he has for the views of this self-same Local Government Commission since he has now, after the matter was originally raised, declared his intention to abolish it altogether. I was really shocked to hear the Minister describing this as a routine matter. I can assure him that that will not go down well in the County of Devon or in the City of Exeter.

So far as Exeter is concerned, why was it that the Local Government Commission went so wrong in their recommendation? There is no question of any shortage of land in the City of Exeter for housing or for any other purpose. The only reason seems to be, despite what has been said this afternoon and what was said in another place, that at a certain point, once this question was referred to the Local Government Commission, some people on the City Council of Exeter began to be conscious for the first time of the fact that their numbers did not amount to the customary 100,000, and that this might perhaps lead to their disestablishment as a county borough. As my noble friend has said, nothing could be further from the truth. Who would dare for a moment to suggest that Exeter, one of the oldest cities in this country, whose office of mayor ante-dates that of the Lord Mayor of London, could be deprived of its status as a county borough? The thing is quite ludicrous. At the same time, it does not mean that there cannot be rationalisation and simplification of functions where this may appear necessary. As an example of that, I quote the fact that at this very moment the Exeter City police are in process of being absorbed into the Devon County Police Force in the interests of efficiency and economy. Not for a moment would this mean, nor does it even suggest to anyone, that there could be any question of Exeter losing its county borough status.

On the other hand, my Lords, the hardships which will be incurred if this scheme goes through in the case of the County of Devon are very great indeed. This county, which is I believe the second largest in Britain, has one of the lowest population densities in the country, and the county would lose 9,300 people. As has already been said in another place, it would be £67,000 a year worse off. I repeat, this is a county with a low population density and without great resources.

I should like now to turn to the point which, to my mind, is the most important of all, that is, the feelings of those principally concerned, the inhabitants of the parishes of Topsham, Pinhoe and Alphington. At the earlier inquiry, to which the Minister referred, I venture to suggest that the people of those villages were hardly aware that anything was happening at all. It was only when they became conscious of the fact that something very serious was going to happen to their parishes that they turned out in those very large numbers on the referenda being held, the percentage of which my noble friend has given to your Lordships. I understand that the referenda in question were carried out in full agreement with all the local political Parties of those villages. My Lords, surely it is not too late, even now, to cancel or suspend this Order so that the matter may be looked at again.

When this matter was debated in another place on February 28, virtually the only defence of the Minister was that the proposal had been accepted by the Local Government Commission, and now, this afternoon, the Minister tells us it was just a routine matter. I have sought to show, and my noble friend has shown even more convincingly, on what crumbling foundations these views were based. I beg the Minister who is to reply this evening to try to persuade his right honourable friend in this new Parliament to look at the matter again.

Here I may say, as was mentioned before by my noble friend, that I hope the Minister will not allow himself to be influenced by the fact that in the recent General Election the Labour Party, for the first time in history, won the Exeter Division, and that the arrangements contemplated in this Order would transfer to the voters list of the City of Exeter a large majority of thousands of Conservative electors and would thereby turn Exeter back into a permanently safe Conservative seat. I can assure the Minister that if his right honourable friend can be persuaded to see the light of reason in this case, not one of us on these Benches would ever seek to make political capital out of that decision.

7.42 p.m.


My Lords, I think we are all indebted to my noble friend Lord Amory for moving this Prayer to-night, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for his courtesy in offering to speak again at the end of the debate and answer any questions and arguments that we may have raised. Frankly, I am a little surprised that the noble Lord was not convinced by the very lucid and fair speech which my noble friend Lord Amory made. I disagree with the noble Lord when he says that the majority of the people who live in Topsham, Pinhoe and Alphington are not against the proposals. I live quite close by, and I understand that there is considerable discontent. I think they are all very proud of the St. Thomas Rural District Council, which is a most efficient local authority.

I personally feel a little sad that three parish councils are to he disbanded. I always take an interest in them, because I think parish councils were founded in 1889, and in the 1890's my father, who was then a Member of the other place, by a Private Member's Bill arranged that their local elections should not take place each year, which caused a constant atmosphere of electioneering in the parish, but, as now, once in three years.

Again, I cannot see that there is any improvement in the convenience of the administration of these areas by taking them away from St. Thomas and putting them to Exeter. The local people are very conscious of the unhappy period that the Exeter City Council went through. Further, I understand that if this Order goes through the children at present living in Pinhoe will have to go to a school which will be under the county council. The school to which they will go will not be under the same authority for the area in which they live. There, again, one cannot feel that this is going to achieve greater administrative efficiency.

Nearly twenty years ago the constituency that I had the honour to represent—a rural constituency—had less that: 40,000 electors, and the Boundary Commission re-drew the areas of the constituency. I thought the proposals were had, because under the new scheme I should have lost my seat. Luckily, a lot of other people did not think much of it, and the then Home Secretary, who later became Lord Chuter Ede, a much respected and liked Member of your Lordships' House, sent back the proposals to the Commission, with the result that they were re-drawn, and it was much more satisfactory for everyone.

There is a phrase (and I should be grateful if anyone could tell me the author of it, or about whom it was said) that a man was so obstinate that he would change his mind only when he was right. Certainly the right honourable gentleman the Minister of Housing and Local Government is a very intelligent and wise man. I feel that he is wrong now, and I would press the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, to urge upon his right honourable friend the necessity for throwing out this Order and leaving things in that part of the world as they are at present.

7.45 p.m.


My Lords, as an inhabitant of an area adajcent to those affected, I have for some time been under the influence of local feeling, and I can assure your Lordships that, no matter what anybody may say, the inhabitants of the places that are going to be transferred are against the transfer. That is an argument that has been put forward time and time again. Personally, I think the best argument that we have against this Order is in the person of the mover of this Prayer. The noble Viscount, Lord Amory, is our elder Statesman; he is our favoured son, and to Devon what he says must be right. I only hope that the Minister will bear this in mind.

We have had references to the noble Viscount's services to the county over the years, and perhaps I may be permitted to call to mind when I first met him. We have a site which is practically always reserved for Boy Scouts' camps. In the early 'thirties the noble Viscount was Scout Commissioner for the County of Devon, and he used to come there regularly to hold his tests. So when your Lordships saw the noble Viscount, impeccably dressed, delivering his irrefutable arguments, I am afraid I saw before me the open neck shirt, the shorts, nobbly knees and all.

May I quickly summarise what I, as a local inhabitant, feel are the main arguments? First of all, the people in the area are against it. Secondly, the county as a whole is against it, for obvious reasons. Every year now you are hiving off a bit to Plymouth, and a bit more to Torbay, and now you are hiving off some to Exeter. We in the county cannot think of anything but of having an increasingly large share of the rates to pay as these wealthier areas go to these independent areas. Then there is the question of the application of Parkinson's Law. You have a large county hall, new, and full of civil servants; and no one can see any reduction there. Our experience has always been that when these other areas get increased popula- tions, up goes their number of civil servants, and this quite irrespective of having had another super region put on top of us all. So you will have more and more civil servants to support.

Finally, and perhaps on purely a personal note, I am very much against cities, though I back my county city against anybody else's. But the larger the city, the less I like it. I am all for going on liking Exeter, and I should like it to stay as small as it possibly can.

7.49 p.m.


My Lords, in rising to support my noble friend who has moved that this Statutory Instrument be annulled, I do so because, having carefully read the report of the proceedings in another place, I am not convinced that sufficient consideration has been given by the Government to the objections which have been raised. It seems to be evident that none of the inhabitants of these areas is likely to benefit from the proposals of the Boundary Commission to transfer Topsham and most of the parishes of Alphington and Pinhoe to the county borough of Exeter. What would occur would be that the inhabitants of these parishes who were transferred would pay enhanced rates, and they would be better off if they remained as they were within the administration of St. Thomas Rural District Council.

Devon County would be worse off, since it would be losing ratepayers to the Exeter Borough Council. And Devon (I know that this has already been stated), with its sparse population of only 74 to the road-mile, would have this number reduced to 54. This, in turn, would lead to additional rates falling upon the remaining population of Devon. Moreover, no benefit would be likely to accrue to the borough of Exeter, since, with its correspondingly larger population, the transfer to it of an additional population of some 9,000 ratepayers would lead to no appreciable increase in revenue as compared with the rates already collected in Exeter.

It would appear that originally, and in the early stages of the Local Government Commission, Exeter was interested only in acquiring a minor part of the parish of Pinhoe and an extension of the land at Alphington where it had an industrial estate. This, to me—and I should like to make it clear to your Lordships that I do not live in any of the areas affected; I live in Somerset, which is an adjoining county—would appear to have been a reasonable thing for Exeter to want. But later Exeter increased its demands, and it has been stated that it did so for the simple reason that it was frightened that if it did not increase its population it would lose its county borough status.

I should like to ask the Minister whether, in his opinion, these fears are justified. He said that an increase in population is not necessary for county borough status. Nevertheless, so far as one can see from all the evidence which has been adduced. Exeter had this fear; and, because of it, whereas previously she had been perfectly content with a small area, once this fear had been established her demands for territory increased. The inhabitants of the area it is proposed should be transferred have voted overwhelmingly against these proposals.


My Lords, if I may interrupt for a moment, may I say that that is not quite right? They have not voted overwhelmingly against these proposals. They voted overwhelmingly against including the whole rural district in Exeter, which is not the proposal.


I thank the noble Lord for what he has stated, but I think that, generally speaking, the opinion down there is solidly against what the Government are proposing to do. Her Majesty's Government, so far as I am able to ascertain, are saying: "All these matter were started in 1959 and have been going on at varying periods of time up to 1965. Local Government personnel, and people concerned with all these proposals have put in a tremendous amount of work, and it is too late now to put the clock back." In answer to that, I would submit to your Lordships that no case, apart from this one, has been made for these proposals; and objections raised in another place could not be answered. If it is at all possible, I should like to ask Her Majesty's Government to look at this matter again. They have recently been returned to power, and would appear to have a reasonable period of time to do so. I submit to your Lordships that if they did this it would be in the interests of good government.

7.56 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend in his Motion to suspend this Order. In case anyone should think that this is the "Devon lobby" going wild, I hasten to say that I now live 180 miles away from Devon. But I spent five years at school in the constituency which my noble friend once worthily represented, and he and his relatives have for many years been stalwart supporters and workers in the cause, not only of this school, but of many schools in the area, and of the town and surrounding areas of Tiverton. But during the four and a half years that I was at school in Tiverton, I visited Topsham and these other areas quite frequently. It seems to me quite incredible that it should be thought that Topsham, Pinhoe or Alphington have any affinity with the City of Exeter.

I think we ought to take a few lessons from the London Government Act, particularly in so far as rating is concerned. It certainly does not follow that because an area is transferred into a city council, the rates will necessarily be lower. Indeed, in the County of Surrey, where I live, one of the main objections which I and a number of my noble friends and honourable friends had against many of the proposals of the London Government Act was that these proposals would result in increased rates—and this has in fact been borne out. I believe that if this Order is confirmed, the same thing will happen in this area, because there is a tendency in local government to-day to increase staffs, to have a deputy town clerk, an assistant, and all kinds of other officials to help in the reorganisation of a larger area. This could well happen here, and could quite easily result in substantial increases in the rates.

Another point is that at present Pinhoe and Topsham are both in constituencies other than Exeter. Pinhoe, I think I am right in saying, is in the Tiverton constituency, and Topsham in the Honiton constituency. Therefore, I can envisage a number of local administrative problems here, even if in subsequent elections these areas are brought into the Exeter division. It seems to me that this Order should at least be suspended, if only to see what will happen as a result of the London Government Act.

The famous argument which the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government advanced in another place is really rather unconvincing: that because people work in Exeter, even if they live in Pinhoe or Topsham, they should necessarily use their services and pay for them. People travel from Epsom to Dorking but nobody is suggesting that there should be an amalgamation there. In the whole 52 counties in England this argument could be put forward, so I hope that will not rest as a convincing argument on the Ministry's files. I would urge the Government to think again and at least to suspend this Order, even though it may have gone through another place.

8.1 p.m.


My Lords, I must apologise to the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, for not being in any sense a "man of Devon". If I were, I understand that I should regard his words as infallible, a claim which may embarrass him a little. But I yield to no one in respect for him.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks, but in view of what he said surely there is no need for him to hold that alarming-looking book in his hands.


My Lords, the book I am holding in my hands contains the Statute under which these Orders are made, and it seems to me, with great respect to the noble Viscount, that he has not, perhaps, read it all. I was just going to remind him of one or two parts of it.

He talked at some length, as did other noble Lords, about the wishes of the inhabitants. Noble Lords will remember that the previous Local Government Act set out a list of the matters which the body of those days had to consider when making boundary changes. Exactly the same list was put into the form of an Order made under Section 36 of this Act. These are regulations for the guidance of the Commission in the exercise of any of their functions under this part of the Act, and these regulations specify a number of things to which they have to pay attention. Those things are put in alphabetical order, so that unfortunately the wishes of the inhabitants come last; but there are a number of others and a good many of them have been referred to by noble Lords as being matters which ought to have been considered.

There is no suggestion, so far as I know, that the Commissioners failed in their duty and omitted to consider those various matters—for instance, the administrative convenience (it is not mentioned in those words but it is clear enough in the list) and matters like shopping facilities, educational facilities, the lie of the land, and so on. This is no new fancy of the present Minister; it is the original statutory list in the former Local Government Act, now put in the form of an Order. Consequently, so far as the Commission is concerned, if the Commission did its job—and there is no reason to suppose that it did not—it has had to consider all these things, including the wishes of the inhabitants of all these delightfully named villages.

That is the first point about the Act. The second is that this is not an Act enabling inhabitants to stick to lower rates. It is not an Act to enable them individually to decide in what unit of local government they shall be comprised. It begins with something quite different—a general grant—and then when one comes to Part II of the Act one finds the object of it is to review the organisation of local government and effect changes appearing to the Commission as desirable in the interests of effective and convenient local government. That may, or may not, be the wishes of the inhabitants of Pinhoe. I am sure it is a nice place, and there are a number of others which I am sure are all extremely nice places.

Noble Lords seemed to be hurt when my noble friend called this a "routine case". Let us simply say that this is exactly the type of case which, when this Act came before this House in 1958, the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, who has pretty good experience in these matters, took as completely typical. It is exactly the sort of point, but on a much smaller scale, that arose here the other day about the West Midlands, which I had to answer at the time. What happens is that a big town grows, much to the disgust of the noble Lord, who likes them small, like Canterbury; and when it grows it then becomes more convenient, in the interests of efficient local government and to provide the services which the local inhabitants require, to take in these outlying places like Pinhoe. There were several of them round the edge of Northampton in my constituency when I was in another place. The inhabitants of the villages say, "We shall have to pay higher rates", and when you say to them, "But you will get better services", they do not believe you. I should think it was very rare indeed to take in one of these little villages with the agreement of the majority of the inhabitants, and it was not the intention of the Act, which after all must be followed, that the wishes of the inhabitants should be in any way decisive. That is why the other factors were put in a list in alphabetical order.

That is the present state of the law as I understand it. But one ought to look for a moment at this particular Order and what has happened to it. There was a Prayer to annul it in another place, and the Prayer was, as one might expect, supported by the Members representing the villages and opposed by the Conservative Member for Exeter—he was a Conservative at that time; there is no Party political point in this. He was someone I remember very clearly, and no one would describe him otherwise than as a vigorously minded- Conservative. I should think it was the only time in his life that he could have voted with the Labour Party, and he did on this occasion, and the result was that the Prayer was rejected by 149 votes to 8.

There were some administrative reasons for this. In order not to be accused of any party prejudice I will give them in the language of the honourable Member for Exeter for those days. What he said was this: I understand the strong feelings that are held about this by honourable Members for county constituencies in Devon,"— I am sure if he were here to-day he would understand the strong feelings held by noble Lords— but the county council rate has been fixed for the next year,"—


My Lords, I wonder if I could ask the noble Lord whether he is quoting what the Minister said?


I beg the noble Viscount's pardon. It was in the last Parliament, so I am allowed to do it. I will go on, if I may— and the financial arrangements for Exeter are almost concluded, and in the first week or two of next month—March—the rate will be fixed,"— it must be fixed by now— and if these three parishes are taken out of Exeter the whole of the financial arrangements for the next financial year will have to be reversed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 725 (No. 58), col. 1048; 28/2/66.] That is only part of the consequences. The Order was so framed that it has already come into force. What are we going to do about it? Supposing this Prayer is acceded to to-day, let us see how the matter stands. With a constitutional Monarchy, the Prayer is bound to be granted, and the Order will be annulled. Some noble Lords, in a hopeful spirit, said, "That is all right, the Minister has only to make another one, a different one, the kind we like". But this is a Statute prescribing arrangements to be carried out before any of these Orders are made, and in this case they have lasted seven years or thereabouts—I am not quite certain, but I think it was in 1959 that they began. We should have to start all over again, because when it is prescribed that a Minister can make an Order only after certain inquiries and reports front the Boundary Commission, and so on, that does not imply that, when he has made that Order, he can make another without any of those requirements.

There was another suggestion: that the Order might be suspended. I cannot find any provision in the Act which allows this curious arrangement for suspending an Order which has already come into operation. I dare say it is there. All I can say is that I entertain the greatest doubt whether the consequences of accepting this Prayer to-day would be anything other than to upset the present Order. It would mean starting all over again, going through all the hoops that are prescribed in the Act, things that have taken all these years—the inquiries, and the rest of it. Somebody said that it was a "bureaucratic monstrosity" or something of that sort. If it is a bureaucratic monstrosity, if we do not want these creatures to pullulate to that extent, I should have thought it would be somewhat unwise.

But it would have another very interesting consequence—and this is a point peculiar to a Prayer. The usual formula in these cases, except over matters entirely financial, is that a Prayer from either House should result in the annulment of the Order. Consequently this is the point of no return. If your Lordships, by the overwhelming majority I see opposite, proceed to annul this Order to-day, that will be the end of it and you will have your clash with the Commons, who have refused to do exactly what we are invited to do to-day. We shall therefore be claiming as a House, partly but not entirely composed of Devon residents, to do the whole job ourselves, so far as I can see, at any rate as far as upsetting this Order goes. With respect to everybody concerned (I hope that at this late hour I shall not hurt anybody's feelings) this verges on the ridiculous—it is difficult, shall we say?

The last point I want to make is this. I am very glad that this Act is being looked at, along with a number of other matters, and local government reorganisation generally, by the Royal Commission. I think that it has proved to be much too complicated in practice, and, if your Lordships will allow me to point out, much too expensive to the ratepayers concerned. With very great respect to everybody in Pinhoe, and all the other villages, this Order is comparatively small beer, but it must have cost quite a lot; and the West Midlands Order, which was subject to an Affirmative Resolution cost an enormous amount.

This is an expensive and dilatory procedure, and I blame myself because I had to lead for the Opposition in another place about this part of this Act, and we had been so occupied with the general grant provisions which come at the beginning that I think we did not "kick up enough shindy" about this, and we were content, as the Opposition often is, to give the opposition plenty of chance of seeing that there was full control over Ministers. I think we went too far, and I think the Act needs to be looked at again. Indeed, the Minister himself has said so several times; and, of course, there is a Royal Commission sitting. That is no reason for upsetting this Pinhoe-Exeter business and going back.

I hope that Parliament is not going to continue this arrangement that a Prayer from either House has the effect of annulling an administrative Order without thinking rather carefully what it is doing. Because if people were more furious-minded—shall I say?—than the noble Viscount appears to me to be today, a very serious difficulty might arise, with a clash between the two Houses on a matter which might have raised some feeling but which did not amount to the "trumpet call" which St. Paul and the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, both require as a pre-condition of a clash between the Houses. This is not a large trumpet; it is a little very attractive noise coming from Pinhoe and the other places. I see their point, but not this way, not under this Act. I therefore hope we shall consider that we should keep the law even here.

8.16 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to intervene, very shortly, at this late hour, in support of the noble Viscount, a fellow West-countryman, in bringing this matter to the House. I will not bore the House by saying all over again what has been said so well, but it must be common sense in these cases to leave things alone unless there is very good reason for change. From reading the papers, the proceedings of another place, I do not think this good reason has been made out.

I will mention only one point. Coming up from the West at 9 o'clock this morning, I could not help looking across the Exe at Topsham and seeing Exeter in the distance on the hill—one can just see the tower of the cathedral. The distance is five good Devon miles, a very long way, with plenty of country between. I could see no reason in this particular instance why this city and this town should be amalgamated. The fate of these villages is a small matter to your Lordships' House, but there is no particular virtue in size as such, and many small things may have a virtue of their own. And small people in small communities trust to the common sense and wisdom of this House to correct such mistakes as I believe are being made over the inclusion of these three villages in the City of Exeter. I fully support the noble Viscount in the action he has taken.

8.18 p.m.


My Lords, may I have the leave of the House to speak again for a moment? I will not follow noble Lords too closely. Two or three noble Lords have spoken of the possibility of this decision being based on politics. This puts me in certain difficulties. If I say that it is not based on politics your Lordships will be listening to hear whether I say that future decisions of the same sort are not based on politics. Let me stick out my neck. This decision is not based on politics, as I think must be obvious from the political situation down there, as described by several noble Lords. I will do my best to see that future decisions are not based on politics either.

The noble Lord, Lord Colyton, became very eloquent indeed about Topsham. He apologised that he had to leave, and I am sorry that he had to go. He spoke of it as a historic seaport and described the picturesque clusters of old houses on the water-front and spoke of its complete elimination. What he says is true, but it is irrelevant to lay that before the House. A picturesque and historic seaport will be just as well off within the local government boundaries of a city as it has been, I do not doubt, within those of the county.

There was a tiny point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lambert, who claimed that the majority of people living in these villages were against these proposals. This is just a point of detail, but I made no claim either way. I simply said that one could not claim that they were against the proposals on the basis of the referendum, the wording of which I read out. I think it was Lord Gridley who spoke of the reduction in the population in the County of Devon. He said that the present figure of 74 persons per road mile would be reduced to 54 persons per road mile. I do not think that that can be right. The present population of the County of Devon is 564,000. This proposal would reduce it by 9,000. This; is a reduction of something under 2 per cent. If my mathematics are correct, that would be a reduction of from 74 persons per road mile to about 72½, which is not such a large reduction. I am most grateful to Lord Mitchison for having taken us to what the Commission were actually called upon to do by the Act. I think we are inclined to lose sight of the fact that this Order is in pursuance of a well-tried procedure—which is however coming to an end.

This brings me to the overall point. I think this has been an interesting and useful debate. We will study it in the Ministry. I will draw the attention of my right honourable friend to it. He does in any case read the House of Lords debates, as I was delighted to find when I first got to the Ministry. I regret that I cannot hold out any hope of changing this Order, for reasons which have been mentioned. We shall, however, learn from the debate, and we shall learn from the tardy expression of opinion down there, however one assesses it.

I would, in conclusion, beg noble Lords not to take all this too seriously. We are at the beginning of a completely new age in local government. This is why the Local Government Commission is being wound up—not, as some people have said, because the Minister is fed up with it and thinks it is not doing a good job. Far from it. It is simply because the job of the Commission was to keep the present system ticking over by adjustments. It is time now—and this is why we are going to have the Royal Commission—to reconsider the whole alignment and distribution of functions in local government. It may be that by the end of this Parliament we shall be thinking of completely different categories and different sizes of units altogether. I would say, therefore, in final consolation to any inhabitants or friends of inhabitants in the villages we have been discussing, that what is happening to them this week is not at all necessarily deciding their final condition for the rest of time.

8.23 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for the courtesy with which he has replied to the points we have made. I am bound to say that he has not adduced any additional reasons, so it would be wrong for me to say that he has, either by his speeches or through the skilled advocacy of Lord Mitchison, resolved the doubts which I have; and I think that in saying that I am speaking for my noble friends who have also taken part in this debate. We did not quite like Lord Kennet's reference to this as a "routine" policy. I think he will have noted that.

The noble Lord, Lord Mitchinson, asked whether we were going to use our overpowerful voting strength to press this matter further. I think I can say that looked at from the Benches opposite, we must present a quite intimidating appearance here. I should like to take this opportunity of thanking my noble friends for the support that they have given me in the protest we have made. I would ask the Minister, in spite of the fact that he has given us the almost incredible information that his right honourable friend reads our Debates, whether he would nevertheless ask his right honourable friend to make a point of reading the arguments we have adduced; and, on the assumption that he will do that, though with some reluctance, I ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.