HL Deb 20 February 1968 vol 289 cc355-84

4.41 p.m.

Lord ILFORD rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will state the responsibilities and functions of the Regional Economic Planning Boards and Regional Economic Planning Councils and their intended relation to the local town planning authorities. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper. I put down this Question in the hope that it will enable the Government to tell us something about the work which is being done by the Regional Economic Planning Boards and the Regional Economic Planing Councils. I also hope that the noble Lord who is to reply on the Government's behalf will be able to tell us something about their intentions for the future of these two bodies.

Your Lordships, I think, have not heard very much about the activities of the Regional Economic Planning Councils. These bodies were set up soon after the Government took office. They have no express statutory authority, but were formed under the general powers of the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs. They have no executive powers and their functions, as I understand it, are purely advisory. Their purpose was stated then to be: To provide effective machinery for regional economic planning within the framework of the National Plan. Since then, the National Plan has gone into cold storage, and I imagine that planning is proceeding for the second edition of the National Plan which will in due course, I suppose, make its appearance. So far as I am aware, the functions of these bodies have never been more precisely defined than by the Secretary of State in the statement from which I have just quoted.

I am not aware of any other statutory body whose responsibilities and functions are defined in more general or uncertain terms. The Government have in fact created a whole structure of Councils and Boards covering the whole country and having no express statutory authority at all. Parliament has really heard nothing of them, except the statement by the Minister, which I read a moment ago. There may be good reasons for this unusual procedure. I hope the Minister will tell us whether the Government regard these Boards as a temporary or a permanent part of our local administration, and, if they look upon them as a permanent part, whether it is intended to give statutory authority to them in the usual way.

These Councils have been superimposed upon the local planning authorities. It is not surprising that when bodies whose functions are defined in such imprecise terms are superimposed upon other authorities, with very similar although not identical functions, a certain amount of uncertainty and misunderstanding should result. Attempts are made periodically to resolve these uncertainties by holding conferences with the planning authorities, and by the action of some of the chairmen of the Councils who have made efforts to establish personal contacts with planning authorities and, indeed, with the local authorities in their regions which are not planning authorities. Certainly contacts made in that way have proved to be very helpful. Not all the chairmen have seen fit to do that. Nevertheless, over a wide field, in spite of the attempts of planning authorities and planning Councils to avoid misunderstanding, there remains an atmosphere of uncertainty, indecision and, I am afraid, in some cases, frustration. I hope that to-night the Minister will have an opportunity to clear the air.

The first thing one has to recognise about these Councils—and this is vital to the whole of our understanding of what they are supposed to do—is that they are the instruments of central Government and are no part of local government. Yet in some cases they have been treated, and indeed have sometimes treated themselves, as though they represented a third tier in the local government structure. I hope the Minister will make it clear that these councils are the instruments of central Government and not in any sense an addition to the structure of local government.

These Councils and Boards were intended to be concerned with economic planning, leaving the physical planning to the planning authorities; and that, I believe, is still the intention. But it has been found that, as a practical matter, you cannot very well separate physical planning from economic planning, and indeed the two are almost invariably inter-twined. It is therefore important that these Councils should maintain contacts, not only with the local authorities which are planning authorities, but with the local authorities which are not planning authorities. It may well be that the authorities which are not planning authorities will be most directly affected by the decisions the Councils make. A Council, for example, may decide that a certain industry should expand in a certain place. Its expansion will involve an expansion of the local authority's housing programme; it will involve more schools, an increase in the welfare services and all the other things that go with population. So I hope that the Councils—I know that some have done so—will make contacts not only with local authorities which are planning authorities, but with those local authorities which are not, which may be very much affected by the decisions the planning Council will take.

I do not intend to-night to enter upon the various uncertainties and misinterpretations which must necessarily be encountered when negotiations between bodies whose functions are so similar take place. One difficulty which I think has proved to be a real obstacle has been that of "confidentiality" as it is called. I gather that the members of the local planning councils are subject to the Official Secrets Act and accordingly they are very careful not to disclose, in the course of their negotiations, anything which may bring them into trouble with the authorities. That puts a serious limitation on those discussions which take place between local authorities and planning Councils. I think it has been found that "confidentiality" is a real obstacle. I hope it will be possible to release the strictness of "confidentiality" when these negotiations are taking place. If a local authority is not told what the ultimate purpose of the planning Council is likely to be, it is difficult for them to make a useful contribution to the discussion, and I hope a much greater degree of frankness will be possible in these discussions in the future than has been found to be the case hitherto.

One other matter that I want to deal with is that these Councils, like all such bodies, are beginning to develop ambitions. It is suggested from time to time that they should be given executive functions—functions perhaps to make broad planning decisions. If that were done it would mean that the character and functions of the Council would be completely transformed and it would add to the present two-tier structure of local government a third tier which could result only in a further difficulty in negotiation and further intricacy of our local administration.

Another suggestion that is made is that the Councils should include a number of elected persons, or of persons who are nominated by the local authorities. I think that suggestion would completely defeat the purpose which the Minister had in mind when these Councils were created. It is not by any means the case that if the individuals were elected they would be the persons from whom the Minister would wish to have advice. It would mean that the persons elected to the Regional Planning Councils might not be in possession of either the qualities or of the knowledge which the Minister desires from them. In that way it would completely defeat the purpose which the Minister has in view. I hope to-night the Minister will be able to assure us that neither of these suggestions will find favour with Her Majesty's Government.

There has been built up an immense structure of circumlocution about these Councils. No doubt they have done valuable work, and if to-night I may have appeared once or twice to be critical I hope nothing I say will be interpreted as a reflection on them, and it will not be thought that I have failed to recognise the valuable service which the men and women who serve on these Councils have given, without remuneration. I have no wish whatever to reflect adversely on what these Councils have done. I imagine many of them have completed the task which was set them in the first instance. Four, if not five, have produced valuable surveys of their areas, and it may be that when these surveys have been produced the work which they have to do will come to an end. I do not know whether that is so or not.

But does the work which remains to be done really justify this elaborate structure of Councils and Boards, with their paid chairmen and their staffs and all the expense which goes with the setting-up of bodies of that kind? Is it really not possible to find means by which the existing planning authorities, either singly or grouped together, perhaps in a standing conference or otherwise, could furnish the Minister with the information which he needs for central planning? I should have thought that this was possible, without creating this great structure of new authorities. Instead, there has been built up alongside local authority planning what is virtually a duplication of the present planning authorities. The Government ought to consider how far this duplication is really necessary and how much longer it will continue to be necessary. If they regard it as permanent they should give it the express statutory authority which is customary when such bodies are set up and which at present the Economic Planning Boards and Councils do not possess.

4.58 p.m.


My Lords, I want to support this Question put by my noble friend, but from the rather special angle of the South-East Region, which in some ways is different from any other region, first, because of its immense population of 17 million—bigger than a number of European countries, bigger than the whole of Norway, Sweden and Denmark put together—and also because it contains London, which is not only the biggest city in Great Britain but also a focal point of that drift to the South-East which has been causing so much concern in recent years; and secondly, because the problems of this region tend to be more national in character and less purely regional than those of any other region.

I approach this subject from the humble point of view of a local planning authority. I call it a humble point of view because it is fashionable to-day to regard local planning authorities as so parochial and so restricted in their outlook that their views are hardly worth considering. It may be that this criticism is justified, but I can only assure your Lordships that up to the present it has been extraordinarily difficult for us to be anything but parochial. All the time we have been willing to put into our schemes the elements of these wider national conceptions if we had only been able to discover what they were. The sort of questions we should have been very willing to have guidance about were such matters as whether we should take London overspill and, if so, in what form, whether in the form of planned movement, expanded towns, with industry; or whether we just expanded the number of commuters we were to have; and what sort of industry we were to be allowed for our own purposes.

All this was wrapped up with the question of the drift to the South-East. It was really not possible to get answers to those questions. All we could do was to send up our schemes, prepared to the best of our ability, and see what happened. In due course, which might have been anything up to two years, they were returned to us with the Minister of Housing and Local Government's comments and amendments. We did not quite know what happened to those schemes in Whitehall, but we assumed that they had been the rounds of all the other Ministries, and that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government had acted as co-ordinator of those views.

The system worked, up to a point, but it was clearly very wasteful of time and effort to prepare plans simply on a sort of trial-and-error basis. So we were very glad when we learned in the early 1960s that the then Government, the Conservative Government, were going to produce a South-East Study. And when the Study was produced, in 1964, it did give us some guidance. It tried to indicate the kind of target population we should aim at, and indicated the towns which might be expanded. It was all very tentative, however. A number of figures were obviously wrong. But perhaps in the course of time we should have hammered out something. All that, of course, is academic, because the present Government, when they came into power, almost immediately withdrew the South-East Study. The reason, we understood, was in connection with the newly formed Department of Economic Affairs, and we rather understood that the Government did not think sufficient examination had been made of the economic problems that were then arising.

This question of how far economics is essential to physical planning, as my noble friend has said, has never really been entirely clarified. Even a local planning authority can understand that implementation of these plans needs enormous amounts of money, for housing, roads and what-have-you. With the lack of resources it might well be that those resources would have to be rationed. But we were aware that one of the dangers of planning was that one might move into a sort of dream world, with wonderful projects for reconstructing various areas and building road systems that never really took shape at all but existed only on paper. So anything which would bring greater realism would have been very welcome. Beyond that we really could not see.

As we were recently told by Professor Jukes, economic planning really means a number of different things and introduces a whole lot of new agencies. As Mr. Enoch Powell has recently pointed out, it may mean a computation of the number of people employed in filleting fish or preparing dehydrated vegetables in 1973. But, in all seriousness, I believe that it is partly the failure of the Government to be more specific on this question of how economics are essential to physical planning that has caused certain confusions to which he referred. This is perhaps by the way.

My Lords we waited for three years, and in 1967 there appeared Stategy for the South-East. The form of this production was somewhat suprising. It was not, as in the case of the South-East Study, sponsored by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government—indeed, it was not sponsored by any Ministry. It was a report of the Economic Council to the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, and to this day we do not know whether or not the Government accept it. Yet we have been asked by the Chairman of the Economic Council to comment on it. I feel that this is slightly putting the cart before the horse. As I have said, large questions of policy do arise in this area. We have seen in the past the difficulties that have arisen from the drift to the South-East. We are now beginning to see some of the problems created by Government measures to reverse that movement and push back industry to the North. The example of Woolwich is very clear in our minds. I think there will be more such cases, and some Department may well have some reservations before the scheme is finally approved.

But even supposing the Government take the whole of these great schemes as a basis for discussion, what is to happen then? I suppose that there will be some formal consultation with the local authorities. So far, there has been very little. It is true that the Chairman has had a number of working luncheons with the various authorities, and certainly we do not grudge Mr. Hackett his working luncheons, or any other luncheons: we shall always be glad to see him. But these are not a very obvious substitute for proper, formal consultation. Although we in local government are a pretty well disciplined lot, we do have views, and in this particular connection those views do not entirely coincide with the views of the Strategy for the South-East. I think there will be some disappointment if our views are ignored.

It is not at all surprising, of course, that there should be differences of opinion. Town planning is not an exact science; economics is not an exact science. In fact, your Lordships may remember the dictum of Mr. Lloyd George who, at a moment of exasperation, said that if there were six economists there would be seven opinons, two of which would be the opinions of Lord Keynes. I am only arguing that this Strategy for the South-East is an extremely competent document, very well supported by logical argument, and I am glad to see that a distinguished member of the team that produced it is to take part in the debate this afternoon.

But there are other arguments that can be advanced, equally supported by logic, and in fact what is happening to-day is that an enormous number of what I might call prize essays are being written, putting forward and supporting all sorts of views without anybody being quite clear in his mind who is going to judge who will get the prize. We are sending our comments and our prize essays not to the Economic Council but to our voluntary associations of all the authorities in the South-East that is to say, the London Standing Conference, presided over by my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford, and it may be that this body has a very valuable part to play in ironing out differences and reaching agreement on various points.

Even so, it is exceedingly unlikely that it will be able to iron out all disagreements. I cannot imagine even the most complete form of consultation reaching unanimous agreement, for example, on the question of the third London Airport, and whether it should be at Stansted or not. There will be other similar cases. Decisions have to be taken, and I am asking how they are going to be taken. Hitherto, as I have said, the Minister of Housing and Local Government has been the Minister who has presented the local authorities with Government policy, and probably in the past he has, no doubt with great difficulty, attempted to co-ordinate ministerial policy. That is a highly important thing in planning, never more so than at the present day when Ministers keep having more and more powers conferred on them. Without this co-ordination we can easily have a position where we can establish trading estates which, under his licensing system, the President of the Board of Trade never allows us to fill up. We can have a situation where the Ministry of Transport authorises the closing down of a railway line just before a town is going to be expanded. We can have a situation where, having carefully preserved a large area of beautiful country, the Minister of Power finds it necessary to put a nuclear power station in the middle of it. All these things can happen if there is no co-ordination.

I happen to know that one point at issue to-day is the extent to which statutory undertakers ought to come under the planning law. I am pointing out that we cannot deal with these things at local level; they must be dealt with at ministerial level, or even at Cabinet level. Is the Minister of Local Government going to continue these functions as hitherto? He is the only Minister who has statutory planning powers. He is the Minister who has power to amend our schemes and to decide on appeals, and he seems the obvious Minister to continue this function. Alternatively, is some new system envisaged? Is there any significance in the fact that this Report Strategy for the South-East was conceived as the responsibility of the Department of Economic Affairs, and that this debate is being answered by the representative of that Department? One thing I must say is that I most devoutly hope it does not signify that henceforward town and country planning is going to be under dual control, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government working through the local authorities, and the Department of Economic Affairs through the Economic Council, and that the local authorities will, in effect, be under two masters.

We in local government have to consult a whole host of bodies, such as the Land Commission, the Countryside Commission, the Forestry Commission, the Electricity Generating Authority—all statutory undertakers in their respective fields. I make no complaint about that. But if in addition to them, under some obscure phraseology in regard to the word "consultation", we shall be required, in effect, to submit our basic plans to the Economic Council before we send them to the Minister, I do not think that would work at all. I do not believe we should ever get finality.

I have noticed that Lord Beswick is a most experienced debater, and I am perfectly sure that he is capable of making a well-reasoned and well-informed reply to questions of this sort without conveying any information whatever. My noble friend behind me is perhaps more confident than I am that he will give that information. But on the assumption that my supposition is right, I might perhaps express a hope that the Minister of Housing and Local Government will be restored to his old position quite soon.

Of course, in matters of this magnitude time must be given for consideration. That is perfectly true. It is also true that on the strength of this document, and before it has been approved, the G.L.C. is already making plans for decanting its population with certain boroughs, without even informing the local authorities who are concerned round about of their rights. That is just an example of the confusion that I hope will be avoided in future. I agree that this is a large subject, and that it affects a great number of people. I think that is all the more reason why the planners at the top should themselves be planned, and why we of the lower grade should operate under an intelligible chain of command.

5.16 p.m.


My Lords, it is probably a good thing that one representative of a planning council should also be a Member of your Lordships' House, and as such I feel it encumbent on me to say something about my experiences. I am a member of the South-East Planning Council, which has come in for some rather threatening looks from the other side. I shall make a short statement and confine it almost entirely to generalities. I have absolutely no intention of defending step by step the organisation of regional planning throughout the country. I think it is possibly a good idea. I think we have to see how it works, and I think we shall make our decision in due course when we see how it works.

Originally, many of us who were appointed to this body felt a good many of the doubts which the noble Lord, Lord Ilford, has, if I may say so, so acidly expressed. We were pretty hesitant as to what good we could do, how useful another advisory body would be. After all, it absorbs the time of able men in public life, and a large number of highly paid and competent civil servants, and has no executive power whatever. To begin with, it seemed to us that every issue that was brought before us had already been decided by somebody else. But I am glad to tell your Lordships that we have now been sitting for nearly two years and there is a general feeling among us, I think, that we are less uneasy than we were about our relevance to the whole subject. As the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, has pointed out, the Council spent its first year producing this document Strategy for the South-East, which I think was a year well spent, and I hope that this strategy may in fact get the prize which the noble Viscount suggested might be available. But he complains, I think a little early, that it has not yet received the Government's blessing. It is an immensely complicated subject. There are an enormous number of people whose views have to be taken into consideration. The noble Lord and the noble Viscount would be among the first to complain if we brushed these views aside or treated them cavalierly. So I think the noble Viscount must be reasonable and remember that this is not yet six months old. I believe the chances are extremely high that a strategy such as this will be adopted as a guide to development in the South-East. This, of course, does not mean that the lines can never be passed. It simply means that anybody who wishes to cross these lines will have to have a good reason for doing so.

I have said that I think most of my colleagues on the South-East Planning Council are convinced that there is a genuine need for an overall body of this sort to sit in permanent session to take account of the changing trends in population level and housing statistics which come in month by month and are constantly being revised; to receive at the earliest moment notice of the intentions of the various bodies functioning within the area—that is to say, local and central, public and private; enormous bodies like the G.L.C., and small but important bodies like the Location of Offices Bureau. There is an enormous number of intentions to be co-ordinated, and one job of this Council is to plot all these intentions on one canvas and to try to see how much they conflict, then to point this out and to try to make sure that, as a group, they are conforming to the general strategy, and, where necessary, to give advice about priorities. As the enormous developments in this area occur—and they will happen, whether we plan it or not—the availability of men and materials will become shorter, and somebody will have to settle what is to be done first. I entirely agree with what was said on the other side of the House that there should be no intention by these bodies to be executive; this would confuse the issue completely. But there is a strong case for somebody who is not executive and who is not personally involved to look at this complicated question as a whole and to give the responsible Minister advice on what to do.

I will not say a great deal more about this subject. I will not take this step by step, but if we simply look at the Stansted story it will help us to realise how useful bodies of this kind could be. This is not the moment to open up the question of Stansted, with its rights and wrongs, but it is enough to say that if the South East Planning Council had been in existence when the Stansted project was first taken up, it would have subjected it to the fiercest critical scrutiny, because it is slap in the middle of one of our country zones. We should surely have wanted to know the arguments for and against alternative sites and should have wanted them to be made public. We should surely have insisted on having a proper explanation of why it is so difficult and expensive to move the Ministry of Defence installations in the South to some slightly less suitable place. And if, after all this, the verdict had still been Stansted, which it might well have been, I take it that the local inhabitants would have been just as angry as they are now, but the rest of the country would have been able to see that all the right questions had been asked and answered before the decision was taken.

I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Ilford, does not complain that these bodies are not elected. We have a much wider cross-section of articulate and independently-minded people than we possibly could get if they had to stand for election. We have on our body four or five highly distinguished people expert in planning, transportation, docks and such matters, and we also have a few, as it were, common-sense additions, of which I hope humbly to be one. I have no qualifications at all; it is probably not a bad thing to have a few. Within our deliberations I consider we have extreme democracy. We are a nonpolitical body and there is no political bias observable. All issues are debated fiercely and without fear or favour; and the chairman, if I may say so, is quite hard-worked. This is very healthy. My own belief is that in the course of time we shall find that these nine Regional Councils have an independent, well-taken view of the problems of their areas, debate them honestly, fairly and sharply, and can give advice to the Government on the best way to solve the formidable problems which are going to confront us in this very small island in the next fifty years.

5.25 p.m.


My Lords, the three noble Lords who have just spoken have all been looking at this problem through expert eyes, my two noble friends on this side of the House from long experience in local government, and the noble Lord who has just sat down as a member of a Regional Economic Planning Council. I want to look at the problem through the eyes of the man in the street, for it is surely ultimately for the good of the man in the street that this whole organisation has been set up. It is understandable that he is becoming increasingly puzzled. Advisory committees are a familiar part of the machinery of Government, but these Regional Economic Planning Councils do not seem to fit in with the recognised ideas of how such committees do their work and render their reports, as has been mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Gage.

If I am rather more critical than the other noble Lords who have spoken, I hope that no one will think that I am unfairly so. I have often been asked in the North of England, where I live, what exactly is the purpose and power of our Economic Planning Council. Up to to-day, I have only been able to reply that I do not know. I doubt whether anybody really knows. Unfortunately I have seen their patronage increasing, and this is not a good thing. I have also noticed—not, I am glad to say, in our part of the country, but, judging from what I have heard from other parts—that some Councils make no attempt to disguise their growing ambitions. The noble Lord, Lord Ilford, mentioned this matter.

I have heard it said that the purpose is to bring Whitehall to the Regions, but that, to me, is a meaningless platitude, because no Minister or Department can possibly delegate worth-while responsibility either to individuals or to a committee which have neither the traditions nor the discipline of the Civil Service or any reasonably direct responsibility to Parliament.

This really is a most timely debate which my noble friend has introduced, and I hope that the Government will take full advantage of the opportunity to make clear not only the present position, which is far from clear, but also the future intentions of the Government and the developments which they would like to see.

I have spoken to the Minister, and he knows generally how I feel; and as I do not want to make his reply any more difficult, it might be easier if I were to frame my speech (which will not be a long one) in the form of four questions. The first is: will the Minister clear up the question of the Government's policy for these committees? We know that the word "advisory" can be elastic. I can see two possible aims. Some people have thought that they were appointed primarily to help the Government frame and implement their policy. If so, I would ask why one finds in the ranks of these Councils members who would call themselves Conservatives, when we know Government policy is based on Socialism. I would again ask: have these men who call themselves Conservatives been taken in? I hope that that is not so, but when I look from where I live in the North across the Border into Scotland I can see a body comparable with an English Regional Council, though not exactly the same, presided over by the Secretary of State, which I should have thought an undisguised political body.

If this is not the Government's intention for the English Councils, as other people think, and if they are designed to find the greatest measure of common ground between us all in furthering the various policies for the good of all, which is a worthy object, why have some chairmen been appointed whose whole career in the public service has been associated in people's minds with Party politics? I must point out that I should be just as critical if these chairmen whom some of us may have in mind had been Tories as if they were Socialists. A lifelong Party politician cannot be the best chairman for an advisory body of this sort.

Having said that, I do not want anybody to think that I am wishing to question in any way the great ability, the energy or the honourable motives of the chairman of the Northern Economic Planning Council, even though his methods leave us all wondering. But while some Councils—the Yorkshire and Humberside Council, for example—set about their business with commendable modesty, our Northern Council seems to have a non-stop programme of Press conferences and T.V. appearances, and to make use of all the paraphernalia of modern public relations which, as I have said, can only puzzle people. This has another effect, which I think is unfortunate: that it tends to disparage in people's minds the standing of local authorities who do not generally indulge in public relations officers and techniques of this sort.

As to the membership, the noble Lord opposite has told us of the membership of his Council, which I think is broadly representative of other Councils, and therefore I will not go into this subject at any length. But I will say, in regard to the industrialists who are members of Councils, that it seems to me that they tend to represent bigger interests and the principal industrial organisations, whereas I feel that Councils would be stronger in some ways if there were more who had experience of smaller-scale industry. Having come here via another place—and the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, will I think agree with me here—I cannot help but wish that more of these industrialists had at one time or another in their successful lives offered their services to local government, and particularly county councils; the ballot box is very good discipline and experience for us all.

Then another difficulty was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ilford. I understand that members of Regional Councils are subject to the Official Secrets Act, because it happens that they must see Government papers which presumably are not for general distribution. This must put the members of local authorities at a certain disadvantage, particularly if, as mayors or chairmen of their authorities, they have certain knowledge affecting their own area but which under the Official Secrets Act they are not allowed in any way to indicate, either to their officials or to their colleagues.

When referring to the membership of the Councils, in our part of the world we must not forget Mr. Lee, a Minister in the Department of Economic Affairs, who I gather has special but not very clearly defined responsibilities for the North of England. He is a Minister in the D.E.A., which is the sponsoring Department for the Regional Councils in all areas, and so I find it a little difficult to see what special responsibility he has for us when he must be equally responsible for everybody else. I should like the Minister to say whether Mr. Lee's responsibilities also run in Scotland, or whether the boundary between England and Scotland in this particular instance is just one more iron curtain. It really is extremely difficult to understand exactly how all this fits in.

My last question concerns the financial side, and it has to do with the cost to the country of this whole organisation. It is now several years since these Councils were appointed. The Boards are surely only a larger edition of the meetings of the principal officials of the central Government Departments in the main provincial towns, which have been going on for a very long time, but the Regional Economic Councils are new. Of course, when I ask the cost I am not referring to salaries, because there are no salaries for members except the wretched pittance which is paid to the chairmen—and wretched it must be in proportion to the time and effort which they put in. Your Lordships are well placed to sympathise with those who put in a lot of time for nothing.

What I am concerned with is the cost of this whole system of what has been called "bringing Whitehall to the regions". This volume, Civil Estimates, 1967–68, is very large and thick. It has hundreds of pages, but I cannot find one single reference in it to the cost of these Regional Economic Planning Councils and Boards which we are discussing here this afternoon. There is no information of any sort or kind. Under the D.E.A., all one learns is that, like almost every other branch of the public service when it comes to salaries, regional policy was staffed this year by 175 men and women drawing salaries to a total of £289,000, as against the 160 who were doing the same job last year. May I ask whether the noble Lord anticipates that next year those figures will be higher still?

Surely I am right in supposing that local authorities' accounts are all audited and published, and I should like to ask the noble Lord who is to reply why the accounts of the Regional Economic Boards and the Regional Economic Councils should not be audited and published in exactly the same way as the accounts of local authorities. For instance, I am certain that there has been a considerable increase in the staff and in the expenditure at Wellbar House in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which I used to know some years ago, and there must now be a huge bill for travelling and for conferences. And when we consider this question of conferences, the expenses go far beyond the expenses of Council or Board representatives. Conferences in the North of England are not the same as conferences in Whitehall, where you pick up a telephone, speak to a colleague, collect your file and walk across the street. Local authority and voluntary society representatives who attend our endless conferences travel 60 or 70 miles and may have to spend a night away from home, and often it seems to them that the conference has been in aid of very little else, except an excuse for one more Press hand-out in the interests of the Regional Council. I think, and I am sure other noble Lords will agree with me, that this whole organisation is ripe for attention from the Public Accounts Committee in another place.

Having said all that, I should like to finish by saying that I am in no doubt at all that we need some organisation to help members of county councils and county borough councils to think more widely and to consider problems which cross their boundaries, because the county area is too small an area for much of our planning to-day. Not least ought this to be possible when the county boundary happens also to be the boundary between England and Scotland or the boundary between England and Wales, which at the moment does not happen. Further, I am sure that, with the help and cooperation of others, members of county councils ought to be encouraged to take more cognisance of the economic factors affecting their areas. This is what lies behind this whole conception of regional economic planning, but I doubt very much whether the Regional Economic Councils and their Boards as at present set up are the best method of achieving it.

5.38 p.m.


My Lords, I think it will be clear to the Government by now that what my noble friends are seeking in this short but excellent debate is clarification and fixing of responsibilities. I feel that I ought to crave your Lordships' indulgence for taking up the time of the House on each of the two Questions which we have been debating this afternoon. This one, however, happens to be on a subject in which I have had a deep interest for a great many years. It must be thirty years now since I ventured to submit a memorandum urging regional development policies to the Royal Commission on the Distribution of the Industrial Population, which was admirably presided over by Sir Montague Barlow. Since then I have had twenty years experience in local government and ten years as a Minister of the Crown, so I hope I can see the whole question from most of the relevant points of view.

It was I who some eight years ago initiated the South-East Study, which was the first effort of its kind to examine the planning problems of a whole region, and I sought to get it done within what I might call the framework of local government. The question which I think my noble friends have been asking to-day, particularly my noble friend Lord Gage, is whether we are now blurring responsibilities by carrying on planning work partly under the ægis of the Minister of Housing and Local Government through the local planning authorities, and partly under the ægis of the Ministers of the Department of Economic Affairs through these Regional Economic Planning Councils.

That seems to me a very pertinent question. I have no doubt whatever that Planning with a capital "P"—the sort of Town and Country Planning which is done by local authorities—is of little value unless it has a sound economic basis. Town and country planning, if it is thought of merely as an amenity exercise, is bound to go wrong and to lead people astray in the present day. But unless the Government are going to deprive local authorities of their planning functions—and, indeed, the Minister of Housing and Local Government of his overall planning responsibility—it is a little hard to see how the Department of Economic Affairs and these Regional Economic Planning Councils fit into all this.

Thirty years ago I was pleading that the Barlow Commission should recommend to the Government the creation of regional machinery, which in those days was almost non-existent. Now I have a great deal of sympathy with the complaints of my noble friends that the machinery is becoming so complex that effective action may be inhibited. Perhaps I should explain a little more what I mean by that. I am not doubting the competence of any of these bodies; and I do not doubt it for a moment when the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kings-bridge, says that the members of his Economic Planning Council, as they continue their work, become more and more conscious of the importance of the work their Council is doing. That is natural and as it should be. But what masters is not only that each separate piece of the machinery should be satisfied that it is doing a worth-while job, but the it the whole collection of pieces of machinery should fit together into one effective machine which is going to turn out goods.

My Lords, that is what we are worried about at the present time; and we are the more worried because a tremendous amount of this work—this very largely unpaid work of public service—falls upon a limited number of extremely busy people. I know how busy the key people in local government always are. I suspect that a great many of those who are serving as colleagues of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, and Mr. Hackett, for whom I have a high personal regard, on the South-East Planning Council, are extremely busy people in their own right, so to speak; and I am sure the same is true of the regional economic bodies elsewhere. Because they are busy people, they must realise the more that this work needs to be done with economy of time, economy of paper and economy of result. In other words, the machinery must be so designed as to create the best possible value at the end with the minimum expenditure—my noble friend Lord Inglewood might say "of money", but I am inclined to say of people's scarce, valuable time. Now this is where we are all hoping that the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, will be able to help us. My noble friend Lord Gage, in his very clear speech, emphasised how real is the danger of local authorities becoming confused by the appearance of a series of reports. They may be valuable in themselves, but what exactly is the authority of each one?

It is a tremendous task. I grant at once that the Government are in a dual difficulty. One difficulty is of their own making and that is in having created the Department of Economic Affairs; because I should have thought there was bound to be some overlap between it and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in this field. The second difficulty, not of their making, or only partly of their making, is that this is a period of transition in local government. Many people think that the old pattern of local government is inadequate for the burdens it is increasingly having to bear, but few of us would honestly wish ourselves into the job of the members of the Royal Commission, believing that we could easily write a Report showing how local government should pan out. The truth is, as I said earlier this afternoon, that the local government of the future may be—I do not know; but it may be—very different in pattern from the local government in which a number of your Lordships, including myself, have gained our experience; and the Government are having to develop their regional economic policy—an important task—at this transitional stage of local government.

What I am asking is that the Government should make as clear as they possibly can to all concerned just where the responsibilities lie, just what local authorities must be prepared to do, and just where the decisions eventually are going to be taken. If we can get this right I am sure that we can improve the pattern of machinery for the better government of this country and for its better economic development on a regional and national basis. But if we get it wrong, we shall be wasting a great deal of key people's valuable time and missing a tremendous opportunity. I hope the Government will accept that this debate has not been initiated in any Party political spirit, but that the Question was put on the Paper, I think most wisely, by my noble friend Lord Ilford from the conviction that the House of Lords is a place where there is time, as there is not always in another place, to ask the Government to state clearly how they see the machinery and how they desire the machinery to operate.

5.48 p.m.


My Lords, we have had an interesting discussion, and I hope that it will prove to be a useful one. Those noble Lords who have spoken have kept closely to the Question put down on the Order Paper by the noble Lord, Lord Ilford; and, as did the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, who preceded me, I appreciate very much the spirit in which the noble Lord initiated our discussion. It was particularly interesting, I thought, that, although there were criticisms to be made, there was no noble Lord (and certainly not the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, who initiated the South-East Study) who in any way attempted to controvert this idea of a regional approach to our problems. As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said, it is a matter only of the effectiveness and efficiency of the system that we are anxious to establish. I hope I am right when I say that I accepted the reference by the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, to my debating ability as a compliment. In any event, I assure him that this evening I am concerned only to try to state, or to restate, the thinking of the Government about the regional planning machinery.

My Lords, may I first distinguish between the Regional Economic Planning Councils and the Regional Boards? As the noble Lord, Lord Ilford, said, the Councils are advisory bodies—and I emphasise, as he asked me to emphasise, this word "advisory". Their purpose is to assist the Government in two main ways. The first is to consider the needs, potential and the problems of a region as a whole, so that the Government can take a more informed view in the formulation of national policy. Secondly, the Councils are required to develop plans, and a broad planning strategy, for each region as a guide for action by the Government themselves and for the other bodies within the region who have executive powers and responsibilities. As my noble friend Lord Donaldson said, the Council members are appointed by the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs as individuals with knowledge and experience of the region, capable of making a contribution to the planning of the region as a whole. The members are drawn from both sides of industry, from local authorities, and from universities and professional bodies concerned with aspects of planning. The Councils, therefore, embrace a very wide range of experience, and few will doubt the value of their contribution in the planning field. The members are not, let me stress, appointed as representatives or delegates of any public body or interest. This means that they are free to advise on what they consider to be the best interests of the region as a whole.

The Boards, on the other hand, consist of representatives of the main Government Departments concerned with the economic, physical and social planning in a region. They customarily include representatives of the Board of Trade, the Ministries of Agriculture, Housing and Local Government, Transport, Labour and Technology, with the representative of the D.E.A. in the Chair. Most of these Departments have had regional representatives before these Councils were established, and most of them are fairly fully occupied with their different departmental responsibilities. But the Board does provide greater co-ordination of the work of the Departments, and through the Board the Councils are provided with the basic information and supporting services which they need. The provision, in this way, of facts available to Government and information about Government policies enables the Councils to form their own ideas against a practical and realistic background. The Councils and Boards together therefore constitute the regional machinery. I have stressed that the Councils are advisory, but of course they are also the only bodies concerned with the task of economic planning for a region as a whole. The Government must therefore attach weight to the views and advice which they receive from the Councils in relation to regional matters.

The planning work of the Councils is not dependent upon there being a National Plan, although, naturally, they must take full account of national policies and national planning studies. At the same time most of us will appreciate that economic planning is a continuous process, and Councils, by studying their regions and formulating proposals, contribute to national planning as it evolves. The noble Lord, Lord Ilford, has been concerned, as was the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, with the relationship of these regional bodies to local town planning authorities and local authorities generally.

The powers and responsibilities of the local authorities are defined by Statute; and those Statutes are in no way affected by the existence of the Councils and Boards. The Planning Councils have no executive powers, and cannot take decisions, which can only be taken by the Government and by the local authorities. Their influence, which can be considerable, comes from the fact that they look at problems on a regional scale, and the value of the work they do is enhanced by their capacity to identify regional problems as a whole. These arrangements do not affect local authorities' own duties and rights, particularly of access to Government, nor do they diminish the need for local planning authorities to cooperate together. The Government see no conflict between the bodies such as the Standing Conferences of Planning Authorities and the Planning Councils. On the contrary, there is here a fruitful basis for co-operation between the statutory authorities responsible for local planning and the Councils concerned with the application of Government policy in the region.

The noble Viscount, Lord Gage, mentioned a particular case where there had been, he thought, some confusion as a result of proposals made by the South-East Planning Council about decanting overspill population in a certain borough. May I say how much I appreciated the intervention by my noble friend Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge and the way he gave his point of view about the relationship of the South-East Council with the local authorities within their area. But I imagine that the noble Viscount was referring to the Hastings incident. I understand that the South-East Council recommended that Hastings should have an overspill scheme. This was noted by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and by the Greater London Council. As a result the G.L.C. approached Hastings to negotiate agreements.

It might be thought that here was an example of a Regional Council, by virtue of their responsibility to range over the region as a whole, identifying a suitable borough for overspill decanting. The G.L.C. is, of course, free to open discussions with planning authorities about overspill, and Hastings, as a county borough, was under no obligation to consult neighbouring authorities unless they were directly affected. I see the noble Viscount wishes to intervene, but perhaps I may add this, which I hope will to some extent meet the noble Viscount. It may be that it would have been wiser if the East Sussex County Council, of which the noble Viscount is a distinguished member, had been informed. I quite agree; but this was, in fact, overlooked. But there was nothing here which in any way acted against the principle or the structure that we are discussing. However, it should have been a matter of courtesy, I should have thought.


My Lords, I intervene to say, in the interests of strict accuracy, that the Hastings area appears in the South-East Study strategy map as an area for future study—by whom it does not say. I agree that it might have been developed, as it was under the South-East Study; but the same thing had been happening also in Hampshire.


Yes, my Lords, but surely there was a local authority, the G.L.C., whose responsibility was to consult with local authorities, here, in fact, consulting with a county borough who, for their part, were quite entitled, without any permission or other consultation, to discuss a matter of common interest. I quite agree that it might have been better if those two local authorities had kept informed the surrounding East Sussex County Council. But I am assured that this is an isolated incident. Most of the Council's strategy and the reference they made to the overspill proposals is related to the long-term. There is no immediate urgency about the decisions. But the Government are anxious that the uncertainty created should be cleared up as early as possible, and I understand that the Government reply will be made public as soon as possible.

That was one particular example and, as I have said, I think in that case we are dealing with an isolated incident. But I recognise that the noble Lords who have spoken, including the noble Lord, Lord Ilford, himself President of the Association of Municipal Corporations, must speak with an experience which reflects a feeling among local authority organisations; and if they say that there is to some extent uncertainty, then clearly there must be some basis for the views they express. On the other hand, my Lords, I do not feel that we should exaggerate the degree of uncertainty. I do not think it would be wise, either, to overlook what has already been done to clear away this uncertainty, and to establish greater understanding.

For example, last November the Secretary of State had a useful meeting with representatives of all the local authority organisations; with the A.M.C., the County Councils Association, the Urban District Councils Association and the Rural District Councils Association, and I believe there also were present representatives of the Greater London Council. The discussion which they had was specifically to consider this matter of the relations between the local authorities and the regional bodies. My right honourable friend has every hope that the respective roles will be more clearly understood and that, consequently, there will be established greater scope for cooperation. I understand that as a result of that meeting a memorandum has been prepared setting out the factors discussed and the understandings which were reached. Preliminary discussions on the draft of that memorandum have already begun with some of the local authority organisations.

The noble Lord, Lord Ilford, spoke, as did the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, about the inhibitions which, they felt, might be placed upon some Council members by virtue of the fact that they operate under the Official Secrets Act. It is true that they are sometimes consulted by the Government on matters about which there is a degree of secrecy, or, at any rate, the matters are confidential; and clearly it facilitates frank discussion with the Regional Councils if this secrecy is observed. But although some measure of restraint is necessary, I am surprised, and indeed sorry, to hear that this is causing any real difficulty. Certainly, it is the intention both of the Government and of the Councils to strengthen their co-operation and not allow the operation of the Official Secrets Act to come between them in any significant way.

My Lords, since I was asked to make this clear, I emphasise again that it is the desire of the Government that there should be the closest possible relations between the Councils and the planning authorities, with each side helping the other to the good of both. Co-operation is the keynote, and there is no question at all of the Planning Councils being imposed on the local authorities as an intermediary between them and the Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, asked about the cost of these Regional Councils. I can understand that he had some difficulty in picking out the various items because, as I have said, the members of Regional Boards are themselves members of different Government Departments, and, of course, their salaries are carried on the different Departmental Votes. The annual expenditure on the D.E.A. Vote of the Northern Regional Economic Planning Council, which is what the noble Lord asked about particularly, is for the travelling and subsistence allowances only, plus an honorarium of £750 to the Chairman. The travelling and subsistence costs of all the Councils are included in the amount under sub-head "B" of the Department Vote. The noble Lord will find, if he looks at the Command Paper, that under sub-head "B" of the D.E.A. Vote there is an amount of £75,000, but this includes the general administrative expenses of the Department, as well as all the travelling and subsistence allowances for all the Councils in the country.


My Lords, in the interests of accuracy will the noble Lord allow me to say that it was £75,000 last year? It is £82,000 this year, which shows the upward trend.


My Lords, the noble Lord is better informed than I am. I am dealing with the Civil Estimates for the year ending March, 1968, and the figure under subhead "B"—I quite agree with the noble Lord—is £82,000, as against £75,000 last year.

The noble Lord asked whether these accounts are audited. Of course, the estimates of Government Departments come under the Comptroller and Auditor General. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, also asked about the New- castle office in which he seemed to think there had been changes, and where he thought there might be expenses. I gather that the Northern Regional Economic Planning Board has a supporting staff of 19 in the Regional Office, whose total salaries amount to approximately £35,000 per annum. In addition, of course, they incur the normal travelling expenses.

My Lords, the White Paper on Town and Country Planning (Cmnd. 3533) stated clearly that it is the intention that the local planning authorities should consult planning councils on the formative stage of planning so that account part be taken of the Council's views on regional policies and strategies in the preparation of local authority plans. It is, of course, for the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to consider the development plans of local authorities and for the local planning authorities to consider how far their plans should be adjusted in the light of the strategy for a region that may be recommended by a planning council. It is the intention that both central and local planning should be influenced by the studies and advice on regional considerations from the Councils and the Government make public their views on the reports prepared by the Councils, but the final decision rests, and must rest, with the executive authorities.

That is the position at the present time. I was asked about the future. Many ideas have, of course, been floated in various quarters about the development of regional machinery. As noble Lords will know, there is a Royal Commission sitting now to consider the future of local government. Its findings and recommendations will, no doubt, have a bearing not only on the shape of local government but on regional planning itself. I cannot, therefore, speculate as to what may be the development of these regional planning bodies in the future. We must wait to see what comes out of the Royal Commission's Report.

For the present, my Lords, the Government are satisfied that the Councils have an important role to play as advisory bodies, and they will continue to give them every support. I was very grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Ilford, felt able to pay a tribute to the contribution made by the Regional Councils, by these unpaid people. For my part, I should like to add my tribute to the work and effort put into regional planning by some 240 people, all eminent in their own walk of life and all very busy but who nevertheless contrive to serve their region in this way. In particular, the studies and reports they have prepared have earned wide commendation, and I hope that we shall find it possible to congratulate them on what they have done so far.

House adjourned at eight minutes past six o'clock.