HL Deb 04 February 1970 vol 307 cc649-56

4.9 p.m.


My Lords, if you can bear with me for a moment longer, this may be a convenient moment to interrupt the debate and for me to repeat to the House a Statement that is being made in the House of Commons by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Regional Planning and Local Government. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, I wish to make a Statement about the reform of local government in England, on which a White Paper is published to-day.

"The White Paper sets out the Government's conclusions on all the structural proposals of the Redcliffe Maud report, and on their broad application to the map of England.

"There is widespread agreement that a major reform of local government structure is required. While dissenting on certain points, to which I refer later, the Government believe that the Royal Commission's proposals provide the best basis for this reform.

"The Government accept that wherever possible all local government services should be in the hands of a single authority, that these unitary authorities should have areas covering both town and country, and that they should be generally of the size proposed by the Commission.

"In certain parts of the country, however, the requirements of planning and development call for areas of a size and population much larger than are desirable for other services, such as the personal social services and most of the. work in the housing field. In such metropolitan areas, as the Commission call them, a two-tier solution is necessary.

"The Government differ from the Commission on two points concerning the metropolitan areas. First, in our view, education should be the responsibility of the top-tier rather than the second-tier authorities. Secondly, while agreeing with the Commission that metropolitan areas are required in Merseyside, in South-East Lancashire and North-East Cheshire and in the West Midlands, the Government believe that a two-tier system is also necessary in West Yorkshire and in South Hampshire, with the Isle of Wight. Both these areas need to be dealt with as single units where planning and development are concerned.

"The Commission proposed that the unitary and metropolitan authorities should contribute members to eight provincial councils, whose main task would be to draw up the regional planning strategies within which the main authorities would work. There is no doubt as to the importance of this task; but it would be premature to reach conclusions on a new machinery to undertake it until the Commission on the Constitution have reported. Meanwhile, the Government intend to develop the work of the Regional Economic Planning Councils, and will seek to ensure effective co-operation between them and the local authorities in their regions.

"The Commission proposed that there should be local councils with the function of voicing the wishes and views of their communities, and the power to improve local amenities. They also suggested that the larger local councils might play a part in providing some of the main services. Although the Government do not accept this last suggestion, they believe that local councils will form an indispensable part of the new structure, and propose that in addition to their other functions they should be associated with the administration of some of the major services by having the right to appoint members to district committees of the main authorities.

"So much for structure, on which the Government asked for early comments: and I should like to express my gratitude to all those who, by letting us have their comments without delay, have enabled us to present conclusions so expeditiously. But the White Paper also records the Government's conclusions on certain other matters.

"As the Prime Minister has already made clear to the House, the Government believe that local government should have more freedom than it has to-day. Reorganisation creates the opportunity for achieving this. The White Paper therefore tables proposals for the relaxation of financial controls, non-financial controls, and controls over the way in which authorities manage their internal affairs; and also for a general power.

"Reorganisation also creates the opportunity to review the whole field of local government finance, including local taxation. These subjects are too important and complex to be dealt with adequately in a White Paper about re-organisation. Moreover, they call for further discussion and consultation. The Government will therefore publish a separate Green Paper on this subject later. However, the White Paper records the Government's view that the Commission were right in saying that, for local government as now visualised, rates must remain the principal local tax.

"The White paper also deals with the expenses of councillors, liberalisation of the present rules on disqualification, and machinery for investigating complaints of maladministration in local government. It states our conclusion that there should be no aldermen in the new authorities. It proposes a Staff Commission on the London model to help during the transition.

"On many of these points, as well as on the detailed boundaries of the new authorities, the Government will now arrange for a further round of consultations. But the comprehensive conclusions on structure described in the White Paper should enable a Bill to be ready for the Parliamentary Session of 1971–72.

"A Government which undertakes the reform of local government undertakes hard and unpopular work, but work which cannot be shirked. There will be many arguments for and against our proposals; for there is no uniquely right solution to the problem of local government. But there will be few who will not agree that reform on this scale is needed and that Parliament should enable it to be effected as soon as practicable."

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, I know that we should all like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for taking the trouble to repeat the Statement to us, especially on what is a heavy day for him and at the end of a major speech on another subject. I hope he will forgive us if we say little about the Statement until we have had an opportunity of reading the White Paper. Nevertheless, I should like to ask three questions at this stage.

First, is the noble Lord aware that there will be widespread disappointment that the announcement of the Government's view on local government finance is still postponed? Secondly, under this reorganisation, can he tell us what services the Government believe can be hived off from the overworked central departments on to the new local authorities? And, thirdly, can he tell us how many electors every member of a unitary authority will have to represent under the new scheme? I ask that last question because many of us fear that first-hand personal knowledge (which to us is the very essence of local government) might be in danger, under the reorganisation, of being sacrificed in the interests of administrative streamlining.


My Lords, I should like to join in thanking the noble Lord for repeating this Statement. We shall, of course, have to study the Statement and the White Paper. It is a very complex subject and no doubt will be very controversial. I have one or two questions I should like to put. The Redcliffe-Maud Report proposed provincial councils, the members of which were to be nominated, not elected. Do the Government accept this principle of non-elected members of provincial councils? I hope not. Alternatively, is it to be deferred until we have the Report of the Commission on the Constitution?

That brings up the whole question of the timetable. Is it not a rather topsyturvy way of carrying out this reform, to bring about local government reform first and then study constitutional reform afterwards? How do the Government contemplate bringing in these reforms in 1971–72? Will it be possible to get the Report on the Constitution published and studied prior to that date? Secondly, how does the Government's policy differ from that of the development of city regions, which would be dominated by the cities and large boroughs? I understand that in principle the Government have departed from the idea of city regions.

Lastly, the Statement refers to machinery for investigating complaints of maladministration in local government. I conclude that there will be regional ombudsmen. By what means will the complaints be made? Will they be limited to complaints through local councils?—because as the noble Lord may be aware, there have been occasions, and there may be occasions in future, where a council is dominated by one Party, and it is not a sufficient safeguard to limit complaints through the council.


My Lords, may I deal with those questions first? The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, asked why it has not been possible to deal with the structure of local government finance at the same time as reorganisation. The answer is simply because, once it had been decided that we have to keep rates as the main source of revenue, it is rather a different matter. Partly for convenience's sake and partly because of the need for further consultations on finance, the Government decided to put their proposals on reorganisation now in a rather firm form and then have further consultations and a Green Paper on finance at a later stage. Needless to say, in these consultations we shall be considering what further methods can be adopted to make rates less regressive than we all know they are. As to the hiving-off of services from central Government to local government, may I say that I do not think that any services will be hived off. I would ask the House to await the publication of the Green Paper on the Health Services; but the idea is that controls should be removed and relaxed in a manner that is outlined in the White Paper. We shall achieve greater detail later on in discussion with the associations.

I was asked how many electors each unitary councillor will have. The proposals will bring the total number of elected councillors in the unitary authorities down from 32,000, where it now stands, to 6,000. The local councils will continue to have the same number as the present local councils have at the moment. The danger of remoteness is not, I think, a great one. None of the proposed unitary areas is larger either in population or in area than the existing counties which have the largest population and the largest areas. The proposal for district committees of the unitary councils to which can be appointed members of the remaining local councils is, I think, one that will do much to remove any danger of remoteness that there may be. As to the provincial councils, the Government have taken no view about how they should be chosen and what their powers should be, although, as the White Paper says, they recognise the need for regional framework and control. The Government will take no view until the Crowther Commission have reported.

The answer to Lord Wade's second question as to how this differed from city regions is, Not much. But I think his question was based on a misapprehension of what a city region is. It is not a region to be dominated by a city; it is a region containing a city and surrounding country towns and villages, the interests of all of which should be considered by one authority representing all the people. In many of the unitary authorities, in point of fact, the country dwellers will predominate over the town dwellers and the probable capital of that unitary authority. Lastly, on the question of complaints and the proposed local commissioner for administration, the noble Lord, Lord Wade, asked whether complaints would bo referred only to councils. The answer is, Yes. It seemed to the Government improper to deprive the locally elected person of that right and duty, just as it seemed improper to deprive a Member of Parliament of it a few years ago when we were introducing the Parliamentary Commissioner.


My Lords, may I thank my noble friend for the promptness with which the Government have produced this White Paper? I would ask my noble friend whether he is aware that in local government there are very few ostriches, and that most people in contact with the councils realise that considerable measures of modernisation are necessary. At the same time, is he aware of the fact that there is room for a two-tier authority with effective powers over what one might call localised domestic services; and does he not fear that these proposals may create a more bureaucratic atmosphere than exists at present? Thirdly, is he not aware that the extension of the metropolitan authority system will be very much welcomed; and can the Government not extend that principle to the greater part of the country, thus allowing the local representatives to have a bigger voice in decisions than they will get under this proposed scheme?


My Lords, on the vital question of finance, and considering the White Paper that is to come before the House, can we be told when the Green Paper will be available? The future finance of local government is an important question.


My Lords, on the question whether there is not a greater scope for two-tier authorities, may I say that the major question which the Government had to consider when they received the Maud Commission's Report was whether there should, as a rule, be a single-tier of unitary authorities; and, as the White Paper explains at some length, the Government came to the conclusion that the Royal Commission's argument was sound and that the advantages of having one authority which does everything, or almost everything, and is able to provide services on a truly modern scale outweighed any possible danger of remoteness. And the Government, I would remind the House, have provided special anti-remoteness mechanism.

On the question of the publication date of the Green Paper, I may say that it will be published in good time to permit discussions and consultations, and the framing of legislation which will take effect at the same time as local government reorganisation itself. But we have some more work to do before it is published, and I should prefer not to make any precise forecast.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he will keep an open mind on the question of Lancashire and the Lancashire County Council area? The Lancashire County Council is about the largest local authority in England outside London, and it has apparently been decided that it should be split into a number of mini-counties. That will not be at all welcome to most people in Lancashire, and I should like to know whether the noble Lord's mind is still open with regard to Lancashire.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will read the White Paper carefully he will see on what the Government's mind is still open and on what it is not. Many people want another metropolitan authority in Lancashire; others wants the county to remain as it is; others, again, welcome the break-up into unitary areas as it stands now. The Government's mind is made up on where there shall and where there shall not be metropolitan areas. The Government's mind is also made up that there shall be no further division of unitary areas into smaller areas. Other matters are open to discussion with the local authority associations between now and the drafting of the Bill. But I should emphasise that the map, as it appears in the two respects that I mentioned, is an absolutely firm proposal, and in other respects a proposal which the Government hope will remain firm.