HL Deb 29 March 1971 vol 316 cc1069-90

2.50 p.m.

THE LORD PRIVY SEAL (EARL JELLICOE) rose to move, That this House takes note of the Government Proposals for Reorganisation of Local Government in England (Cmnd. 4584). The noble Earl said: My Lords, I am glad to be opening, on my noble friend's behalf, this debate on the White Paper which contains the Government's proposals for the reorganisation of local government in England. I am glad not least since I recall the words which the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, used when he opened a rather similar debate about a year or so ago—to be precise on March 3 last year at column 240—on the last Government's White Paper. He said then, and I hope his words apply now: This will, I think, be an historic debate. Local government cannot be reorganised every few years. In the nature of things, a debate on a Government White Paper to reform it can take place only once or twice in a century. I am glad, therefore, to be opening this debate since if the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, was right about this, it means that this task will not fall upon my shoulders again until about AD 2071.

More seriously, my Lords, I am glad to be opening this debate because of the importance and complexity of this vast subject. Since the war no less than three comprehensive attempts have been made to tackle this formidable subject. There was the Local Government Boundary Commission in the 1940s; there was the Local Government Commission appointed under the 1958 Act; and, most recently, and most eminently, there was the Royal Commission under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Redclitfe-Maud, which reported two years or so ago.

I am glad, too, since it is nice occasionally to get a word in edgeways for England. Your Lordships will recall that we debated the Government's White Paper Reform of Local Government in Scotland last week. And we shall very shortly be debating the consultative document on the reform of local government in Wales. It is pleasant to be able to add the centre piece, the English piece, to this triptych. Of course, many of the problems which confront those concerned with local government in England also face local authoriti3s in Scotland and Wales. But I need hardly remind your Lordships that these countries have their own special background and outlook. It is right, therefore, that local government in all three countries should be debated separately. Given, too, the accumulated experience and expertise on matters concerning local government which is to be found in this House—and this is evident, perhaps only too evident, from the long list of speakers in your Lordships' debate this afternoon—it is, I would suggest, only right that each of these three documents, the White Papers on local government in Scotland and England and the consultative document for Wales, should be debated first in this House of Parliament.

Given the number of speakers this afternoon, we shall no doubt hear a variety of points of view and, doubtless, some criticism from time to time of the Government's proposals. Greatly daring, however, I should like to suggest, on the basis of our debate last year, that beneath a wide variety of opinion there will be an underlying consensus on at least four points. In the first place, I would remind your Lordships that there was agreement last year on the need for our institutions of local government to be both vigorous and healthy. I think we shall probably agree on that proposition this year. Secondly, there was also agreement that these institutions would not retain their vigour and their health unless they were radically reformed. I venture to suggest, too, that we are probably agreed on that proposition this year. Thirdly, with that in mind, I think there was also a general view that we needed fewer and stronger units of local government. I would be surprised if we had departed from that viewpoint this year. Although I am not suggesting that our agreement ended there, there was a general view that whatever structure of local government we hit upon in the future it was one which should reflect not only the difference but also the essential inter-dependence of town and country in these islands; the need to look, wherever possible at town and country together and not in separate, watertight compartments. I should be surprised, too, if your Lordships this year have departed from what I understood to be a general consensus on that as well.

The weaknesses of our present system were brilliantly analysed in the Report of the Radcliffe-Maud Commission, and the Government's White Paper summarises the same defects which the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud, and his colleagues identified. I should like to quote an extract illustrating this from the White Paper—I thought admirably terse White Paper—before your Lordships this afternoon. These are the words from paragraph 6: The areas of many existing authorities are out-dated and no longer reflect the pattern of life and work in modern society. The division between counties and county boroughs has prolonged an artificial separation of big towns from their surrounding hinterlands for functions whose planning and administration need to embrace both town and country. There are too many authorities and many of them are too small in area and resources to support the operation of services to the standards which people nowadays have the right to expect. The present division of responsibilities between authorities is, in some fields, confusing and illogical. It is small wonder that weaknesses in our local government structure exist. The system which we are debating this afternoon is, in basic essentials, that which was created by legislation as far back as the 1880s and 1890s. It is more a cause for congratulation to generations of local government members and officers that local government, this very creaky machine which we have inherited, has worked so well and has provided an expanding range of services of, overall, such reasonably high quality. Our aim, however—and it is an aim which is shared, rightly, across your Lordships' House—is to try to remove the present defects and to create the conditions within which democratic local government can flourish and develop more in the decades to come than it has flourished and developed in the recent past.

I am sure, my Lords, that you would not wish me to try to pass in review all the possible systems that have been suggested, which have been legion. To do so would leave the mistaken impression that we are everywhere in disagreement and disarray. There are, of course, differences of opinion, and differences of opinion sincerely held—and we shall doubtless hear those views expressed this afternoon. But there is, in fact, a great deal of common ground between all those who care deeply about the future of local government, and I have in my opening words, I hope, identified some of the areas on which there is basic agreement.

I would point out—and many of your Lordships are already perfectly clear about this—that in our White Paper we are not following at every step the recommendations of the Royal Commission over which the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud, presided. We shall, no doubt, be reminded of that later this afternoon, not only by the noble Lord but also by his colleague the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. But there are many points on which we find ourselves in basic agreement with the Commission's objectives. I should like, if I may—and I say this with all sincerity—here and now to pay my tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud, and his Commission. Their Report, and the very considerable corpus of studies which they put in hand, form an enduring and memorable contribution to this subject. Without their guidance, without their applied and consistent industry, and without their enthusiasm, we should not now be on the last lap towards the reorganisation of local government in the three countries.

Her Majesty's Government have come to the conclusion—this is no secret—that the advantages of concentrating responsibility in the hands of one single authority are outweighed by the admitted disadvantages. We believe that it is preferable to accept a division between those functions which need wider areas of administration and those for which the responsibility can be exercised more locally. In so doing, my Lords, we believe that we can avoid the danger of basing the new system upon areas which are too small for some purposes but too big for others. We secure the advantage of being able to call upon local authorities which are really local.

I remember very well what my noble friend Lord Amory said in our debate just over a year ago on this point. These were his words: My experience of life is that most people find it easier to feel loyalty to small groups rather than to large ones."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3/3/70; col. 275.] On the other hand, my Lords—and here, of course, I am arguing for the two-tier system—by the two-tier system we avoid the danger of remoteness. As my noble friend Lord Brooke of Cumnor reminded us in that same debate, the decision-making apparatus of the unitary authorities, recommended by the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud, in his historic Report, would to many have had the danger—to quote the pregnant words of my noble friend—of seeming "as remote as Tibet".

We are instead adopting a two-tier system with the new authority based upon the historic units of the counties and the boroughs and with genuine responsibilities exercised at each level. This last point is, to my mind, of supreme importance, because if "viable democracy" at the local level depends upon any one factor, it depends upon the ability to take decisions and action at a level at which those matters really touch the people concerned, and at which they are really meaningful to those most affected by them. Without such power a body becomes a mere talking shop and is likely to wither away, instead of being effective.

The Government's proposals are clearly set out in the White Paper before your Lordships this afternoon and, if only because that White Paper is brief and succinct, I do not believe it is necessary for me to go over all the details in introducing this discussion. I would merely remind your Lordships that we propose forty-four new counties outside Greater London based on the existing county pattern, so far as the needs of services make this practicable. All the counties will be responsible for the main planning functions and for highways and transport—functions which are interdependent and which must be considered over wide areas.

Six of the new metropolitan counties, if one wishes to them term so—the Tyne and Wear, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Merseyside, SELNEC and the West Midlands—would have a special distribution of functions on the lines which Lord Redcliffe-Maud's Commission proposed for their three main metropolitan areas. In these six—and, in the Government's view, the conditions are not found elsewhere—all the metropolitan districts would be both populous and compact. With a few exceptions, these districts would have populations of same 250,000 people or more, and the district authorities would be responsible for education and the personal social services; but outside the six metropolitan areas these services would be county functions.

Both inside and outside the metropolitan counties, the new districts will be responsible for housing, for most of the planning control and for other services which can be dealt with at this level and which have a direct impact upon the local scene. I am of course aware that some of these proposed distributions of functions are necessarily contentious. It is quite impossible to produce a scheme for local government reform which is not necessarily contentious so far as these functions are concerned, let alone as regards the areas. I know, perhaps in particular that there are those who feel that housing, or at least house building, should be a function of the larger authorities. I would not wish to anticipate the debate which may to some extent focus on this matter this afternoon. But my noble friend Lord Sandford, in winding up, will I am sure be able to expand on the reasons why we feel it is right to place housing in the main with the smaller authorities.

The aspect of reorganisation which, perhaps inevitably attracts most attention—and it is indeed one of the most important aspects of all—is the definition of the new areas. On this your Lordships will have noted that the Government propose to establish a permanent Boundary Commission as part of the machinery for keeping both local government boundaries and electoral areas up to date. The constitution and working of this Commission will of course be discussed with the local authority associations, and I do not think that your Lordships will wish me to go into those details this afternoon. The intention, in any event, is to create an independent and impartial body whose proposals would command the same respect as those of the independent Boundary Commissions who review the constituencies on the basis of which another place is elected. I am sure that there will be agreement at least with that as an objective.

The intention is that the Boundary Commission would be brought informally into being during the passage of the Bill which will be introduced next Session to give effect to these proposals. The first task of the Commission will be to make recommendations for the new pattern of districts in the counties outside the metropolitan areas. But if we are to keep to the timetable which we have in mind, it will be necessary for the Commission to start work and to open consultations about the district pattern before the Bill actually becomes law.

There is one particular point here on areas and boundaries which I think concerns a great many people. The Government's proposals draw a much tighter boundary around the metropolitan areas than did the Royal Commission, and this tighter boundary conflicts—or so it is said—with the need to embrace both town and country within the same areas for land use and other planning matters, such as the planning of transport. I would argue that there is no real contradiction here. We do not, of course, deny that the influence of the great urban concentrations extends over very wide areas indeed. The prime example is Greater London, which influences the employment pattern, the communications and the shopping habits throughout most of the South-East in which so many of us live.

But it would be impossible to adopt the area of influence of Greater London as a local government area. The problems which are created must be considered and dealt with on a regional scale and through the machinery for regional, economic and land-use planning. The same, we hold, applies to the other great conurbations in other parts of the country. There, again, we do not deny their wide influence over their surrounding hinterland. What we say instead is that such areas would be too big for local government purposes, and that the problems they raise must be considered and solved in a regional context.

Here there is another danger against which we feel we should be wise to guard. That danger is that if one enlarges the boundaries of the metropolitan areas—as some, including the Commission, wish us to do—if one gives those great conurbations the elbow room which they themselves would like, then there is a very real danger of encouraging continuous and unrelenting urban development right up to the edges of their new boundaries. I know that this can be argued both ways. We shall doubtless hear the other side of the coin, and see it turned over, later in our debate this afternoon. But this is what the Government feel is the danger of extending the area of the metropolitan boundaries.

All this brings me to the regional level. I would remind your Lordships that the White Paper specifically endorses the view that there are matters affecting both central and local government which need to be considered on this regional scale. Some of your Lordships may wish to go along with the view that it is sensible to wait for the Report of the Commission on the Constitution under the noble Lord, Lord Crowther, before we attempt to reach conclusions about the nature of the permanent machinery at the regional or provincial level which we may require. I think that is understandable; in an ideal world, of course, it might be better to wait until we saw what Crowther had in mind. But, my Lords, time presses, and I would remind your Lordships of the fact which is made clear and explicit in the White Paper, that the noble Lord, Lord Crowther, has specifically told the Government that, so far as he can foresee at this stage, there is not likely to be anything in future in the Report of his Committee to warrant delay in local government reorganisation below the provincial level. It is for that reason that we have not waited for Crowther. I saw myself the logic of waiting for Crowther in our debate a year or so ago, but in view of the specific assurance from the noble Lord, Lord Crowther, I am perfectly happy that we should go ahead with reform below the regional and provincial level now, when we see our way clear.

It might be helpful at this stage if I very briefly summarised those areas of reorganisation on which the Government have reached firm conclusions—firm conclusions from which they are unlikely to be budged. It is important to know in this sort of matter where a Government is clear in its own mind and where there is plenty of room still for argument and discussion. On the firm side of the coin, the Government are absolutely clear that reorganisation should now proceed on a two-tier basis everywhere, the wider authorities operating within an area substantially based on the counties. This was implicit in the proposals we put before the electorate in May/June last year.

Secondly, the Government think that the special conditions which require a metropolitan-type structure exist at present only in the six areas named in the White Paper. Thirdly, the Government consider that the main responsibilities in the field of planning, highways and traffic must in all cases lie with the county councils and, outside the metropolitan areas, education and the Seebohm services, too. Inside the metropolitan counties, education and the social services—the Seebohm services, if I may so term them in shorthand—should be, in the Government's view, district functions. Fourthly, the Government do not propose to reopen the matter of London Government as part of the current exercise, either as regards the outer boundary or the distribution of functions between the Greater London Council and the London boroughs. Those of us who have masochistic memories of the debates in your Lordships' House in 1963 may welcome this particular decision. Finally, the Government have decided very firmly on the timetable which they feel to be absolutely essential in this matter.

That said, my Lords, I should like to make it equally clear that there are many matters still for discussion and consultation, and it is our hope that this discussion and this consultation will be really meaningful. I have already mentioned that consultations have begun with the existing authorities on the proposed areas for the counties and the metropolitan districts. At a later stage the Boundary Commission will be consulting about the pattern of districts elsewhere. As regards the functions, we recognise that as we move from a system which is only one level in the county boroughs to a universal two-tier system there are bound to be very considerable repercussions on individual existing authorities. It is, of course, impossible merely to tinker with the existing distribution of functions. If, as we hope, the new system is going to stand for a long time to come—and I would advance the hope that it should stand for not less than five decades—the new distribution of functions must be based not merely on expediency but on rational and defensible principles which will stand the test of time. Here we clearly need benefit of the first-hand experience of people in local government who know, better than anyone else, how services interact upon each other, how they can best be organised and what effect reorganisation will have on the most effective use of professional manpower.

My Lords, there are also a wide range of electoral matters on which consultations will be needed. That is why we shall shortly be consulting the local authority associations and the political Parties on the arrangements for the first elections, and we shall of course take account of their comments in reaching our decisions on those arrangements. We shall, in addition, need to have full consultations with the local authority associations and with the various staffing bodies on the many matters which affect the interests of local government officers. Your Lordships will doubtless have noted that the White Paper makes it clear that the Government have decided to set up a staff commission to advise on the arrangements for the recruitment and transfer of staff and necessary safeguards for staff interests. We attach great importance to this aspect of the matter, and I can give all local government staff an absolute assurance on behalf of the Government that their legitimate interests will be fully safeguarded. Reorganisation will not be at their expense.

Finally, my Lords, we shall be having separate consultations on financial matters. We hope to publish a Green Paper within the next two or three months, and that Green Paper will deal with all aspects of local government finance, including the possibilities of alternative sources of revenue, the future of the rating system, the financial relationships between central and local government and the arrangements for Government financial assistance by way of grant. In any event, we are satisfied, from what we know of the progress already made in the review of local government finance, that reorganisation can go forward without prejudicing possible changes in the financial field.

My Lords, let me, as I move towards the conclusion of my remarks, revert for a moment to the timetable. I think it is useful, that it should be quite clear to everybody taking part in this debate what sort of timetable the Government have in mind at the present moment. The Government are convinced that the changes should be made as soon as is reasonably practicable. Reorganisation has loomed over local authorities for too long and has created uncertainty which must be brought to an end. I say that, not only in the interests of efficient government, but also—and this is linked with efficient government—because I think that uncertainty has already been damaging, and continuing uncertainty would be vastly more damaging, for the morale of the staff concerned. We do not underestimate the magnitude or the complexity of the operation on which we are embarking, but consultations have already been undertaken and the intention is that the Bill should be introduced early next Session.

As I have said, we shall bring the Boundary Commission into existence as soon as the Bill has been read a second time. Of course, consultations on the new district pattern outside the metropolitan areas will need to be initiated, even while the Bill is before Parliament. There will be no question of the Commission's formulating their final recommendations until the Bill has become law and the pattern of new counties has been established. The district proposals will be debated in Parliament in time for the districts to be finalised by Ministerial Order by the end of 1972. The elections to the new authorities will be held in 1973, as soon as the electoral areas have been defined. The new county councils and metropolitan districts will be elected in the spring of 1973 and the other district councils in the autumn of 1973.

There will then be a period of overlap, after the new authorities have been elected, during which time they will need to appoint their Chief Officers, settle their internal organisation and complete their preparations. It is our view, my Lords, that the new authorities should take over their full responsibilities at the beginning of April, 1974, when the present authorities will go out of existence. We are thus faced with a formidable and vast operation, which we believe must be carried through with dispatch. I am sure that this is right, but it admittedly means a very tight timetable. We believe, however, that it must be tackled in that sort of time-scale, and we certainly believe that there is no reason whatsoever why we should not achieve our objective within the timetable I have just outlined to your Lordships.

My Lords, it would be inconceivable, I think, that proposals of the magnitude of those which I have just outlined would command unanimous approval. Nevertheless, the Government have been encouraged by the amount of support which these proposals have received, not least (and most generously, if I may say so, given the fact that they diverge in some important respects from those of his Commission) from the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud. Moreover, my Lords, even where we may agree to disagree about the structure which we are proposing, there is, I am convinced, if not unanimous agreement a very full measure of agreement that we must now proceed to action in this matter. It is time, in sum, for the buck of local government reform to stop passing. That is why we shall legislate in the next Session of Parliament, and that is why the new authorities, newly elected in 1973, are due to swing into full action in April, 1974.

My Lords, it is against this background that I commend the Government's proposals to your Lordships. I believe that they will give us the new framework which we need now in order to strengthen local government and to reinvigorate local democracy in this country. I bet eve, furthermore, that the new framework will have stretch, will have flexibility, and could be further expanded and developed during the remainder of this century. That, my Lords, is for the future. For the present, I suggest that now is the time for us to get cracking in this matter. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of the Government Proposals for Reorganisation of Local Government in England (Cmnd. 4584).—(Earl Jellicoe.)

3.23 p.m.


My Lords, I know that we all enjoyed the vigorous and healthy (to use his own words) and, indeed, very judicious speech which we have just heard from the noble Earl. I learned my local government first, as an undergraduate, from the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud, and later, when, 25 years ago, my noble friend Lady Scrota and I joined the noble Lords, Lord Brooke of Cumnor and Lord Cottesloe, on the old Hampstead Borough Council; and I hope I may say that I have always tried to be a good local government man. For many years, until I became a Minister, I was a vice-president of the Association of Municipal Corporations—an office which I resumed when I ceased to be a Minister; and a few days ago I became President of the Association of Urban District Councils. So, after three and three-quarter years as their Minister, it is reassuring to know that I have not entirely forfeited the confidence of at least some of the key figures in the local government world. At this stage, may I say how much I regret the fact that the noble Earl, Lord Gainsborough, has informed me that, because of illness, he will not be able to take part in our debate to-day?

I believe very firmly with the noble Earl who has just sat down, that local government has a vital part to play in our democratic process. It is democracy at the grass roots, and I am certain that we need local government which is strong enough to counter excessive influence at the centre. I therefore welcome very much the promptness with which the Government have produced the White Paper, and the swiftness with which this debate has taken place. Like many experts in the field, I have some doubts about the feasibility of the time-table which the noble Earl has outlined to us, and I will return to that in a moment. But I am sure that speed is essential, for the two reasons that he gave to the House. First, we must end the appalling uncertainty in which local government staffs have worked for the last few years, and I very much welcome the assurance which the noble Earl gave to the House about the sense of security which local government officers can now feel. Secondly, we need speed because we have to stop local government grinding to a halt. Authorities which do not know whether they are going to be in existence in three years' time are not likely to go out of their way to incur heavy capital expenditure, or to exercise any great foresight in the framing of policy.

Because speed is so necessary, I do not think there is any point in reviving the old controversy about unitary authorities or two-tier local government. I will therefore confine myself to-day to quoting two of the most critical comments on the Government's proposals. Mr. Derek Senior, for example, engagingly commented to the Local Government Chronicle that it was all too easy to devise a two-tier structure that would be even worse than Maud, but that he never imagined that the outcome would be so much worse. He went on to describe it as a misbegotten freak—by electoral expediency out of administrative myopia". The Economist, under the heading "Walker's lame duck reform for local government" said that, in certain key respects the proposals are "a disaster of political prejudice". It is clear, however, that unless there is a substantial change of heart on the part of the Government—and I confess that the noble Earl gave me very little encouragement in that direction this afternoon—we are going to have the set-up which he has decribed to your Lordships.

I therefore want to go straight to one aspect of the timetable. The Department of the Environment Circular 8/71, issued on February 16, asks local authorities to submit their comments on the boundaries shown on the map, or any alternative suggestions they wish to put forward, by the end of May. But, of course, the first part of May will be taken up by elections in many areas; then new committees will have to be set up and approved by the whole council; and then the comments or alternative proposals will have to be formulated. This may just be possible if political control remains the same, but it may be quite impossible if political control changes—even in one of a number of local authorities in an area. Therefore with full awareness of the need for speed, I ask the Government to give at least a little further time in this respect. To agree to this would, I think, be only fair and in the long run would probably be very rewarding. I am sure that that is what your Lordships would wish; and perhaps this could be included in the subjects upon which the Government have promised consultation.

I have said that I shall not go back over old ground, but before I comment on the Government's proposals I would express the appreciation that I think all of us feel towards the local authority associations for the thoughtful and constructive contributions that they have made to the reform of local government. Five or six years ago it would have been quite impossible to conceive of local authorities moving so swiftly towards reorganisation. I look forward very eagerly to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud, who has a quite remarkable capacity for making funeral speeches sound like christenings. No doubt he will welcome these proposals, just as he welcomed the proposals of the Labour Government. By the appointment of the Redcliffe-Maud Commission and the publication of the White Paper, the Labour Government produced what were, I think, important landmarks in the progress towards local government reform; and the present Government certainly took over when most of the ground had been cleared. Therefore, I find it surprising that they have not been able yet to tell us anything about finance.

When Mr. Wilson made a statement in another place on the Redcliffe-Maud Report, Mr. Heath raised the importance of finance in the context of local government reorganisation; and when another place debated the Labour Government's White Paper in Febraury, 1970, Mr. Walker raised the point again. And Mr. Chattaway, when he wound up, said that final decisions about the structure could not be taken until possible means of financing had been considered. My own view has always been that sizes and functions had to be decided first, and only then could we look at finance. Although the Government have rather belatedly come round to the same point of view, I welcome their conversion.

May I turn to the metropolitan counties, and first discuss the choice of those counties? The Government have dropped one of those that the Labour Government proposed—that in South Hampshire—and added two, in South Yorkshire and on Tyneside and Wearside. We have had, so far as I know, no real explanation of why the South Hampshire metropolitan area proposal has been dropped. I am sorry about it because very valuable joint planning work has been done by Southampton and Portsmouth and the Hampshire County Council. In a metropolitan county, the two county boroughs would have greater prestige and more powers than if they were county districts in the ordinary county. When I opened the extension to the Isle of Wight County Hall last year I got the distinct impression that they felt that to be part of a metropoltian area was the solution to their rather unique problem.

Tyneside and Wearside is admittedly a problem. I rejected the original proposal for a Tyneside county borough because it was not big enough. It swallowed up most of Northumberland's rateable value and left the county itself non-viable; but at the same time it perpetuated the division between town and country. I believe that the new proposal has some of the same defects; but at least it makes the Tyne a link rather than a frontier. The real problem, I am sure, is what to do with Northumberland. I feel confident myself that it will need special financial help. And if Newcastle and the conurbation round it are to be able to breathe, much more open countryside should be included in the area of the metropolitan county; but that would add further to the difficulties of Northumberland.

South Yorkshire is clearly an attractive candidate to be a metropolitan county—but not in the form that the White Paper suggests. I believe that the boundaries have been much too tightly drawn, in spite of everything that the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, has said. It includes Barnsley and Doncaster, whose links with Sheffield are rather tenuous; but it leaves out two authorities which certainly look to Sheffield—Worksop, in Nottinghamshire, and Chesterfield, in Derbyshire. The difficulty is obvious; and that is why we ruled out a metropolitan county as the solution. If Chesterfield and Worksop and a few rural areas went in, the problems of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire would be very great indeed. It would have a domino effect, with repercussions over a wide area. But I have little liking for the pseudo-metropolitan county that the Government have produced.


My Lords, I was interested in what the noble Lord had to say about Northumberland and South Yorkshire. I was beginning to wonder what consideration he had ever given to the new proposals in regard to Durham. After all, Durham was the centre of the North East, apart from Newcastle, Northumberland or anywhere else. Now, Durham is to be hived off in many ways and will be left with nothing more than green fields.


My Lords, I appreciate the point of my noble friend who speaks with great experience of local government in County Durham. I hope that he will have the opportunity of taking part in this debate; but of course the White Paper produced by the last Government would not have had the effect on the County Palatine to which he rightly drew our attention as being one of the consequences of the present proposals. I hope that he will forgive my not being diverted into these side channels because there are many speakers and I am afraid that my own speech is anyhow rather on the long side.

I want to stress that the real tragedies are the metropolitan counties on Merseyside, around Manchester—and I hope that I never hear the noble Earl refer to SELNEC again—and in the West Midlands. In those three areas, for the past 20 years, planned development has been impeded and the tightness with which the new counties are drawn will do nothing to remove that impediment. It will enable Birmingham and Coventry to expand into the green area between them, with a resulting urban sprawl stretching about 40 miles from Coventry to Wolverhampton. Coventry, moreover, has very little in common with Birmingham. As Professor Peter Hall has pointed out, only 1 per cent. of Coventry's workers travel to Birmingham. Kidderminster, Red-ditch, Lichfield and Tamworth, on the other hand, have close links with Birmingham, but are left out of the proposals. This does not make sense. Merseyside and Manchester, too, are mutilated remains of the metropolitan areas suggested by Redcliffe-Maud and approved by the Labour Government. In my view, they should be extended well beyond, and not within, any existing Green Belt.

My Lords, before I leave the subject of metropolitan counties, I should like, as a Lancastrian, to make one suggestion to the Government, one which, I am afraid, I completely failed to persuade my own colleagues to accept. If there is a case—and I am sure that there is—for a West Yorkshire metropolitan county extending right up to the Lancashire border, there is an equally strong case for having a similar metropolitan county in the almost exactly similar area of Lancashire, West of the Pennines. Ideally, this would cover the three Redcliffe-Maud unitary areas based on Burnley, Blackburn and Preston; but Blackpool would probably have to be included, too. I will not elaborate on this, except to say that I believe that it would facilitate the development of the Central Lancashire New Town, and would enable a number of extremely good existing authorities to continue in a form bettter equipped to provide an efficient service. I hope that noble Lords on the other side will not close their minds to this proposition if it comes to them from any of the local authorities concerned.

I hope that before the debate is finished the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, will have explained rather more fully than the White Paper the Government's reasons for allocating the various functions between different types of authority. I will discuss the general position in a moment; but may I first express my anxieties about the functions in the metropolitan counties? There, plan-making will be isolated from housing, the personal social services and education. That could mean that social planning and physical planning were disastrously divided. We cannot, of course, assess the economic implications until the Government reveal their thinking about the financing of the new authorities. The Government, moreover, have not told us why they have reversed the Labour Government's decision that education should go to the metropolitan counties rather than to the metropolitan districts, a division of functions which the Government have endorsed in the rest of the country. Personally, I can see arguments both ways, and perhaps the minimum of cooperation would resolve the difficulties. It would be interesting to know why the Government think that Bradford and Coventry should remain as education authorities but Nottingham, Derby, Plymouth and Stoke should not.

So far as functions in general are concerned, your Lordships may well form the view that the Government have not really thought them through. It seems odd that over most of England planning and housing will not go together; and that housing, in spite of Seebohm, will be separated almost completely from the personal services. But the system can be made to work, especially if the county councils are given real powers to act as a long-stop, or even as a bowler, in the housing field. If, however, the main housing powers are going to the districts—and this is inevitable in a two-tier system—they should be accompanied by responsibility for building regulations which the White Paper surprisingly allocates to the counties. It is even more surprising when one remembers that in Scotland and Wales these building regulations are to go to the district councils. The planning proposals, too, may be inevitable, but the proposal that the counties and districts are to use the same officers could lead to the most frightful diffi culties; and I am sure that a good deal of further thought and consultation is needed.

Closely linked to housing and planning is the need for local authority advice centres. Lambeth has an excellent housing advice centre where advice is available on mortgages, on the possibility of moving to New Towns, on the chances of getting a council house, and on the availabiliity of improvement grants. Camden and the Consumer Association have an interesting pilot scheme in Kentish Town for advice on other consumer problems. I am sure that the pattern of the future is that these and similar activities—those of citizens' advice bureaux, and Members' of Parliament and councillors' surgeries, should be in the same building, under the auspices of the district council, if local government is to remain accessable and to rekindle public interest. I therefore believe, my Lords, that food and drugs and weights and measures which are now, it is proposed, to go to the counties should go to the districts as part of the consumer protection services.

Some of the differences in the treatment of England, Wales and Scotland are quite remarkable. I will not go through them all, but in Wales and Scotland clean air is a matter for the districts; in England it is a matter for the counties. That, I think, is very hard to defend. In the case of highways too, in England they are to be a purely county responsibility, while the Consultative Document for Wales admits in paragraph 15: Members of district councils will of course be concerned about the upkeep of roads, road improvements, new highway schemes and traffic management schemes not only because of their direct implications but also because of their links with matters for which district councils would be responsible, such as town centre re-development, development control and new housing schemes. It is not without significance, I think, that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, in its evidence to the Royal Commission, also recommended that districts should have responsibility for what it described as the provision and lighting of purely local roads; and the maintenance of roads other than trunk roads and motorways.… The proposals about libraries are equally surprising. In England responsibility for the libraries is to go to the county councils. In Scotland, where the language is broadly the same as in England and the people are not all that different, libraries are to be the responsibility of the district councils. I cannot reconcile these conflicting conclusions. I am certain, however, that the Government have turned a complete sommersault since they legislated after the Roberts Report; and the views they are expressing now conflict with those expressed then by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, and Mr. Chataway. Moreover, I do not believe that size and efficiency, in this or any other sector of local government activity, are necessarily synonymous. A library is more than a book store and more than an outpost of the educational system. It is the centre of many local activities, and indeed a centre of social life in the community. I can find no good reason for putting libraries among the responsibilities of the education authorities.

Just one other function, my Lords, which I will mention quite briefly, commenting in passing that I suspect that the large number of concurrent powers set out in the White Paper simply paper over hasty and rather sloppy thinking. I can see no reason why a decision on sewerage should await the report of the Central Advisory Water Committee, although, clearly, sewage disposal must. Sewerage and local roads, at least, are closely linked, and should go to the districts. After all, we are discussing district councils responsible for populations of 75,000 to 100,000 and in some cases, like Bristol, for very much larger populations. As the Association of Municipal Corporations has put it in the context of the White Paper, the possibility of their being allocated more functions and the means of involving them in the local application of other functions that will have also to be exercised at county level need detailed examination before the present non-county borough and district councils are rushed by the county councils with indecent haste to agree a pattern of amalgamation for submission to a Boundary Commission which cannot be set up for many months. There is finally, my Lords, the caveat which is entered by the Urban District Councils Association. It says: The new district councils will need to employ qualified staff, including engineers, architects, planners, public health inspectors, accountants and administrators. Unless they can practise their professional skill with full satisfaction they wilt not stay with district councils. The drift from the service is already being felt because of the uncertainty of the future. Replacement staff, who are often appointed at higher salaries, have less experience and are less well qualified. The result, inevitably, is that the standard of public service declines. Under reorganisation this movement can be reversed if full job satisfaction can be given. My Lords, I believe that these proposals can be made to work, but they still need a great deal of thought, a great deal of consultation, and a great deal of clarification. I earnestly hope that the Government will find this debate helpful in preparing the necessary legislation, and in giving the country a soundly based democratic system of local government, able to stand up to central Government, and to give our people a service characterised not only by efficiency but also by humanity.