HL Deb 17 December 1980 vol 415 cc1122-42

Debate resumed.

4.2 p.m.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, if we may revert from finance to the structure of local government, I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Cromartie, for raising this very important question. It is all very well to say that the system has been going for only five years, but we still can form certain judgments as to the way in which it is doing so.

I must admit that I have very attenuated experience in present local government. It is about four decades since I was last a member in local government in Scotland. However, I think I can say that at that time we covered about three times as many subjects and it cost about a quarter of what it costs today. I am not saying that we were doing it well. All I am saying is that there are different ways of dealing with local government at one time or another. May I say at once to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, that I am delighted to think that Strathclyde is going well. I have very little personal experience of Strathcylde, though I know there are a number of people who say that there are problems in getting answers to questions.

In 1969, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wheatley, ended up his report, which I think is an extremely important document—because, whether you agree with the conclusions or not, there is a mass of wise comment on the whole sphere of local government—by saying this: Local government in Scotland has lost credibility and status over the years". The real question that we ask ourselves today is: has it regained credibility and has it regained status? I am afraid that I do not think it has. I do not necessarily endorse what was said by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, who went so far as to say that it is a disaster, but I must admit that I have heard people talking about organised chaos. This is all exaggeration, no doubt, but there are certain irritations and a limited degree of pleasure.

The first point is that the division of duties between the region and the district has been quite inadequately defined. I do not know how it happened, but there is a range of what may be called grey subjects, such as highways, which may depend on the weather. There is the building of houses without control of the drains and there are various environmental health questions. I do not want to go into these matters. The noble Earl who represents the Scottish Office knows this point very well, and I am not going to enlarge on it. But the result of that, in almost all cases, is to create bad relations between the district and the region, which is not in the interests of good government.

Your Lordships may say that this is all going to be dealt with by the Stodart Committee—it may be; I do not know. But the Stodart Committee, which has rather a narrow remit, will have to make fairly radical changes if this situation is to be improved. However, I am sure it is very bad that, at the present time, there are areas where there is disagreement between the two, because they do not know exactly their responsibilities. I know that the officials are very good men and that they find ways and means of getting around a problem, but there is unsatisfactory legislation.

I want to deal with two points which should be covered. First, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, talked about loyalties. I want to talk about the dignity of civic organisations. Your Lordships may think that dignity is a very small thing: there are local people who are pompous and so on, and that is not right. But to my mind dignity is an integral part of all political institutions. If you do not believe that, I ask you to read Walter Bagehot and, if you do not accept Walter Bagehot, read Richard Crossman's introduction to the new edition of Walter Bagehot. There you will see the necessity of a dignified element in the constitution.

A great deal of that has gone. The royal burghs have gone, the baillies have gone and the Lord Provosts are being undermined bit by bit. This is wrong. We must have heads who stand for something, and who are seen to stand for something in our local government, if they are to carry any weight. It is not for us to talk about pomposity. Is there ever such a splendid sight as the opening of Parliament, or seeing the judges in their judicial function, which is an integral element of their work?

Secondly, there is confusion as to who is responsible. The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, made this point and she was right. I am not arguing about whether councillors do their jobs or talk to their constituents. It is the problem of getting decisions. That is not easy and it is something which is terribly important. There is a necessity in any democratic organisation to know who is responsible and where you can get a decision. Democracy means nothing unless you get those two.

There is a telling phrase in Stephen Runciman, who wrote about the white rajahs of Borneo. He said that in the East democracy means speaking to the head man. The only thing he is wrong about is that that applies in the West, too. You want to know who is making the decision and, if you know, whether he has got the arguments that you want to put forward. That is fudged today. I do not know whether Stodart will be able to remedy the position, but that situation must be restored.

It is quite true that the noble Lord and learned, Lord Wheatley, examined the possibility of a one-tier system, and it is important to say that the chamberlains—that is, the finance officers—the municipal engineers and, to my knowledge, a lot of the county clerks were very much in favour of a one-tier system. Of course, it was not quite a one-tier system, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said. It was very nearly an all-purpose system, with offshoots in certain directions—joint committees and things of that sort. But there was one main committee or one main layer.

I am fairly of the opinion that in this report, instead of going for a one-tier system, we have sacrificed local government on the altar of strategic decisions. That is the basis on which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wheatley, worked; that strategic decisions should be made at a higher level. I am not saying that that is necessarily wrong. What is wrong is that they dangled from the strategic decisions all kinds of local matters, which ran right down to personal services, and the whole thing is out of proportion. Of course, we did not follow Wheatley entirely in this matter.

I am going to say a word about Edinburgh. Edinburgh has come extremely badly out of this. From time immemorial, Edinburgh has been an all-purpose authority, catering for half a million people and quite big enough to provide the whole range of services. It is the capital of Scotland. However, I put that aside. Today it is the second biggest tourist attraction in this country after London, and it is very important for that reason. Its functions, whether they be the Festival or what you will, are divided between the region and the town. It is not good enough. I say to the Scottish Office that the Lord Provost of Edinburgh ought to stand for something. If visitors come to the country they expect to find there somebody of civic standing. But this does not happen. I say that in passing. Edinburgh should be given a position of greater standing, although I do not want to "do down" Glasgow, since there is in this House a former Lord Provost. However, the country expects the Lord Provost of Edinburgh to be given a standing.

I am fairly confident that there is going to be a great deal of opposition, because the Scottish Office is largely responsible for the structure. It is their child. I do not think that they will willingly admit that they have done it all wrong. Nor will the office holders in the regions be extremely glad to do so. To have two organisations, theoretically of equal status, is fundamentally wrong. Whether we do or do not go back wholly to an all-purpose authority I am not sure, but we must go back to a main authority: one authority with other authorities emanating from it, perhaps with joint committees. To have two authorities, with vague relations and to say that they are of roughly the same status is near to chaos. It is not good enough. It is that which, if I may, I am asking the noble Earl to try to straighten out. Local authority is important. It will never be perfect; you will never get the boundaries perfect. However, we must try to get local authority clearer than it is now. It is that which I ask the noble Earl on the Front Bench to try to do.

Baroness Gaitskell

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, may I ask him how one can have dignity in local government if there is no fairness in local government?

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, I do not know quite how that comes in. I think you can have unfairness and great dignity. It may not be very just but you can have it. You can help fairness, though, by having dignity.

4.13 p.m.

Lord Boothby

My Lords, first I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Cromartie, for raising this debate. We should all be grateful to him. My excuse for speaking—it will be only for three or four minutes—is that I can at least guarantee a certain personal consistency. The last reform of local government, following the report of the Wheatley Commission, has been, in my opinion and as I predicted at the time, a dismal failure. I am quite uncompromising on this point. I see all the arguments put by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and other noble Lords for and against the Wheatley Commission's report, and for and against this and that. I was always opposed to it in another place, from start to finish. I always thought it was absolutely wrong to break up the existing system of local government in Scotland and to remove the close contact between the people and their own local government which had been the pride and one of the glories of Scotland for centuries.

That reform, which was reform for reform's sake and not because it was essential, has had a disastrous effect on Scottish life in general. To give only one example, we now have in the North of Scotland two grandiose sounding authorities: the Grampian Regional Council and the Banff and Buchan Regional Council. The Grampians is a beautiful and very large range of mountains. If I wanted to get hold of the regional council, for the life of me I do not know where I should go. I should have a shot at Perth, but it would be only a guess. Let us take, for example, somebody living in a small village in the middle of Aberdeenshire who wanted to get in touch with his local authority. In the old days he would go to the "toon hoose". He knew very well where that was. Now he would have to go to Banff. How the hell is he to get to Banff? And when he gets there what is he to do? Where is he to go?

There is no close contact between the present local authorities in Scotland and the people. I knew them in the days when there was the closest contact. I give one example, a glaring case which reached me this morning. St. Fergus, as many noble Lords know, has now become the receiving centre for North Sea oil and gas. It is expanding very rapidly. An engineer has bought a house here—this is not the only case, but it is a particularly bad example because it is an expensive house—but he is not allowed to have it joined to the main sewage system, for no other reason than that the Grampian Regional Council and the Banff and Buchan Regional Council disagree with each other. So he cannot get into his house. That news reached me only this morning, but there are several other cases like it. These grandiose councils do not get on at all. They do not like each other. Luckily, they do not see much of each other, any more than they see the people who vote for them—or the people of Scotland see them. Some reforms are essential, I agree, but reform just for the sake of it—just for the hell of it, I would say—is nearly always bad.

I felt that very strongly during the recent interesting debate in your Lordships' House about the future of this House, in which I took no part, but which I read very carefully. It is a very odd thing that everybody knows in his heart that the House of Commons will never accept an elected second Chamber, but they will accept this one—and they do, practically without exception. They take our advice again and again. Why? First, because I venture to say to noble Lords, without any attempt to flatter, that in recent years you have been doing a frightfully good job of work; and, secondly, because the whole thing works. And when something is working well it is much better to leave it alone. There is no point in interfering with it just for the sake of interference and changing things.

My two qualifications for speaking in this dabate are, first, my absolutely consistent opposition to the Wheatley Report, much as I admired the intellectual gifts of Lord Wheatley; and, secondly, my 34 unbroken years as a Member of Parliament for a Scottish constituency. I worked through the Provosts. There was no need in my day for what are nowadays called surgeries. If action was required at departmental or parliamentary level, I was at once informed by the Provost.

In all the years that I served I never found a bad Provost. They were all absolutely first-class; they were all dignified; they all had a certain amount of pomp. They were looked up to, and the local elections were strenuously contested. Great interest was taken in them. The people got good service at reasonable cost.

Of course there were a good many local authorities. Why not? I think the more the better. Today there is bad service at inordinate cost. Very little interest is taken in the elections to local government because the people never see those whom they elect—and they never see the people once they are elected. They do not go round to consult them or to give advice. I think it is absolutely essential that we should go back to a one-tier service and to our own system of local government in Scotland.

If I may end on a personal note, I should like to say that one of the things I am proudest of in life is that I am a freeman of the boroughs of Peterhead, Fraserburgh, Turriff and Rosehearty. I want to leave to the councils the beautiful caskets they gave me. I cannot, because there is no recipient. There is no council to leave them to. I do not know what the hell to do with them! I should like them to be received after my death with due formality by the Provost in full Provost's gown, but there is no Provost, and nobody to receive them. So my message to your Lordships is very brief and very simple and based on long service and consistent views in both Houses of Parliament. It is this: bring back the town councils and the Provosts of Scotland. They should never have been taken away.

The Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him whether he would be prepared to bequeath his caskets to the National Trust for Scotland and to stipulate that they should be put on view at Haddo House?

Lord Boothby

My Lords, I should very much doubt it.

4.22 p.m.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood

My Lords, we are having an extremely interesting and very important debate and we are much indebted to the noble Earl, Lord Cromartie, for inaugurating this discussion, although I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, that with the forthcoming Stodart Report this is really an exercise in discussion and putting our points of view, but to some extent I think we must wait for decisions until we see the Stodart Report.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, I have been for 29 years in local government in the Borders and I gave evidence to Lord Wheatley's Commission when it was set up and took evidence from, I think, all the counties in Scotland. I thought then—and I still think—that there was room in those days for alterations and improvements, but I now feel that a certain amount of what was done has not worked out exactly as I hoped.

I always think—and I am sure that noble Lords will agree with me—that the great point of local government is that it must be local. Representing, as I did, a small rural area, it was my job to know everybody in that area and everything that was going on, and when the county council met one was able to speak with great authority upon what was affecting local people. The same applied when one was chairman (as I was for many years) of individual committees, like education or social services. The important thing was that you knew exactly what was happening in the area which you represented. Today, with the enlargements that have taken place, I do not believe that that happens and I would disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, about Strathclyde, because I think that there one has a colossal area and it is very difficult to get immediate decisions or immediate help. The reason is that there are so many different compartments in local government in Strathclyde that one has to go through before one can get a decision. I think that is all wrong: decisions in local government should come as quickly and as directly as possible from the departments that cover whatever subject one is enquiring about.

Before the reorganisation took place we had a debate in your Lordships' House about the proposals in the Wheatley Report and I moved a resolution that Strathclyde should be four distinct areas consisting of Glasgow and Dunbartonshire, Argyll and the Islands, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire. They would have been four excellent regions, able to manage their own affairs and definitely knowing and being in close touch with all the people living in those areas. We passed that resolution in this House with a very big majority and I had the support of noble Lords on the Labour and the Conservative sides. Unfortunately, when it went back to the House of Commons, the Whips were put on and the result was defeat. I think that was a great mistake.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, lives in the region; I do not live in Strathclyde but I do run a business in Strathclyde so I know the problems connected with trying to get a decision in connection with the running of a business. Sometimes they are quite frustrating. There is a very good case for looking again at such an enormous region as Strathclyde and dividing it, not exactly into counties but taking one area for each county. Again that would be larger than the old system which we operated for many years.

I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, when he says that it is an improvement to have larger areas for the police, for the fire service and, I think, for planning and roads. They have been quite a success. There are matters in this new system which are a success. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, that the whole thing is a failure. Some of it has been a failure but some is a success and that is why I agree with the proposals that we have been discussing, that we should not necessarily go back to where the boundaries were before but that we should look at them again with the experience of five years to see whether improvements cannot be made. I know it is extremely difficult when headquarter buildings have been built and status has been given to individual people who have the top appointment in the area and who will suddenly find that they are no longer to have the top appointment but to be one of four, if we take the division that I have suggested for Strathclyde. Nevertheless, I believe that it is possible to do these things and they should be considered.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, when he speaks of the difficulties of the very narrow boundaries of the burghs in Scotland. Many of those burghs did provide great difficulties, but I think some of them could have remained and I agree very strongly with those who would like to see the Lord Provosts of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee given the status that they had before. As your Lordships know, my husband was a Member for Glasgow for 40 years, and I cannot imagine what it would be like to live in Glasgow without the Lord Provost as the figurehead of the city. That does not mean to say that he had all the power in his own hands. Of course he did not; he had a formidable town council which he had to cope with, but at least there was a status there which I should like to see brought into these areas.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend would give way. I think this point about Lord Provosts is important because the Lord Provost is automatically the Lord Lieutenant of the city. That is what gives him his dignity and puts him over everyone else, and that has been continued.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood

My Lords, this is a short debate, as we see on the Order Paper and there is a great deal more business before your Lordships, so I shall not speak at any length, but I hope very much that the present Secretary of State will have an open mind about these things and that when the Stodart Report comes out we shall not be told that it has nothing to do with the boundaries or with reorganisation. It must have something to do with the boundaries and it must have something to do with reorganisation because, whatever it recommends, it is bound to have some repercussions.

I hope very much that, after this debate and after these discussions, the Government will pay attention to what we are saying. After all, we are all speaking from experience; every single person who has spoken in this debate has been either in local government or in central government for a great many years. I hope the suggestions that have been made, including perhaps one or two that I have made, will be considered, because I am very anxious indeed that we should see an improvement in our local government in Scotland and not, as I fear is happening in some areas, a quite considerable degeneration. That sounds rather a strong word, but it is something which is not as good as before. I hope very much that the Government will consider some of our suggestions.

4.32 p.m.

Lord Polwarth

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, for allowing me to intervene at this point without previous warning. I felt that, as the Minister responsible for piloting the Local Government Act through this House—and a pretty traumatic experience it was, I can assure you—I wanted to say just two or three things. I believe, with hindsight and in the light of experience, that our decision to go for a two-tier system was a fundamental mistake. Other noble Lords have highlighted the reasons. I should like to cite one or two: the proliferation in numbers of staffs, and the unfortunate enmity and bad blood which has resulted in a number of cases between districts of cities and their surrounding regions where different politics are involved. This, I would suggest to your Lordships, is perhaps a little warning to us in regard to what might happen were we to have a local legislative assembly in Scotland which might well be of a different political party from the Government of the United Kingdom. That is something I think we should ponder.

We have seen in some cases wasteful duplication, with the regional and district authorities seeking to carry out similar functions. There was the ludicrous case not long ago—a small one I know—at the Open golf championship at Muirfield where we had the spectacle of Edinburgh District and Lothian Region each running their own hospitality tent with the avowed intention of attracting notice to tourism and industry in their respective areas which were really all part of the same thing.

On the other hand, gaps have arisen where things have fallen between two stools. I think this applies particularly to the arts in Scotland. Prior to reorganisation, the responsibility for contributing to the major artistic bodies, particularly orchestras, opera and ballet, lay with the main cities where these organisations primarily perform. With the reform of local government, somewhere or other it was agreed that the responsibility would be transferred to the regions. What happened? It was a splendid excuse for the new bodies, not to wash their hands of the matter, but, at least in some cases, to reduce the level of support, and today they are meeting a very much smaller proportion of the total cost of those artistic bodies than they were prior to reorganisation.

What are we to do about this? I must say I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, that to dismantle the entire set-up and create a new one in one swoop in the foreseeable future is too terrible a prospect to contemplate in terms of upheaval and cost, particularly in these hard economic times. As others have said, we are in a vacuum awaiting the publication of the Stodart Report. A previous report was published; we accepted it and put it into law. But that was not the first committee or commission, however distinguished, to have published a unanimous report which was subsequently proved by events to have been wrong in its main concept. So I hope that, when the Stodart Report is published, we shall examine it extremely critically in your Lordships' House and that the Government will look at it with a very open mind, whatever it recommends

I think there is very little more we can suggest in a practical way today. It may be that the right course is to experiment, and make a start by taking certain regions where the anomalies are particularly glaring and bringing them back to single tier authorities, without covering the whole of Scotland. Let us see what happens. The one thing of which I am quite certain is that something, in due course, must be done.

4.36 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I am very glad the noble Lord, Lord Polwarth, did speak because he made a most courageous statement. I think the House should be very grateful to a Minister for coming back and giving the facts as to what has happened and recanting on a decision, something that politicians hardly ever do. I should very much like to express my gratitude to the noble Earl, Lord Cromartie, for bringing this matter forward. This is the sort of practical and intelligent thing he is constantly doing. I know that he is extremely intelligent because we agree on several points!

The history of local government reorganisation in Scotland, I think, has been very unfortunate. To begin with, I think we had our two committees the wrong way round. We should have had Crowther, later Kilbrandon, first, long before we had Wheatley. The result is that we have got into a mess on both counts; we neither have any devolution at all, nor do we have a decent system. My own view is that in some cases many of the functions are better done. I was particularly unhappy in Caithness and Sutherland, when I was Member there, over the fact that the educational authority in Sutherland, which had 13,000 voters, was far too small and they were totally dominated by the director of education, whoever he was; he ran the thing according to his own ideas, which were mostly conventional and suburban and quite unsuited to education in a county such as Sutherland. That made me inclined to think that we ought to have bigger authorities. I must also say that despite Russell Johnston being on the committee, as Lord Campbell of Croy said, the Scottish Liberal Party, under the advice of Greenock Town Council, retracted their support for Wheatley and advocated, with good reasons, single tier authorities.

But it is no good going back and saying that at that time some of us were right, because we are in the situation now where we have without any doubt local government in Scotland which is held in much less repute than hitherto. I do not think one can go anywhere without people talking about the expense, the enormous increase in the numbers of employees and the lack of contact with and lack of efficiency of local government. Indeed, when it comes to the dignity of councillors, we had that famous comedian Stanley Baxter who was teaching people to talk Glasgow, and one of his lessons said, "There are a pair of cooncillors", which he translated as saying, "There go a pair of intellectuals". I never could quite see the joke, but they were Glasgow "cooncillors".

We have got away from the sort of entities that people understand. If you live in Fife at least you know that you are still in the Kingdom of Fife, because of the great fight put up by the Fife people and Sir John Gilmour, and at least you have Fife intact. But instead of having the county of Fife running all the main services, they now have the region of Fife and the three district councils, North-East Fife, Kircaldy and Leven. They do not have the town councils. I think it is more important to have provosts than Lord Provosts, because the small places roundabout certainly had an identity of their own and people knew exactly where they were. Although they did not take in any country round about them—they did tend to split authorities into town and country which was a mistake—nevertheless they were extremely valuable, and we need to get back to some sense of identity in the small towns.

I think that if we are going to reorganise back to a one-tier system it should be done as the noble Lord, Lord Polwarth, said, bit by bit. There is no reason to have a great mass of organisation of one sort. That is what we should have learned out of this. In fact the single tier authorities, where we had to have them on islands and so on, are working very well. An ad hoc reorganisation would work, I think, extraordinarily well.

In the main cases that I know of we would probably want to go back to the former counties as all-purpose districts. But certainly in some areas, such as the Borders, I understand that there is a big body of opinion who think that it would be far better if the single tier authority was the region, and that in fact has been working better than having it split up in that case.

All over Scotland we have different areas which require different solutions. So, when the Stodart Report comes out, for goodness sake do not let us accept it holus-bolus: but if we are looking at it let us determine to reform local government, to get it back to being well thought of and understood, and let us do it in a sensible and practical way, bit by bit. In that way we might get back again to a form of authority that people will understand and which will function efficiently and a great deal more cheaply than the present system.

4.42 p.m.

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, I think that the noble Earl, Lord Cromartie, should be very pleased about the response to his debate. Some of us think—and it has been stated—that it is pretty well mistimed. But then those noble Lords went on to make rather interesting speeches, and not all opposing some of the ideas that he put forward. I have been involved in this for a long time. It did not start with me. It did not start with the establishing of the Wheatley Commission, although I have a better idea than the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie. I gave vent to the opinion that if we had had Lord Kilbrandon heading the Local Government Commisison—because he comes from a family that has for over a century been involved in local government in Ayr: his father was the county clerk, the great man himself James Edward Shaw, and his grandfather was a commissioner—we might have had a better feeling for local government, and Lord Wheatley, with his experience of the House of Commons, might have done better on the constitution.

The whole situation is so reminiscent. I am preparing myself now, of course, for the great migratory season. I am now retired and I spend most of my time in the month of January going round to Burn's Suppers and I cannot help but remember what Burns put into the mouth of the Old Brig and of the new brig when what they were talking about was the town councils that were and the reformed town councils. This was 200 years ago. I am sure that the noble Earl, Lord Cromartie, will probably agree with what the Old Brig said: Nae langer reverend men their country's glory, In plain braid Scots havd forth a plain braid story, Nae langer worthy citizens and douce, Meet o'er a pint or in the cooncil house, But graceless staimural corkyh heided gentry, The heriment and ruin of the country, Men three parts made by tailors and by barbers, Who waste her weel hained gear on damned new brigs and harbours". So I gather that we have spendthrift new local authorities. That was exactly the complaint in those days.

I think that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, was right. Everyone was agreed at that time that there should be changes. Nobody was agreed about what the changes should be. I think that we could have taken a longer time about it. I remember one thing I objected to in the White Paper that he produced. I could understand his irritation. The argument has got to stop now. These are the boundaries. This is it, and there could be more negotiations about detail.

I was surprised at the Liberal Party. The noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, did not mention the fact that Betty Harvie Anderson, the late Baroness Scrimshaw, whose death robbed this House of a very, very worthy Member indeed, and Russel Johnston, had a minority report. They agreed certainly with the wider regions, but they had far more districts. This would have gone some way, I think, to meet some of the complaints. Lady Saltoun I think could put her finger on it, and indeed so did some of the other speakers, that there is a wide discontent that you cannot meet your council the way you did. In a small burgh you did not write anyone a letter, you just went down the street and met the provost, or a councillor, and you were on first name terms with them. If you wanted things done he would just wend his way up to the council house and see what he could do about it.

Not all the provosts or all the bailiffs were all good or were all dignified. I am charmed about this idea that every Provost in the country was dignified. In fact one of the things that disturbs me slightly—I am fond of local history too—is that provosts go with burghs.

If you wipe out the burghs there should be no provosts. We did not wipe out the cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen and they still have—I do not know who misled the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood—Lord Provosts and they are still very dignified.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood

My Lords, it was their status that I was concerned about. I knew that they had them, but I wanted them to be grand.

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, their status is the same, and do not try to suggest otherwise to the Lord Provosts of Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee or Glasgow. They are still—as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy said—Lord-Lieutenants. I thought that that was sometimes a bit unfair to convenors of counties who never had the status. This is equally true of a chairman, or convenor—they can choose their own name—in relation to their regions. They do not have status, and yet their functions are far, far heavier than any others.

We must look at the situation. It is no good going back to the burghs and the historic burghs. Every small burgh was entitled to be a housing authority. In some of the small burghs a penny rate brought in £50. It just was not on. I can take the small burghs in my own constituency that was, Newmilns, Darvel and Galston—there is not a mile between each of them. Each exchange population from the point of view of people working in the one or in the other. If you go up the road from Ayr to Kilmarnock at 8 o'clock in the morning you see hundreds of cars going down to Ayr from Kilmarnock and an equal number going up the road from Kilmarnock to Ayr. It is that kind of thing that developments overtook in the community sense, in that one lived and one worked and one had all one's being within one's small burgh.

The noble Earl himself should appreciate just exactly what happened. When we decided to have a smelter at Invergordon, how could we throw the burdens of building all the houses required on Taine or Invergordon? He knows quite well that we had to establish a special working party from the Scottish Office and brine, in the Scottish Special Housing Association because the necessary local authority functions could not be done by the existing authorities in those small towns. The same thing happened in relation to the developments in respect of oil.

So let us stop this hankering after the past and appreciate that the change that was made to two-tier was right. Remember that people condemned Wheatley. We never applied Wheatley. What we have in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles was not Wheatley; what we have in Fife was not Wheatley; what we have in the Lothians was not Wheatley. We discarded so much of Wheatley that we should have gone the whole way. The Lords have a good record as far as Strathclyde is concerned. I agree, by the way, with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe. I have been surprised about how well Strathclyde has gone about it. I am perfectly sure that it comes down to personalities. We were very fortunate in having Geoff Shaw there as first convenor and indeed, the continuing convenor is a very good man, too—he should be, for he comes from Ayr! The way matters have been conducted there have been to their credit. Scottish local government has a tremendous problem and it is probably unfair to place that problem upon them.

The City of Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Dunbarton and parts of Renfrewshire, including Greenock, have the worst problem in Scotland as regards slums, education and deprivation. To put them altogether into one was asking a great deal of those who were given the responsibility for conducting it. But they have done pretty well out of it. I live in Strathclyde and I am pleased about it. I am less pleased about the conduct of some of the districts, although not all of them. At present it is far too early to judge exactly whether it has been a success or a failure.

There can be improvements; this applies to the remarks made by the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, about getting people to do things and getting a quick response. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, will remember that we raised this problem in Committee and we were assured that there would be offices in the various areas and that people would not need to travel to Glasgow. Nobody should know this better than the noble Earl, Lord Cromartie. Some people had to travel a long way to get to Dingwall for a county council meeting and had to spend a night there as well. The same applied to Inverness; people had to travel from Skye in order to get there. Remember, the Western Isles were divided into two separate counties in those days. So it was not always all that good. There were weaknesses in the past which had to be evened out.

One of the great mistakes was that we were all mesmerised—certainly from 1963 onwards they were in the Scottish Office—by the estuarial planners. I am glad to see that the noble Lord, Lord Polwarth, recognises the jargon. If you control one side of an estuary, the other side must be in the same region. This had to apply to Glasgow and Edinburgh. That was knocked silly by the decision of the Government as regards Fife. I think that we probably went too far there. I was opposed to the creation of Strathclyde. What ever else it is and no matter how efficient it may be, it is not local government. This is what is comes down to and what most of the complaints that we have heard today amount to. We have taken "localness" out of local government. How do we put it back? To my mind the community councils have not responded as the Government of the day probably thought they would to fill the gap and create that local feeling. I am still hopeful that they might, but I always have a feeling that when you get non-elected bodies like that, you will get on them those who are the most articulate; you will get a pressure group rather than a group that is representative of the whole community. So I am sorry about that.

I was interested in the facts about Shawfield and the Clyde. The noble Lord will appreciate that in those days Clyde was a far better team. It was in what was equivalent to the Premier League now. I shall not tell your Lordships what some of Clyde's supporters say today now that they are in Strathclyde. They would rather be divided into Rutherglen and Glasgow. However, I shall leave that.

The Stodart Committee has now been set up. Last week the Secretary of State answered a Question and said that he has already received the report of that committee. It is to be published in January. He announced that in the House of Commons in answer to a Question for Written Answer. Therefore, towards the end of January we shall have the Stodart Report; we shall return to the subject. Of course, the remit of that report was to review the situation and to make recommendations but within the existing structure. I warn noble Lords that you do not reorganise local government every five years. I think that it has proved to be the most expensive game of musical chairs in history. People were doing the same job with a new title, but at a very much higher salary. Do not start blaming me for that. I notice that the noble Lord used the phrase that we just went out of office in 1970 and 1974 and we were getting ready. It had already started. Let me warn him about this. Reorganisation in England and Wales took place a year earlier. All the staff organisations and establishments were sat on down here. Do you think that local government civil servants ignored that? The same thing happened in Scotland. It was disappointing.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, if I may interrupt the noble Lord, people are talking about five years' experience. Surely it is true that reorganisation took place seven years ago.

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, no. The Bill was seven years ago, but there was a year of preparation. Then in 1975 there was the first election. The whole thing got going in about 1976. I should have thought that a distinguished Member of the Liberal Party would have appreciated that. It was far too early. This was said at the time when we reorganised it. The previous reorganisation of local government was in 1929. In those days my father was a parish councillor. They were wiped out. I can remember the same thing being said within five years as is being said now: "It is not as good as what it was".

It is up to us, and we hope that we shall receive some help from the Stodart Committee to try to improve it and to get rid of these grey areas. The confrontation and clashes which the noble Lord, Lord Polwarth, mentioned as regards planning were a mistake. To the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, I would say that there are not two regions in the Grampians; there is only the one region. So the clash of which he spoke will be with the region, which has overall planning powers, and the tactical planning powers are those of the district. I can understand the difficulties there. It is something we looked at and it is something which will be required to be sorted out. There is no reason why we should not have co-operation on that. It is rather too early to make up our minds about this—and I say this sadly to the noble Earl, Lord Cromartie—because Ross and Cromarty are necessarily dear to my heart. I hope he will be satisfied that we have had an excellent debate so far, and I hope that he will not press his Motion for Papers.

4.59 p.m.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Cromartie for putting down this Motion today. I apologised to him in advance, by letter last week, because for two reasons I cannot respond today in a more positive manner. This is partly a question of timing and partly a question of principle. But I have listened with very considerable interest to what he has said, and indeed to all other noble Lords who have spoken. I am sure that we are all, as is so often the fact in your Lordships' House, greatly impressed by the range of knowledge and experience. Many Members of your Lordships' House have direct experience as elected members of local government before and after reorganisation. I myseh was a member of Perth County Council from 1971 until reorganisation took place.

On timing, as a number of noble Lords have said, this debate is taking place between the completion and the publication of the report of the Committee of Inquiry into Local Government in Scotland under the chairmanship of Mr. Anthony Stodart. The committee has been examining the operation of the reorganised system of local government in Scotland and, as the noble Lord, Lord Ross, rightly said, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced on 5th December that he has indeed received the report and that he hopes to present it to Parliament and to publish it early next year. So this debate comes in a way too late to influence the Stodart Committee, and comes too early to discuss its findings or conclusions. Equally I cannot anticipate what the report is going to say or what the Government's reaction to it may be.

The other matter that I mentioned as one of principle is this—and it perhaps inhibits me from giving a more positive response to some of the points raised. It is that as of now the Government are by no means persuaded that a single tier system in Scottish local government is indeed desirable. It may be convenient for future thinking and possible debates if I outline the circumstances in which the Stodart Committee was set up and consider some of the difficulties about single tier systems, and then perhaps I might pick up some of the many points which have been raised by noble Lords during the debate.

As I have said, the Stodart Committee came about as a result of my right honourable friend in December 1979 appointing a committee of inquiry, and he indicated at that time that he believed that the local government system was working relatively well although it would be unrealistic to pretend that it was perfect in all respects. He was however sure that further radical structural change in Scottish local government would be unnecessarily disruptive and expensive. Therefore, the Committee was asked to consider what improvements could be made within the existing structure through the transfer or rationalisation of functions between the regional and district tier while still fully maintaining the viability of the existing authorities. The Committee was asked to report by December 1980 because we believed that the inevitable period of uncertainty generated by the Committee's inquiries should be kept to a minimum.

The focus of much informed criticism of the reorganised structure has been that, although regional and district councils have been created, they are in a number of major areas concurrently responsible for the same functions—for example, both regions and districts have responsibilities for tourism, recreation, museums, parks, art galleries and countryside matters, and they have an interdependent role on strategic planning and local planning issues. Many have argued that this joint responsibility for this important range of functions has created a confused pattern of accountability and responsibility and I know that my right honourable friend was particularly anxious that the Stodart Committee would look at these areas of concurrent and overlapping functions to see what rationalisation might be possible. The extent to which they have been successful in making any such recommendations will be seen when the report is published at the end of January.

If the "grey" areas between region and district can be removed or clarified I believe that many of the popular complaints against the two-tier system may well disappear. However, given the terms of the Motion before the House this evening which calls for the need to evolve a suitable plan to revert to a single tier system in Scottish local government it might be helpful if I considered briefly the arguments for and against a single tier system, although I must emphasise that such a review was outwith the terms of reference of the Stodart Committee.

A number of noble Lords have spoken with great nostalgia for the old Scottish system of local government, and that particularly I think applies to the burghs. In fact, my noble friend's Motion suggests that the single tier system is what we had in Scotland before reorganisation. But I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, who in fact correctly produced the numbers which, to save time, I shall not reproduce. It is not, strictly speaking, correct. Of course we did have counties of cities, and large burghs and small burghs, and counties and districts.

Each of these authorities was entitled to exercise the functions assigned to it by statute together with, in the case of districts and small burghs, any functions which might be delegated to it by the county council. These functions were multifarious. The counties of cities broadly speaking were responsible for all functions; large burghs had responsibilities for all functions except education and valuation; the small burghs were responsible for housing, minor roads, cleansing and refuse collections, sewerage, libraries and museums, places of entertainment and parks and recreation; county councils were responsible outside the burghs for all functions; and within the large burghs for education and valuation and within the small burghs for education, health, social work, valuation, police, fire, planning, roads and other minor matters. Finally the district councils were responsible for the maintenance of public-ways, footpaths and had a number of concurrent powers with the county councils in relation to community centres, parks, allotments, and so on. Moreover, the burghs could send representatives to participate in county council meetings on matters affecting burgh functions.

Finally, in a number of areas county councils had combined the discharge of certain functions—for instance, in Moray and Nairn and in my county council of Perth and Kinross. Thus, the overall pattern was one of extreme fragmentation of responsibility, cross-membership of authorities, and confused lines of accountability. It was this pattern which moved the Royal Commission under the chairmanship of Lord Wheatley to begin its report with the following heartfelt cry: Something is seriously wrong with local government in Scotland … At the root of the trouble is the present structure of local government … It is no longer right and it needs to be reformed. There is ample evidence to show that local authorities on the whole are too small, the boundaries pay little heed to present social and economic realities. Services are often being provided by the wrong sorts of authorities and over the wrong areas … Friction tends to build up between neighbouring authorities because of an artificial conflict of interest created by the structure of local government and nothing else". Therefore, those who wish to return to a single tier system will have to sail between the Scylla of Lord Wheatley's heartfelt cry at the beginning of his report and the Charybdis of the various complaints made as to the present position, remoteness, lack of dignity, and so on.

Does then an all-purpose single tier system have advantages? The Royal Commission on the one hand said in paragraph 676: An all purpose system has obvious advantages. It is simple to understand and to operate. It calls for only one set of elections and a single impost on the local taxpayers … functions which go together can be properly co-ordinated with one another because all services are under the one authority … there can be no wasteful competition for staff between different levels of authority". However, they go on in the next paragraph, paragraph 677: Notwithstanding all these advantages … we believe that an all-purpose system is unworkable in Scotland … In order to create all-purpose authorities an attempt has to be made to find a level that satisfactorily meets the needs of both type of service. Such a level is simply not to be found in Scotland. A single tier solution … simply gets the worst of both worlds. It does not achieve the right conditions for efficient planning and administration of the major services on the one hand, or on the other hand, for the kind of local touch which the local services require … We consider therefore that the all-purpose approach for all its undoubted merits cannot meet some of the basic tests of an acceptable local government structure for Scotland and must be ruled out from further consideration". In the light of that, the Commission concluded that a two-tier system seemed to offer the best chance of providing the right answer and striking a balance between the conflicting needs of handling large-scale services on a strategic and regional level while allowing the more local services to be dealt with at a more local level. That conclusion inevitably led to the emergence of regions and districts, although it is fair to say that my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy—wisely, I say personally—modified the Royal Commission's recommendations in some major respects.

For instance, I would remind noble Lords who have a less than wholehearted admiration for Strathclyde that the Wheatley recommendation was for a region consisting of all the Highlands and Islands, which would have reached from Muckle Flugga to the Mull of Kintyre, and that, I am glad to say, my noble friend rejected as a method of reorganising local Scotland. Another matter where he differed from Wheatley was to decide, in effect, that to overcome the problems of the three island areas, where there were special circumstances in relation to relative geographical isolation and marked local community interest, there was justification for the creation of all-purpose authorities for each of the three island areas.

I am bound to say to the noble Earl, Lord Cromartie, and the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, who ask why this excellent idea cannot be spread certainly to parts of the mainland of Scotland, that the geographical differences between the island areas and the mainland of Scotland are perhaps the most obvious. Islands have a much clearer sense of identity and community, and it was in recognition of those differences, no doubt, that my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy acted in the way he did. I do not think those principles can be applied for the mainland. For instance, the Wheatley Commission examined the issues with considerable care and concluded that certain major functions required a population of at least 200,000 people if they were to be provided efficiently, examples being education and social work. The report therefore made clear, in my submission, that if there were gains in efficiency through increased size, there might well be a decline in local involvement and democracy. That, if it does not deal with it, causes those who would like the all-purpose system spread to the mainland at least to consider.

There have been criticisms and complaints about the present structure, and the Government accept at once that it is not perfect. We look forward to the consideration and public debate which no doubt the Stodart recommendations will create, and one hopes that the report will help iron out some of the problems which exist, particularly over concurrent functions. There are a number of general criticisms of the new structure which I will mention. These criticisms were usefully examined in a research study carried out on behalf of the Centre for the Study of Public Policy at the University of Strathclyde by Messrs. Page and Midwinter. This was published last year and looked particularly at the criticism that the new structure of local authorities compared with the old resulted in greater remoteness, reduced efficiency and increased cost.

It may be useful to the House if I summarise the main conclusions of what was generally accepted to be a detailed and authoritative study. So far as remoteness was concerned, the study found little evidence to support the assertion that the new councils were more remote, however one defined "remoteness", from their electorate than before. The noble Lord, Lord Boothby, mentioned his area in the north-east which now has one regional authority and five districts. There is no reason why those five districts should be any more remote than the old county councils. They all have local offices and local councillors, so this is something that one hopes will, with time, sort itself out. I appreciate that the noble Lord cannot go to Rose-hearty now and find it a burgh, and it may be, speaking with nostalgia, that is a pity. But for the reasons I have given, I rather wonder—

Lord Boothby

My Lords may I interrupt the Minister to ask whether he realises that the old system of town councillors and provosts had a dignity and carried a certain status which these committees do not have?

The Earl of Mansfield

I am coming to dignity and status, my Lords, but perhaps the noble Lord will permit me to finish the train of thought I had. I wonder whether the citizens of Rosehearty, leaving aside for the moment considerations of dignity and status, would accept the noble Lord's contention that their local government is likely to be any better or that the social services administered by the local authority would be any more comprehensive or more sympathetically applied if they went back to their old status. I very much doubt it.

May I return to the Page and Midwinter study. On the question of efficiency, they found only limited support for the argument that administrative manpower increased with reorganisation, and no support for arguments that manpower generally increased or that more was spent on administration, either in absolute or relative terms, after reorganisation than before. In other words, the researchers showed that in their view the long-term upward trend of local government manpower began to manifest itself well before 1973, when the Act was passed, and was not directly attributable to reorganisation.

Several noble Lords commented on that. The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, to sum up, had three complaints, if that is the word. She complained in effect that there was a lack of flexibility so far as labour was concerned; that there was a lack of flexibility in relation to the capital of a local authority in the way it spent its money; and that officials in effect were remote. So far as flexibility of labour and the remoteness or otherwise of officials are concerned, I suggest that both of those are matters of management or administration which could and should be solved within the existing local government structure. It is for the elected members of the local authorities, with the help of the chief officials, to ensure that their authorities are efficient and well managed. It is also for the elected members to see that the officials behave in a way which does not make local people feel that they are remote. I believe that in places such as the Western Isles reorganisation brought the services of officials much nearer to local people in general, instead of their being very remote from such places as Inverness and Dingwall. There is now a much more cohesive local atmosphere in places such as Stornaway.

When it comes to flexibility of expenditure we enter rather different waters, in the sense that such flexibility as I think the noble Lady was suggesting needs the consent of the Secretary of State, and no doubt my right honourable friend will consider this matter, in particular after he receives the report. However, again I want to emphasise that such flexibility is not a matter of the size of a local authority. It is not a question of structure, but in that instance it is a question of the relationship between central and local government. So I suggest that what has been said in this regard is not really an overwhelming argument for returning to the old system.

While I am dealing with the question of officials and expense I would mention that a number of noble Lords suggested, or perhaps implied, that there was a great increase in the number of officials after reorganisation; and I should not try to deny that many new posts were created. However, as I have said, the Page and Midwinter Study confirmed that there had been a long-term upward trend in regard to numbers of officials which began before reorganisation of local government, and I have no doubt that the reorganisation accelerated that trend. But 1976 and 1977 saw the graph begin to go down. There were reductions of almost 12,000 in the numbers, achieved in part by, for example, many senior staff accepting redundancy terms. So it is not right to say that there has been an inevitable increase in the number of officials and that it has continued ever since.

Lastly, so far as Page and Midwinter are concerned, their study revealed that reorganisation did not cause overall increases in expenditure or rates. The study also found no support for the argument that service provision in larger authorities costs more than it does in smaller authorities. Some localities suffered disproportionately because high increases in rates resulted as part of the transition from merging low-rated and high-rated areas. Unfortunately for those in local government, the period of reorganisation in 1974–75 coincided with the worst period of inflation under the previous Administration, and many ratepayers observed, with some distress, their rate demand notices coming in after reorganisation, and they were only too ready to say, "This comes about as a result of reorganisation"—or perhaps they used even more vivid phrases—when in fact nothing of the kind had happened.

A number of noble Lords, headed—if that is the right word—by my noble friend Lord Selkirk, spoke about, and indeed complained about, the dignity of local civic chiefs, or the lack of it. I do not see why the lord provosts of the four cities and indeed provosts or conveners (call them what you will, and what they like) in other districts should have any less dignity than their predecessors. Before coming into my present occupation I had, commercially speaking, quite a lot to do with Glasgow, and I certainly found that the Lord Provost of Glasgow commanded great respect and carried out his duties with great dignity, which I think was appreciated by all the citizens of the city.

I believe that it takes time to accumulate dignity. Only five years have elapsed since reorganisation, and it is too early to say that no dignity, or not sufficient dignity, will develop as the councillors filling these roles learn—perhaps in a way which was known by instinct by the old lord provosts—how to comport themselves. In my own area the convener calls himself a provost and he wears the various accoutrements of his office. He is accorded every respect and behaves with every dignity. It is a sought after position. Since reorganisation we have had three holders of the office, a local businessman, a dentist, and now a farmer, all of whom in their different ways have brought lustre to their position.

The Government's belief is that the new structure is fundamentally sound, but we want to improve its performance, and we shall be considering recommendations in due course. However, to use a motoring metaphor, on the analogy that our new system of local government is a vehicle of good and roadworthy design, we want to ensure that we make the best use of the vehicle's potential for economic service and indeed effectiveness. The fact that occasionally the vehicle goes off the road, or perhaps uses too much fuel, should not of itself damn the design.

So although the Government, like your Lordships, are eagerly awaiting the publication of the Stodart Report, we consider that the system of reorganisation which my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy brought in and which commenced in 1975, is reasonably effective, though no doubt it can be made even more effective in the future. At the moment, the Government's priority is to make the best use of the resources that are available within the present system of local government.

5.29 p.m.

The Earl of Cromartie

My Lords, I wish to thank from my heart all the speakers that have taken part in the debate. It has been a most useful debate, with constructive speeches from every side of the House. What has been said in the debate may prove to be extremely useful when the report comes out. We shall be interested to see what the report contains, and perhaps we shall make a noise about it if we do not like it.

When I suggested a single tier all-purpose authority I did not mean that we necessarily should go back to old county boundaries; rather I meant an authority that would carry out the duties that are now carried out by two authorities not very efficiently and not as efficiently as they were carried out when there was more or less one major authority. I know about district councils and all that, as well. However, having said that, I should like to thank everybody very much, including my noble friend the Minister, for this debate. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.