§ 4.56 p.m.
§ Baroness Lockwood rose to call attention to the study by the Institute of Local Government Studies 285 The Government and Administration of Metropolitan Areas in Western Democracies; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. The study referred to is of 13 metropolitan areas in eight Western countries—seven European countries and Canada; that is, Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Canada, Spain, France, Italy and the Federal Republic of Germany. The countries concerned and their intermediate levels of government between local and national government are set out in Table 1, and the comparable data are set out in Table 2—both on page 52 of the report. From these two tables it can be seen at a glance that not only do the countries themselves differ greatly but the type and size of regional and other intermediate levels of government also differ. If one includes the United Kingdom under Table 1 a further variation is introduced.
The purpose of the survey on which the report is based is not an attempt to establish the case for a common system of local government—heaven forbid! Nor is its purpose to compare in a qualitative way one country's system with another country's system. Its purpose is to look at some of the underlying trends and characteristics which have led to the establishment of metropolitan authorities in such diverse countries with their different histories and different attitudes. As the report points out on page 1:
There is much in common between the historical processes through which metropolitan problems have developed in different western countries during the last quarter century".
§ The report refers to the rapid urbanisation and industrial growth around old-established centres of commerce and industry, leading to social and economic problems which no suitable authority with adequate resources was available to solve. In particular, it refers to the extension of sewerage systems, rent systems, traffic problems and the rational use of land. These were of course the very problems which led to the reorganisation of local government structures in the United Kingdom in the early 1970s. But let me say at once that in introducing this debate I do so not as a local government person but as a user of local government services, and as one who wishes to see a continuity of historical development and connections, of cultural values and of local democracy, as well as efficient and economic services.
§ There are many in your Lordships' House who, through their own experience of and responsibility in the administration of local government, will understand the structures and the problems of the metropolitan authorities referred to in the survey much better than I do. Indeed, I must confess to finding the survey of local government structures in other countries not easy (shall we say?) to understand. If I had previously thought our own structure complicated I now see it in a different light. Perhaps this is one of the values of a comparative survey such as this.
§ But I also speak as one who possesses a sense of identity with the authority in which I live, and this I think is of great importance in the development of any unit of government. This sense of identity does not arise from the mere fact that the West Yorkshire Metropolitan County, in which I live, has in the short 286 space of 10 years become a very effective and efficient instrument of local government, which any objective examination of all the relevant circumstances would show. It has deeper historical, geographical and cultural roots. Let me hasten to add that in referring to the geography of West Yorkshire I am not complacent that the last word has been said on the extent of the boundaries. My own personal preference would be to see a bit more of the Yorkshire Dales, which were previously part of the old West Riding, back into West rather than North Yorkshire. But I do not want to start an internecine struggle between Yorkshire folks in this debate.
§ The fact is that the authority does contain a varied combination of moorland and softer countryside around the conurbation to give it that essential interaction between town and country, and which enables it to provide some continuity with the former county authority and to retain a sense of identity. Whether this same sense of identity is experienced in other metropolitan counties I cannot say, although from observations it would seem clear that many have a strong cultural identity.
§ My only other significant personal experience is the 13 years when I lived in London, and perhaps because I was not born in either Kensington or Putney, where I lived at different times, I did not feel an identity with either of the boroughs concerned, much though each has to commend it. My real identity was, and is now, with Greater London itself. And it does not need 13 years' residence to establish that identity. People visiting from the provinces or overseas visitors identify with London—not with Lambeth or Fulham or even with the City and Westminster, but with London. I think, of all the metropolitan county areas, London is the one that cannot be envisaged without a corporate being and a corporate voice.
§ But I must not deflect myself too far from the report, nor intrude too many of my own personal experiences. The report argues that it has been generally accepted in Western Europe and in Canada that the metropolitan system, containing inter-dependent communities with interrelated problems, can be defined geographically, and that each such area needs its own conurbation-wide administration and decision-making process, which cannot satisfactorily be provided by central government. It points out that conurbation-wide metropolitan authorities are required to make strategic decisions for their areas and to control functions which cannot be satisfactorily implemented at a lower level, and it suggests that such authorities, need to have effective implementation powers to ensure that their decisions carry weight.
§ Reference to the chapters covering individual countries would suggest that the strategic responsibilities for transportation, land-use, environment, waste disposal, recreation and public protection functions are the ones most typically accorded to the conurbation-wide authorities. Again, if I may draw a parallel, this is the basis of West Yorkshire's response to the White Paper Streamlining the Cities. By taking a conurbation-wide perspective of economic and social problems, partly through an economic development programme, the authority has been able to bring some benefits of economy and of improved services to the area. These have included transport, 287 highways, consumer protection, improved leisure services and a developing and important archive service as well as significant contributions to the Arts. To give just one or two examples, the co-ordination of bus and rail passenger transport through the Yorkshire Metro-bus and Metro-rail service with a co-ordinated fares policy is, I think, a unique model. The highways policy includes a scheme to co-ordinate traffic flow as part of a series of specialist services in the conurbation that have provided efficiency and economy in the movement of road traffic and in the highways services generally. Then there is a comprehensive trading standards service that has been introduced cutting out the duplication and variety of enforcement policies which existed in the previous eight separate authorities.
§ There will be other occasions in the future, no doubt, when these matters can be discussed in more detail. I think the point to emphasise today is that the needs which have led to the establishment of urban county authorities in other countries are the very needs which our present metropolitan counties are providing for. But there are other parallels and indeed principles that can be drawn from this comparative survey that require very careful thought and discussion before we come to the point of defending any one authority or any one structure. I mention four which I think are of paramount importance.
§ The first is that in all cases in the survey where major conurbations exist there is at least one level of intermediate government—sometimes two—between the local municipal authority and the central state. Unlike the United Kingdom, where, as in so many other ways, our local government structure has just grooved, like Topsy, in some countries abroad local and often provincial and regional democratic rights are entrenched in the constitution. But even where this is not so, it is clear from the report that the structures and functions of each tier of government in the eight countries surveyed are generally the result of prolonged and detailed study, debate and consultation, aimed at ensuring a wide consensus of views, including—and I think this is very important—a multi-authority and a multi-party consensus.
§ Thirdly, there has been a general move towards decentralisation. The investigation finds that in every country surveyed decentralisation of power has been accepted as a necessary means towards efficiency and effectiveness in the provision of local services. But, again, this approach has been the product of careful examination and review of government structures and functions by independent commissions or parliamentary committees.
§ Fourthly, the survey finds that the use of joint ad hoc agencies for individual metropolitan functions is not a satisfactory substitute for a democratic multipurpose authority. It lacks responsiveness to local needs and views, and the exercise of self-interest among those involved is paramount. Moreover, the joint ad hoc agencies lack the scale and expertise of the multiservice authorities.
§ At a time when our own local government structure is being thrown into the melting pot for a second time 288 within two consecutive decades I hope it is helpful for us to look at the experience of others and at the similarity of trends. Of course, this survey is a limited one, but I think it is sufficiently representative for us to take note. Certainly we should take note of the fact that it appears to be us, and not the other eight countries, who are out of step. We should take note of the fact that we cannot afford not to get it right a second time. Surely it would be better to pause and to examine critically and in detail what our needs are, and what functions and areas of government would best serve those needs.
§ Despite what I have said about West Yorks—and I am sorry that the noble Earl was not here when I mentioned the neighbouring county of North Yorks—there is still doubt as to whether we got it right in 1974, on all sides. Very few, I suspect, would go to the stake to defend the status quo without some amendment. It has been suggested that before embarking on a new reorganisation we should refer the matter to some kind of review body. A Select Committee of the two Houses has been suggested. A Royal Commission has also been suggested. I am making no claims for any specific body. All I am saying is that this survey must surely give us pause. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 5.12 p.m.
§ Lord Kilmarnock
My Lords, it is with some hesitation that I rise to speak in this debate, among such a formidable array of local government experts; mainly members of the Labour Party who are committed to the robust defence of the GLC and the metropolitan counties. The noble Baroness to whom we are indebted for this debate has taken this survey as a text and prayed it in aid, to some extent, in support of this defence which she has advanced in very moderate terms. She has said nothing intemperate. However, I hope she will forgive me if I do not follow her directly into the intricacies of different layers of local authority.
I start in a personal vein. I have lived, although not for long periods, in France and Italy and for a much longer time in Spain, in which country I am still a ratepayer. It is therefore to the sections of this survey dealing with those countries that I turned with most interest. I was particularly struck by the passage on page 43, in the Italian section, where we are told that both the Spanish and Italian systems emerged in the aftermath of fascist dictatorships when,local autonomy was seen as the key to democratisation and a barrier against future national authoritarianism".I draw attention to those words because I think they are not totally irrelevant in the light of certain tendencies in this country today. Those countries—France, Italy and Spain—had, and to some extent still have, a layer of provinces (50 in the case of Spain) sandwiched between regional government, where it exists, and the municipalities. This is a legacy of the Napoleonic system of centralisation and it served, in Franco's Spain, as a vital network through which central government delegates from all the main ministries controlled provincial finance and acted as the essential patrons of any provincial activity. They were buttressed by a civil governor and a military governor in each province.
289 Spain is the most recent recruit to the ranks of the Western democracies. What steps has Spain taken in the field of local government? Spain has demoted the provinces and very much raised the profile of the autonomous or semi-autonomous regions-17 in all, I think—and the municipalities. Both types of authority are being run by elected bodies through a system of proportional representation which is also used for national elections. This has been done at the expense of the old centralist provinces with their all-powerful central government delegates.
Noble Lords may ask: "What has all this to do with us?" That is precisely the virtue of the debate initiated by the noble Baroness, which strives to set our metropolitan and other local government traumas in a wider context. For that we owe her a debt of gratitude. It is true, of course, that our system has developed rather differently. It is true that local authorities were created by Parliament and in most cases cannot claim more than a century of seniority as against some much older autonomous or semi-autonomous bodies in other countries. It is true that Britain is a unitary state, as Mr. Patrick Jenkin is so fond of reminding us. But so is Spain. Spain is a unitary state and the second article of her 1978 constitution promulgated the indissoluble unity of the nation, of which the King is guarantor. At the same time, their autonomous nations and regions are very much further developed than our own. Despite its diversity Spain is not federal, it is unitary. Therefore, to invoke the unitary state as a slogan for bashing local democracy is not good enough. It may be said that what Parliament gave away it can take back. But what did Parliament give away? In the first place it gave away responsibility for the Poor Law, policing, roads, water, sewerage and so on. Since then it has devolved education, social services, housing, homelessness and care in the community—you name it, the local authorities have it.
The growing complexity of life made this inevitable and local government must therefore have adequate tools and be of adequate strategic size to fulfil those obligations. The alternative is a central government delegate from each ministry, which typified the Napoleonic system. Is that what the Government want?
Some local councils no doubt grew over-mighty and were monopolised by a single party. Some have done things that I deeply disapprove of. But that does not invalidate the principle of local democracy or warrant the civil war that the Government have unleashed on the local authorities and the metropolitan areas in particular. That is not good for collaboration and joint effort, and it is not good for a unitary Britain.
I turn briefly to three areas of particular concern. First, there is a passage in the report, on page 53, which casts very serious doubts on the effectiveness of,"ad hoc solutions for particular functions, by means of joint boards, inter-municipal agreements, inter-authority contracting for services etc.The whole of this passage repays reading, but I shall read only two more short quotations:The evidence is that this functional fragmentation, added to geographic fragmentation, was believed to preclude an integrated approach to the provision of services for purposes that are interdependent".290 The next quote reads:In fact the extent to which municipalities will agree to support joint ad hoc agencies appears to be sometimes at least very limited, partly because of a dislike of losing accountability and partly because of a fear of inequities in their resource demands and in their provision of services. They fail not only to take into account interrelationships and to co-operate to formulate, much less implement, strategies, but also to provide a voice in the nation for representation for the metropolitan areas as a whole".The passages I have read seem to me to be very relevant to the situation that is likely to arise after the Government have abolished the GLC and the metropolitan counties. We are not enamoured of these bodies; we do not believe them to be faultless. But we think the Government's proposals lack credibility and are animated by political opportunism rather than by any serious approach to a complex problem.
My second point concerns local authority finance. There seems little doubt that if this is not reformed in a more positive way than by the clumsy device of rate-capping some important authorities will go bankrupt and the Government will have to put in commissioners. This could lead speedily to a pattern of central government delegates in charge of local affairs which General Franco would have envied. This is precisely the pattern from which newly-democratic Spain has striven to escape, with all the toadying and the patronage that it involves.
If the war the Government are pursuing against local authorities is based on the dislike of political extremism there is a very simple solution which was proposed recently by my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich and only narrowly defeated in your Lordships' House. It is to allow proportional representation in local government elections, as is the practice in most parts of the civilised world. I will not go into that any further this evening but it is something to which we shall certainly come back. I was also interested to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, refer to multi-party consensus.
We can understand the present Government's drive for efficiency and to cut unnecessary costs. I do not think any sensible person would contest that there are many demands—and they are increasing daily—on the resources of society due to demographic and other trends, but we wonder whether efficiency is best achieved through centralisation. Also, we watch with some amazement as a Government committed to rolling back the frontiers of the state are rolling them forward, in some respects at least. They may have trimmed back the central Civil Service and enforced cuts in local authority manpower, but this is all very small beer compared with the steadily growing powers of the Secretaries of State. It seems to me to be incontestable that the powers of the Secretaries of State have increased and are increasing, but they ought to be decreased. This is true in health, education, local government finance and other fields.
I do not say that no national priorities should be set. For example, there is a strong case for some sort of central direction of training. But the question is how these priorities are carried out. No doubt the Government believe that what they are doing or attempting to do to local government in general and metropolitan government in particular is in the interests of the nation. But at the same time they should pause to reflect that they are overriding some of 291 the rather delicate and, I would say, essential checks and balances in our unwritten constitution. These stem in a sensible and sensitive way from the accumulated experience of our history and culture, and in repudiating them the Government are creating a centralised instrument of power which in other hands could be manipulated, with very grave consequences for our individual freedoms and cherished liberties.
Before the Government go any further in this direction they should have a look at this report. I draw their attention in particular to a passage at the top of page 52 where it is suggested that comparisons can stimulate self-evaluation and review. The report goes on:Where we appear to he moving in a contrary direction"—this is a point that was made by the noble Baroness. Lady Lockwood—from countries abroad, we may well consider why this is so and whether we have overlooked factors to which they have given weight".We have had good cause to be proud of our system of Government and our institutions in the past, but we should not be too proud to learn from other countries' solutions to the problems of administering large conurbations. It is my fear that just as our economic pre-eminence has declined, so we may slip further down in the league table of political maturity.
§ 5.25 p.m.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, I too should like to thank my noble friend Lady Lockwood for initiating this debate. The report before us today widens from a political football to an academic study the terms of reference of the current debate on the Government's decision to abolish metropolitan authorities. As my noble friend explained, it compares the British system of local government with the systems in 14 other western democracies. One must begin where the author begins and acknowledge that he has indeed provided only a starting point for a vast and complex subject. But I believe it is a starting point distinguished by its objectivity, its care and professionalism.
The importance of having this debate before the Government finally launch themselves into the legislation that unfortunately has been threatened is that it gives us a chance to have another look at the whole subject, not on party political lines but as something that is important to the constitution of the country, to local government and to central government. The author warns us that it would be rash to attempt any direct comparisons or to draw hasty conclusions from the analyses he sets out. Obviously functions, funding and democratic control can all vary between countries. Nevertheless, if one studies the systems of government operating in the 14 city areas one finds there is one thread that links them all. It is acknowledged by the national governments concerned that metropolitan regions are best administered by local authorities of a size and range to answer the needs of the cities.
One may ask why this should be so. I believe a major reason is that in a way quite foreign to our own political climate there is in all the countries studied a 292 consensus and understanding of local and regional structures. It is an understanding that spans political differences and adds significantly to the stability and good management of urban areas. Most important, I believe, is the common recognition that the successful management of large cities must involve a real and identifiable decentralisation of power. One recognises the different philosophy underlying the proposals of our own Government. To quote the report:The tendency, on the contrary, appears to be strongly in the direction of a reduction of local government power, concentration of power in Whitehall and Westminster of a kind unparalleled in comparable countries elsewhere".It is true, although the noble Baroness was extremely modest about her knowledge of local government, which is far greater than that to which she admitted, that in this House and in another place over the last few years when we have been discussing different Bills and pieces of legislation, all the time the tendency has been towards an increase of centralisation and the taking back to the Secretary of State of decision making. This has been remarked on not just from these Benches but from all over the House. The accountability is gradually being removed from the local authorities to central government.
In this week's Sunday Times, Hugo Young, the political editor, referred in his column to the Government as having succumbed,to the enticements of the centraliser. In so doing, it not only reverses its intentions, but exposes itself to a series of risks. What it is losing is control. This may seem ironic, since by seizing power, you might think it could only increase its control. But it is losing political control: not over parliament but over events".He then goes on—I will not trouble noble Lords with the quotation—to give examples of this, including the areas of rates and local government.
In pushing this trend towards increased centralisation what are the Government achieving? It is impossible to discuss the subject without discussing one of the great problems facing us today. Certainly it is not saving. Civil servants are now warning the Department of the Environment that the vague election statements set the cost of abolition far too low. It was given as between £20 million and £70 million. The financial burden will certainly be far harsher than envisaged—and this is a point which has become generally accepted—partly because of the loss of an all-encompassing authority capable of exploiting "economies of scale" and gaining from theequalising mechanism of the metropolitan rate precept".The Government are always very keen to point out that in other areas, in business, having large enterprises means that economies of this kind can be made.
The loss of the essential redistributive financial role of the metropolitan authorities will mean that social justice will be greatly eroded, while increased fragmentation will permit the return of greater inequalities between rich and poor, because it will not then be possible to even things out through having a large local authority.
My noble friend referred in particular to West Yorkshire, and I am sure that other noble Lords will refer to other metropolitan counties of which they have special knowledge. At this stage I must say in parenthesis that I thought that the response from West Yorkshire to the Government White Paper was 293 excellent, as indeed have been the responses of not only all the metropolitan counties, but so many other bodies which will be touched by what is being proposed and which cover an enormous expanse of our national life. All have expressed grave doubts and very great worries about what the Government are proposing to do.
At this point I should like to refer in particular to London, where I have always lived. The noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, referred I think to a robust defence of the GLC from the Labour Benches. The defence of the GLC—which is no more perfect than a great many other organisations—does not come solely from the Labour Benches. It comes from all over. It comes from other political parties. It comes from the Conservative group on the GLC. It comes from Londoners themselves. In a poll in December 1983 59 per cent. of them indicated that they did not want to see the abolition of the GLC. A tremendous range of other groups, including various voluntary and social organisations, and the Commission for Racial Equality—bodies concerned with every aspect of our lives which would be touched by the abolition of the metropolitan authorities—are concerned about the proposals.
It is important to recognise that we are talking not only about structures. We are talking also about how changes in structures affect, and will affect, the lives of everyone and will be to the detriment of the way they will live in the future—
§ Lord Kilmarnock
My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness will give way for a second. I do not doubt that there are other people apart from the Labour Party who are defending the GLC. I was simply referring to people who are in this Chamber this evening, and I think that the noble Baroness will confirm that most of the participants in this debate are from the Labour Benches.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, I think that we have a minimum number this evening, and so I do not think that one can read too much into that, but I take the noble Lord's point. I was not sure whether he was looking at the matter on a larger scale.
When we compare London with other capital cities given as examples and examined in considerable depth in the report, we see that we would be the only country in Western Europe without a capital city. This point is of tremendous importance not only to those of us in London itself, and in this country, but also in the context of the EEC. Certainly other countries feel that they must have a capital city that takes an overall view—that is to say, a strategic view—of things and an authority which is directly elected, which is extremely important when we are talking, as we are, of democracy. Unless we follow that view we shall be out of line with other countries in Western Europe, and we shall find that we are out on a limb. I consider that that point has some considerable importance.
The trouble with the Government's plans—as has been pointed out by my noble friend and I think the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock—is that nothing was properly assessed. The proposal was rushed into a manifesto, and all our past experience shows that 294 reorganisations of this kind have always cost much more than the set-ups they replaced.
The argument which is always being put to us in favour of doing away with the metropolitan counties is that everything can go down to the districts and be dealt with in that way. That is just not true; it is not possible. Today local authorities at district level and at county shire level are in a position where their expenditure is being severely cut, and the cuts will bite harder and harder. The amounts that they can now give towards such essential activities as the arts, as well as to all kinds of other causes which at the moment are being financed by the metropolitan counties—and here London is very much in need—will not be possible. There will just not be the money. In that case what will happen? We shall have the joint boards—the quangos—which are removed from the democratic process. There will be a lack of financial support from the districts because they will simply not be able to cope, and indeed they are themselves having to cut down on essential services. If the boards are set up, there will be greater bureaucracy, less efficiency, and no real accountability. Whatever our political views, this is a matter that we must take very seriously and consider what will be the effect of the proposals on the country.
Let us consider, for example, the voluntary services. The National Council of Voluntary Organisations is worried stiff about what is being proposed, and so is the Commission for Racial Equality. In his conclusions the author of the report points out that,Purely voluntary associations are not known to have a satisfactory record of success. A special legal framework and definition of powers and mandatory responsibilities have clearly been necessary in all the cases considered".This is of great importance to noble Lords, and in this House I think the majority have very strong connections with voluntary organisations of all kinds all over the country.
The document is critical of the way in which we in the United Kingdom have made radical changes in our local government structure with nothing like the same degree of examination, consideration and consultation employed in other countries. That is quite apart from the high cost that is always involved in structural change. Recently there have been many calls, notably from one of the organisations most concerned with the Government proposals to reorganise metropolitan local government—that is, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities—for a thorough review to he undertaken into all the schemes for our cities before they go ahead. After all, before the LCC became the GLC the Herbert Commission sat, between 1957 and 1960. Before the setting up of the metropolitan counties the Redcliffe-Maud Commission sat in the 'sixties, and for Scotland the Wheatley Commission sat. Those reorganisations were not undertaken just on the basis of a line in the manifesto of any of the political parties.
To be quite blunt, it is hard to imagine any worse arrangements than the Government's present proposals. It is little wonder that many local authorities in this country have for some time now been pressing steadily that the draft European Charter of Local Self-Government should have a fair wind through the bureaucracies of Europe and an 295 understanding reception from the United Kingdom Government.
In 1977 when there was a Tory council in the GLC but a Labour Government at Westminster, the same Mr. Jenkin, who is now in charge of the DoE, said:I believe that we have got to return to the concept that the GLC is a strategic authority. The GLCs planning powers should be essentially strategic, and provide a framework within which the boroughs should operate the day to day planning controls".Yet the same Patrick Jenkin, quoted in the Financial Times on 28th October last year, said that an inquiry would mean putting off the necessary decisions and action.
How shall we arrive at the best decisions without a proper inquiry along the lines already suggested in one form or another? It is not my purpose today to mount a plea for the retention of our present local government arrangements as they stand. However, it would be foolish to pretend that we have the right answers. What we must do is ask the Government to set things in motion so that we do get the right answers before any action is taken.
§ 5.41 p.m.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, for instituting the debate and for making it one about local government in general and not particularly about the party political issues which are so difficult to separate. I wish to make only one point. It is a point that I do not think is made in Alan Norton's survey. It has certainly not been made by the three noble Lords who have so far spoken. Yet it is absolutely basic to the success of local government in Britain. I know this from my experience in Scotland where metropolitan areas are differently treated and where the point does not arise in quite the same way. But no modern local government system, however well thought out, however well researched and however well defined by statute, can possibly work in this country unless the elected councillors accept that they have to operate within the overall economic strategy of the government of the day whether or not, at any given moment, those councillors—whatever their political persuasion may be—agree personally with the strategy.
If local government councillors refuse continually to do this and use local government powers to try to frustrate central government's overall strategy, then we, as a country, and local government itself, will not succeed in responding rapidly to the changing world scene. We cannot continually be riding a horse that is trying to go in two directions at once. To most people, this appears obvious. As a country, we elect a national government to run the country as a whole. It has a certain political approach and a certain economic strategy at a given time. Locally, we elect local councils. We elect them in several tiers. They have limited local functions. They have their own political approach. The local councils and the national government must work together.
Until recently, councillors have found no major problem in this. Councillors of all political persuasions have seen it as their responsibility to accept the functions defined by statute, to perform those 296 functions in the most efficient, sensitive and cost-effective way they can, in the interests of their ratepayers and in the context of government as a whole. In this, until recently, they found plenty of scope within their comparatively limited role—including political scope. Those who wanted to move on to a wider stage have progressed into national politics and many are in your Lordships' House.
Since the early 1970s, as we know, much has happened in the world of local government. In the course of it, some local authorities have forgotten this basic essential. Indeed, many national politicians have encouraged them to forget just that. There are, I suppose, several reasons why this has happened. As a result of reorganisation, when, for good reasons, a number of very large authorities were formed, they had a large rate base: they had wide functions—in the case of metropolitan councils, not many functions, but wide functions. The councillors had an extremely responsible role, with tax raising and spending powers which, even if kept in tight control, were of a dimension that, by any definition, formed a major part of national public spending and economic strategy.
It was assumed, when the changes were made, that councillors would continue to see local democracy as involving acceptance of the economic framework set by the government of the day, that they would continue to work within that overall strategy and that national politicians would encourage them to do so. It was assumed that even higher calibre councillors would he attracted into local government, and that because of their wider, more responsible role, they would be even more statesmanlike in their approach than before.
Simultaneously with all this reorganisation inflation came, and then recession. There was a need for successive governments, first Labour, and then Conservative, to control public spending. Because large authorities are responsible for such a large part of public spending, cash limits had to be applied, and this was done in different ways. Members of large authorities had considerable pressures upon them. It was a considerable test in balancing their duty to their own electorate with their duty to the country as a whole.
Simultaneously—and I believe this to be very important—there was a rapid expansion of local television and local radio. There was more air time to be occupied and broadcasters were keen to put local government people on the air. Many councillors quickly spotted the potential of this, learnt to use it well and became as well known locally as some members of the Cabinet nationally. I, for one, have been constantly amazed, following three minutes on television news on some local issue, to find at a meeting or a whist drive that half the people there had seen me and were discussing what I had been on about.
All of us know what has happened as a result of wider powers, bigger spending potentiality and bigger potential to frustrate national economic strategy. The debate about the effect on rates, on business and on the economy in general is in train in another place. It is within the metropolitan authorities especially that ambitious, able, political people have been somehow coming to use their role to spend high when they were being asked not to spend high, and to extend activity 297 within the law but somehow stretching it to its limits. Far from accepting the framework set by central government, they have been deliberately trying to frustrate it. Your Lordships may think otherwise, but I believe that this is not democracy. It is an abuse of the system of democracy that we are trying to operate in this country.
My own view is that the metropolitan authorities, as they now are, could have been made to work without damaging local business, without creating massive political campaigns designed to frustrate the central government, without squabbling with the lower tier of local government. In general, Strathclyde region in Scotland—which is the biggest local authority in the country—has accepted the national framework. I do not agree with all their ideas, but on the whole they have worked within the guidelines that they were given. On the other hand, Lothian region in Scotland for a time did not do so. It did not work. It has now changed and it is working much better.
Metropolitan areas seem to show little indication of wanting to change. We hear that the GLC is now, at the eleventh hour, going to reduce the rates and at the same time massively improve the services. I can only ask as regards that: if that is true, why not last year? No, my Lords, despite the extremely well-argued survey, despite the evidence which is there—and it is very interesting—despite the excellent speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, the record is such, and the structure is such, that we must make a change and we can make a change without an enormously expensive upheaval.
I agree that we have to get it right. I hope that we shall not concentrate so much on what we do in the GLC area that we do not get right what happens in the metropolitan counties. It has to he got right; it has to be decided before very long. But, whatever we do, let us make a structure in which local councillors see clearly that they are working within the context, and with the grain, of national strategy, whatever the political colour of the national government may be at the time, and whatever the political colour of the local council may be at the time.
§ 5.52 p.m.
§ Lord Stewart of Fulham
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, has put forward what is a comparatively recent doctrine in local government. We have all understood for a long time that a local authority must obey the law; that the law lays down certain rules as to what it may or may not do, and that it neither can disobey them nore ought to attempt to do so. Now we are putting forward the doctrine that, in addition to that, they must not only respect the law but they must respect the general political outlook of the central Government.
The extraordinary feature of that doctrine is that it has never been put forward before. Your Lordships will not find it in any of the learned manuals on the working of our constitution. It is put forward now because a Conservative Government are finding it a little difficult to get all their own way in face of the political complexion of certain large local authorities. In view of that, they propose to abolish or to alter the powers of those local authorities. That is what it is all about.
298 The doctrine that it has always been the duty of local authorities to fall in with the general political philosophy of central Government has no basis in our history, and nor does it make sense. It is often quite a good thing for central Governments to have their authority and their policies challenged within the limits of the law, by powerful local authorities. It is one of the things that makes us a democracy.
We are all greatly indebted to my noble friend Lady Lockwood for having initiated this debate. It draws our attention to the fact that one cannot argue too easily from one country to another; each country breeds its own form and pattern of local government. For example, in the Netherlands they regard it as quite natural that an appointee of the central Government should take the chair as regards, certain meetings of provincial and local authorities. We should regard that as a very odd arrangement in this country. So we must not attempt any kind of close following of what happens in other countries.
We must also remember that it is almost impossible to get the right answer to any question in local government. If one asks: "What is the right size of a local authority in this region of the country?", one is up against the fact that what is the best size for some functions is not the best size for others. Whatever size one picks on, it will be open to criticism on the ground that it is not good for some of the functions that the local authority has to perform. We must accept the fact that it is inevitable that we will never get it quite right.
Similarly, if one is trying to decide what should be the functions of a particular local authority, one may run into the error of loading it with so many functions that it will be a laborious, clumsy body taking a long time to do everything. Alternatively, one may give it so few functions that it becomes an almost one-purpose authority, having to carry on its work which is affected by the work of other fields of local government over which it now has powers. So there again we will never get our answers quite right.
Nonetheless—and this is the value of this international study—there are certain broad general conclusions (some of them more negative and warning than positive) that emerge. One thing is quite clear: the great conurbation is here to stay. We now have great cities—great not only in comparison with the 18th century, but great in comparison with the beginning of this century. If one compares London now with London in 1900, one finds that it is a much greater urban area. The great conurbation is obviously here to stay. We have to decide what its form of government shall be. The answer from this survey and from our own experience seems to be that for a great conurbation we need two kinds of authority—a larger one, probably coterminous with the conurbation, and smaller ones inside it. We need that because there are certain functions that cannot be efficiently carried out except on a conurbation basis; for example, the fire brigade, the police, land use, transport, planning and economic development.
But if we create a large authority to perform those functions (because smaller ones cannot do it) and we then load on to that large authority everything else, it will become intolerably weighed down with business. 299 Let me give a simple example. I do not think that it would be a good thing for the Fulham libraries to be run from County Hall; nor do I think it would be a good thing to cut up the London Fire Brigade and have it run on the basis of the London boroughs. We can multiply those examples and see that there is a need for the larger and the smaller authorities in the great conurbation.
However, the Government are proposing to get rid of the larger authority and to leave us simply with the smaller ones—in London, to leave the London boroughs but to destroy the GLC; and to make comparable changes in the metropolitan counties. That is one point at which the Government's policy departs from what seems to be the general experience of Western Europe. But when we do that, when we abolish the larger conurbation-wide authority, we are still up against the fact that it performed certain functions which we cannot hand over to the smaller authorities. Therefore, we will find ourselves being obliged to create certain joint boards or certain bodies which owe their existence to the Government, and some of them will be so limited in their function as to be simply ad hoc bodies.
If we want to form an opinion about ad hoc bodies or bodies with a very narrow range of functions, we hardly need to make a foreign study. We have only to look at our own history in the last century. As the growth of urban life created one need after another, so one authority after another was created to deal with those needs, and the puzzled citizen became surrounded with burial hoards, school boards, boards of guardians and vestries, to say nothing of the Metropolitan Board of Works, a government creation overseeing it all in the capital. After a time, of course, we realised that that did not work, and one reason why it did not work was that it quite naturally bewildered the citizen. He was always being asked to elect some body with a very narrow range of functions. If one wants to get the citizen out and interested, one should ask him to vote for a body with a fairly wide range of functions. Under what is now being proposed, it looks as though he will not vote for ad hoc authorities but that such bodies will be appointed by the Government, or else they will be the result of joint boards.
Of all forms of local government work, one of the most dreary is correspondence between different local authorities about a joint job that has to be done, and nobody is quite sure who will be blamed for it if it goes wrong. Wherever you can, avoid that. That is the whole lesson of our history and, apparently, of these continental examples. But apparently we shall have more of these. I believe that we want a simple system of government. I am suggesting that in the great conurbations we want a large authority and smaller authorities within it, but between them, if it is humanly possible, they ought to do all the work. They should be elected bodies, so that when a citizen votes he knows the responsibilities of that person for whom he is voting and who is to blame if this, that or the other thing goes wrong.
Local government is of great value in giving life to democracy. I think it was Lenin who sneered at our democracy on the ground that once in every five years we went and exercised it. There are a great many 300 reasons why that was not true, but one reason was the continuing interest in democracy that the citizen can show if he votes for local authorities which are real local authorities with defined powers, and when he knows when he votes what his representative will be expected to do. We shall have less and less of this in the arrangements that are now before us.
One other lesson that appears to emerge from the continental study is that if local urban authorities are to do the job well they must have a certain amount of financial stability. They must be assured either of grants of a certain amount from central Government or they must be given the necessary power to raise local taxes or rates; but if they are constantly to be tripped up through lack of funds, no-one will have confidence in them and the machinery will not work. We are now being asked to consider a system of Government in which financial stability of that kind is the one thing that local authorities will not be able to expect because there will always be central Government breathing down their neck and threatening to take away their revenues.
Finally, there is one lesson to be learned from this foreign study, and it is simply expressed: look before you leap; do not start making great changes in local government until you have thought about it a good deal. I very much doubt whether it could be established that the changes made in local government early in the 1970s have been of any real benefit to anyone, particularly when you set against them the inevitable cost of carrying out changes of that kind. There is not only the confusion while the services are being shunted from one authority to another; there is the awful confusion in the personal lives of local government servants, and the immense number of problems over redundancy which have to be considered. We do not want to rush into that kind of thing without being reasonably certain that it is worth it. I do not believe that the last changes in local government were worth it in that sense; and I very much doubt whether the London Government Act 1963 was worth it.
The other night a pamphlet about the GLC was pushed through my letter-box. It said that the GLC had not fulfilled the high hopes of those who created it. The odd thing was that the pamphlet came from the local Conservative Party, who were, of course, the people who, with their colleagues, helped to create this body. With those examples before them, one would have thought that they would not rush quite so quickly into very large changes of local government, none of which, to judge either from our own history or from foreign example, offers us any real promise of better government.
§ 6.5 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, first, I should like to join previous speakers in congratulating my noble friend Lady Lockwood on introducing this report for debate and for the manner in which she did so. However, I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I direct my contribution, such as it is, more along the lines that have just been enunciated by my noble friend Lord Stewart.
I do not think that we need to look at this report at all to see why we should not initiate this change at this 301 point in time. I believe that the overwhelming evidence is in this country and is of recent origin. One only has to look back 10 or 11 years to see the fundamental mistakes that were made, but that does not give an excuse for returning to that situation.
What produced the present situation? It was the fact that huge metropolitan areas of the country contained very large authorities based on the old major cities. They were surrounded by a series of smaller county boroughs or urban areas which, through history, refused to amalgamate and make more economic unitary authorities. So in the 1950s the Government of the day set up a committee or commission under the chairmanship of a very distinguished person, Sir John Redcliffe-Maud, to look into the situation. Along with quite a number of other people who have since been ennobled in this House, I was involved in those particular discussions. Most of the big cities wanted to be left alone to retain their unitary authority status. The Government of the day—which by then was a Conservative Government—decided that that was not the way to go. We are now talking about people losing a vote. When I lived in Manchester I never knew what it was to have a county council vote—and nor did the people of Leeds or Birmingham—until the last local government reorganisation, because there were no county councils in those areas. The county councils surrounded them; there was a Lancashire County Council and the old West Riding County Council, but there was no regard whatever in the major conurbations and the cities as to what went on outside in the county councils that bordered them.
Because of that, when that particular exercise took place, there was a tremendous amount of jealousy between the new metropolitan districts and the new large metropolitan counties. For a while there was almost open warfare between them because the big cities did not want to lose some of the services that were being given to the counties. But over a period of years that friction and antagonism has diminished—and diminished quite considerably—and they are working together.
It would be disastrous for the sake of a political argument—and I believe that that is what we are talking about; there is no common sense in what is being proposed—once again to try to alter the situation. There are prominent members of the other side, who have since been ennobled, who were in local government at the time and who, if they spoke from the heart, would say what I am saying. It is significant that out of all noble Lords on the other side who have practical experience in local government, only one noble Baroness has put her name down today to speak in support of what the Government are about to do.
There is no substitute at all for people being given the right to vote and to elect into office the people they want or to elect out of office those they do not want. Let us get away from the idea that we can have joint boards, whoever mans them, and from wherever those people are appointed. I have never known a Government of any colour which, when making appointments, did not look through rose-coloured spectacles at its own nominees or delegates.
I sat with some disdain the other day listening to a debate in this Chamber on the Telecommunications Bill. Noble Lords on the other side were indulging in a 302 self-imposed naiveté beyond belief. They were saying that the best man for a particular job would get the job irrespective of his political persuasion or philosophy. I have to remind noble Lords that only recently there was a long-running battle in another Chamber when certain Secretaries of States, on receiving office, started at once to remove able, long-standing, and trustworthy people from appointed offices because their political views did not coincide with those of the Government.
I challenged the Secretary of State for the DHSS when he decided overnight to dispense with five of the best, most tried and experienced chairmen of regional authorities in the country. The same happened with the water authorities, and even at higher level in some of the financial institutions where the Government are responsible for giving out these jobs. Do not let us lull ourselves into the idea that, if there is an appointed hoard, the local authorities in the area can have 30 per cent., and the other 70 per cent. the Minister will appoint. If he is a Conservative Minister he is not doing his job if he does not, by his appointments, make sure that at least 51 per cent. are Conservative members, or people with that philosophy, and a succeeding Labour Minster would not be doing his job if he did not take such action. To think that it would be any different is complete naiveté.
I see something a little more dangerous in this. The AMA were formed as a successor to the AMC, and the AMA were formed because of the local government pattern. Within London and the metropolitan countries there are 24 million residents in this country. As I said, historically a lot of them had a county council vote before. For some of them it was new. They have had the vote for only the last decade, and perhaps have voted three times because they do so every four years. What are the Government saying now? That the right to that vote will be taken away. If you have a population of 24 million it follows, on the usual rule of thumb, that 50 per cent. of the population in an area are on the electoral roll, which means that the present Government are indulging in an exercise of taking the vote away from 12 million people every four years.
§ Lord Somers
My Lords, is not what the noble Lord has been saying an absolute confirmation of what I have always felt, that the only solution is to get rid of party politics in local government for good and all?
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, if we lived in a perfect world that would probably he the best solution, but people and societies are not like that. Certainly experience in this country has shown that the only time a national government in the real sense works is in a time of strict adversity. When people are entitled in a democracy to opt for the type of society they want, it would he dangerous to try to interfere with that. The point I make and repeat—and I do not know whether it has been taken on board by some noble Lords opposite—is that to start turning the clock back and to deny 12 million people a vote (which some have had for only the past decade) to elect a tier of authority between them and the Government, is a dangerous philosophy.
I am not talking about London because I do not have a wide knowledge of the GLC, so there is no point 303 in my talking about that, but the six large metropolitan counties almost totally focus on the largest unit in the centre. For instance, in the country of West Yorkshire, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, referred, I think that 50 per cent. of the total population live in the metropolitan city of Leeds. It might be a hit upwards of that, but it is roughly that figure. Manchester is a completely botched up job, because even the last local government reorganisation was not put through as was recommended because of local political pressures. You have the situation with Manchester in the centre with almost half a million people, and just on the northern and eastern side of it are two authorities which were allowed to come into being with just over 200,000 population. The whole thing in that sense is an abortion. Nevertheless, they have learned to operate under a county council which has responsibility for certain functions.
I know that the Government Chief Whip appealed to noble Lords not to speak for too long. However, I commenced by saying that some of the severe friction that started with the last local government reorganisation has disappeared, but I am saying that this is a recipe which will resurrect it overnight. Any particular county area, whether you do away with the council or not, will adopt a regional entity which no Government Bill can destroy. There will then be competition within that area for Government resources on various matters, and there will be nobody between the Government and the district authority to adjudicate.
Being from local government myself, I know what will happen. The biggest authority in the area will become the over-dominant one, and sometimes at the expense of the others. It will inevitably happen, and this is why I appeal to the Government to think again. These cities before were powerful units, and they still are. The county structure was imposed on them, but it has now started to work. When I first joined another place I submitted proposals to the then Labour Government on behalf of the AMA—and its leader then was Sir Robert Thomas—which showed how the county councils could be given a role, and that they could be given some of the work done by these appointed boards, which would have ameliorated the situation between them and the counties. There is no reason why they could not have been involved in water services instead of the water boards. There is no reason why they could not have taken over regional planning and things like that, but they were denied that role.
It would be better if the Government thought again for quite a while and did what the last Government did in 1960, and appointed a commission perhaps under a distinguished legal colleague in this Chamber, or somebody of that ilk, to look at the situation in a dispassionate manner. If the Government go through with their proposals as they intend, it will lead to nothing but an unmitigated disaster.
§ 6.18 p.m.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
My Lords, one has to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, on the clear way in which she put forward the proposals in the report. I found the report hard going. What the 304 noble Baroness pointed out clearly was that all the major conurbations, not only in Europe but in other parts, need unified planning of services in some fields. Therefore, one must ask the Government: do they think that our urban problems are different in some way from those in other parts of the world? If they are different, then we need to be told.
As my noble friend Lord Stewart pointed out, it was a Tory Government which set up the metropolitan counties in 1974 because they recognised, with all the reports that came forward from the Royal Commission, that strategic public authorities were essential. Now that a political conflict has arisen between the Government and the metropolitan counties, the Government's idea about the structure of local government has undergone a complete right about turn.
In its election manifesto of 1970, the Conservative Party said that it would bring about a sensible measure of local government reform which would involve a genuine devolution of power from central government and would provide a two-tier structure. My noble friend Lady Birk spelt out quite clearly that, while that might have been in the Conservative Party election manifesto of 1970, it is not the policy of this Conservative Government, who seem to feel that Whitehall knows best about everything: whether it is how to manure one's back garden or how to build the finest aircraft possible. That is an impossible task for any government department to undertake.
It is recognised in the White Paper that the need to abolish the metropolitan authorities is because they have been shown to be wasteful and an unnecessary tier of local government. But there has been no cost-effective analysis by the Government to prove that theory. It is just what they think happens. We know, when they undertook to reorganise the National Health Service, which took place in the same period as the reorganisation of local government, what a wholesale flop that was.
What concerns me more than anything is whether it can be proved by the Government that further reorganisation will be a means of saving resources by providing a more efficient system of government for the planning and delivery of existing services, or is it a means of reducing the already high level of provision of these services? If it is to be a means of reducing the real level of provision of public services, that is what will concern noble Members on these Benches. Our concern is because the changes affect, as my noble friend Lord Dean of Beswick said, approximately 25 per cent. of the population of the country, all in very close, confined areas. They are the country's major urban areas, where housing, unemployment and social care are the most serious problems.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter is not in the Chamber, because he always contests any figures that I use and that I obtain them from some secret source, which is not Cheltenham. But the figures I shall quote are from Government sources, from the Central Statistical Office and the Department of the Environment. These figures are for the characteristics of metropolitan counties compared with the rest of England and the shires. I wish to give three. The average gross weekly earnings for men 305 working full time in April 1981 for the whole of England were £141 per week. Not one metropolitan authority reached that figure. The figures are as low as £131.8 a week. The West Midlands, to which I am proud to belong, was one of the most thriving parts of Great Britain, but it now has a wage rate of £133.8 compared with the national £141.
If we look again at professionals, employers and managers expressed as a percentage of economically active persons in the areas, we find that in the whole of England the figure is 15.5 per cent., but nowhere in any of the metropolitan authorities do we find such a level of that classification of person; those in the higher levels are down to 10 per cent. The highest is 13 per cent. and again in the West Midlands there is a low figure of 11.7 per cent.
For unemployment we see that the latest figures that are available for England show an average of 11.2 per cent. For the metropolitan districts we find 15.7 per cent., 17.9 per cent., and 13.7per cent. The West Midlands again, which was a very prosperous area, is down to a level of 15.2 per cent. against the national average of 11.2 per cent. unemployed. That is why the metropolitan districts should be considered quite differently from any other part of the country.
The Royal Commission reported in 1964 and it is spelt out in its report that there is a need to consider the metropolitan counties as a special local government problem which requires distinct solutions. That was said in 1964 in the days when "we never had it so good". I do not know what would be said now in 1984, when unemployment has increased in those areas, where major manufacturing areas have been completely destroyed—something which has nothing to do with wage rates. Here I address the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour. In the West Midlands there are whole areas of dereliction where steelworks have closed down. That has nothing to do with wage rates. It has to do with the lack of need for steel and it is unfortunate for those areas that they have to suffer that dereliction. If we have learned anything from the report of the Royal Commission in 1964, it is that the situation is a lot worse.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
My Lords, if the noble Baroness does not mind my interrupting for one moment, would she say that the dereliction in those areas was totally unrelated to the rate levels that have been created by the councils?
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
My Lords, I should remind the noble Baroness that in belonging to the EEC we have to conform as regards the amount of steel that we manufacture. Because our statistics show that we do not have to produce so much, the West Midlands is one of those areas which have had to get rid of steelworks. It has nothing to do with anything else, with the incompetence of workers in the area or with high wage rates. It is the fact that we have to cut down on the amount of steel produced.
I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, is sitting on the Front Bench while we are talking about joint hoards. He also sat on the Front Bench when we were discussing the Water Bill. He remembers quite distinctly the fight that we had on the Water Bill to try to get the Minister to put into the statute that members 306 of local authorities should be on the water boards. The Government resisted and resisted. We understand now that it is in some rules and regulations, but it is not in the statute that local authorities should be able to have representatives sitting on the boards of water authorities.
As my noble friend Lord Dean spelt out, when the water boards were first set up they mainly comprised local authority members. There is no right now for a local authority member to be on a water authority. As the noble Lord remembers, it was his noble friend who said that what we want are very small committees of businessmen to run the water authorities. That is what worries us—that if these boards are set up they will be run on exactly the same lines and there will be no local authority representatives.
When we are talking about police boards and fire service boards, we have to remember that this might easily be the first steps towards a national service losing all sense of local identity.
The noble Lord might challenge—I should not object if he did—my own position for having said that I felt the West Midlands metropolitan county might be one authority that was not necessary. That opinion was formed as a result of the experience that I had had as a member of the Birmingham local authority.
It might be, again, as the noble Lord, Lord Dean, has said, that that was the feeling of all large local authorities. I think that was because we felt very selfish that we were successful authorities and we did not want anybody else to poach anything from us. But now I think (as Lord Dean expressed very clearly) that all these areas are in areas of the country where they are fighting for all their worth to try to become economically viable communities once again, and to get rid of the unemployment and the distress that that causes in those areas. It is for that reason that I feel the metropolitan authorities have the greater part to play.
I want to dwell, in the last few minutes that I have, on the positive achievements of the metropolitan authorities. I wish to dwell upon one particular service, which my noble friend Lady Lockwood briefly mentioned; that is, the legislation regarding the consumer. The increase and present extent of consumer legislation also includes not only that passed in this Parliament but also that included in the EEC directives. It goes far beyond the consumer legislation, far beyond those things that we used to remember under the old Weights and Measures Acts. It goes into all kinds of protection—stemming the flow of dangerous imported goods, and so on. I fail to understand why the Government do not try to stop these more vigorously than they do—particularly when one sees the toys being imported into this country which are lethal for children to play with. The metal is jagged, and the paint is lead paint. These things could he stopped at the ports rather than be allowed to come on to the markets and become a problem for trading standards officers. While the department are doing everything possible to protect the standards of British goods, they are being destroyed by these cheap imports.
The CBI itself is cognisant of the work of the trading standards departments, and works alongside them. I think it was in the Yorkshire area that the CBI 307 contributed finance to investigate whether pure wool was being used in garments. In the Sheffield authority, they have been trying to overcome counterfeit articles. This fight by the trading standards officers is an important part of the work of the metropolitan authorities. It needs the complete monitoring of all kinds of services—services that are provided to other local authorities. A case in point appeared in the Birmigham newspapers a few weeks ago. Sausages that were being supplied to an adjacent local authority were not even up to government standards, and contained only half the amount of meat specified in the contract undertaken with the other local authority. If we look at the national press, we will see that over any period of time it is the metropolitan authorities that are monitoring this sort of service well. It is in that service that they are most effective in looking after not only the housewife as a consumer but other authorities and also government departments. It might be premature to ask this question, but it is an important one. What is the Government's thinking regarding the future of this service? That is the question I would pose.
In conclusion, may I say that 10 years is the period of time during which the metropolitan authorities have been in operation. It has been a difficult 10 years, starting from scratch and working upwards. I have used the example of the trading standards officers, but there are also the transport facilities. All these services started from scratch and are performing excellent services within the space of ten years—bearing in mind that they had to compete with the powerful district interests around them. As my noble friend Lord Dean has said, the conflict and the tensions were acute when they started; but there is now comparative harmony—harmony because (as I said previously) these areas are what one could almost call the derelict areas of Great Britain. It is for that reason, perhaps, that they spend more money than anybody else; because what they are trying to do is to pull themselves out of the depths of despair caused by unemployment, not through their own fault.
It is perhaps because they are recognising those problems and recognising that the Government are not doing sufficient to help them that they are now working in harmony together to get the whole conurbation back to the thriving, thrusting areas that they were. Other speakers today have said that there needs to be a review of local government. It might be that we could have another review. But let it be a proper and full investigation, as others have said; because I can see that what the Government intend to do is to destroy a tier of local democracy, simply for the purpose of party government and political expediency.
The White Paper (Cmnd. 4276) of February 1970 said:In view of the time, effort and disturbance which such change involves"—and that was the setting up of the two-tier structure—the new structure must be designed to last in its essentials for many, decades".Is one decade too long for the Government to stomach?
§ 6.38 p.m.
§ Lord Mulley
My Lords, in following my noble friend Lady Fisher I should like to endorse what she has said and, indeed, what all speakers have said about the debt we owe to my noble friend Lady Lockwood for introducing this debate and relating our current problems to the very important study which has been prepared by the Institute of Local Government Studies of the University of Birmingham. I am sure that it is right that we should try to learn from the experience of other countries, because it is all too clear now that in this country we have not got a democratic system of government that is the envy of the world. Indeed, the way we have gone down the league table from Division 1 to being almost on the point of applying for reelection at the bottom of Division 4 rather suggests that we should seek to learn rather more from other countries. No doubt today, quite properly, the debate is related, as my noble friend Lady Fisher has related it, to the Government's current proposals that are now under consideration.
Yesterday being St. Valentine's Day, I understand that two charming ladies from the South Yorkshire Metropolitan Council brought a Valentine to the right honourable gentleman the Secretary of State for the Environment. I read about that in the Sheffield newspapers only this morning; otherwise I should have contrived to see that the noble Lord who is to reply to the debate was similarly honoured. Since argument seems to be unavailing, perhaps we should try in this way or in other ways to persuade the Government to be a little more lenient to the metropolitan authorities. Any any rate, today we are indebted to the noble Baronesses in the House because the burden of the debate has been carried by them. Four noble Baronesses have taken part in the debate.
I was struck by the observation of the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, when she said that perhaps there is a great significance in what has happened in local government because of the development of local radio and television services. She spoke, quite rightly, of the immense impact that these are having, not only locally but nationally. I personally welcome the development of both independent and BBC services on a regional basis: they do a great deal to bring together regional problems. But it is not necessarily the case that it is the metropolitan local politicians who get the most publicity. Certainly in South Yorkshire the best-known local authority leader is the leader of a district council and not of the metropolitan council.
However, I think the noble Baroness was right in saying that it is extremely important. I remember in another place a colleague saying that when he spoke on television not only did he speak to more of his constituents in those few minutes than would normally be possible in his whole political career, but at that time he was also speaking to more Members of Parliament than when he addressed another place. I think we can probably say also that when a Member of this House appears on television he is likely to be addressing more of your Lordships than he would have the privilege of doing when speaking in this Chamber.
Like my noble friend Lady Fisher, referring to the Redcliffe-Maud Commission, I had grave doubts 309 about the setting up of metropolitan counties; and, like the noble Baroness, I still have those doubts because I still believe that single-purpose authorities are the most effective on the whole, if for example, in cities of the size of Manchester and Birmingham and my own City of Sheffield, it is possible. I can see that there are problems in other parts of the country. What is needed is to have small area representation to deal with essentially local, village type problems—parish councils with enhanced powers, on the other one hand—and then possibly larger authorities than the present metropolitan counties are. I notice that this happens to be conclusion No. 3 of the report that we are considering. On page 57 it says—If decisions are to be kept local, two levels of decision-making are required—local and metropolitan".I think the final conclusion is one of immense importance:The metropolitan authority will inevitably have a difficult and often controversial role; it needs good government support and backing.One of the difficulties, certainly in the case of South Yorkshire, and also probably for all metropolitan councils in recent years, has been that not only have they not had good Government backing but the Government of the day has done its best totally to undermine all the activities with which they were concerned. I do not know which of the well-known publicity bodies was responsible for streamlining the Government's White Paper, Streamlining the Cities, Cmnd. 9063, but, whichever it was, I should like warmly to congratulate them on the biggest piece of whitewashing and recasting of history that it has been my misfortune to come across. Reading this document, no one would believe that Conservative Governments had anything to do either with the setting up 20 years ago of the GLC or, more recently, with the setting up of the present metropolitan county councils. In fact, section 1.3 says:The reorganisations of the 1960s and the early 1970s were typical of their time. It was a time when resources seemed to be freely available, and when it was assumed that growth would automatically provide the funds for ever-increasing expenditure. It was also the heyday of a certain fashion for strategic planning, the confidence in which now appears exaggerated.It goes on and on about various problems, particularly in paragraphs 1.10 and 1.11 and about how difficult it was for the GLC and the MCCs to find roles for themselves. In paragraph 1.12 it says that this was a recipe for conflict and uncertainty—A strict interpretation of the upper-tier role, as envisaged in the legislation, would leave members of these authorities with too few real functions. The search for a wider role brings them into conflict with the lower-tier authorities. It may also lead them to promote policies which conflict with national policies which are the responsibility of central government".There may be something in all this. The surprising thing is that I recall when in another place spending many hours telling the the Government that this was exactly what would happen in the case of the GLC and in the case of the Government reorganisation of 1973–74. I believe that in this place an even larger number of days (not hours) was spent on opposing the proposals concerning the GLC. I have no great expertise in this area of local government, but I do not feel that the present structure is necessarily right. There is a lot to be said for a metropolitan authority on the lines of the old London County Council rather 310 than on the lines of the Greater London Council. Certainly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, said emphatically, it is unbelievable, looking round the world, that the capital city of this great nation of ours should not have some form of representative government. It is unbelievable that the Government of the day should be coming forward with that kind of proposal.
Of course, one can criticise a great deal of what has happened in some local authorities. In particular I would say to the Government—because we are all involved in this and the mistakes that are being made will be at the expense of the whole community and not merely to the political cost of the present Government—that to rush into changes without realising what they are doing could mean a repetition of some of the problems, the very real problems, in relationships between the new district councils (many of them the old city councils of previous decades) and the new counties. Now, after the long and, in some cases, bitter teething experience, I believe that they are in a position to make a real contribution in the areas they serve.
Certainly in South Yorkshire, the area I know best, while there was perhaps the greatest hostility initially, it is now widely recognised that the Government's proposals would be a disaster for the people there. One of the controversial decisions they have taken in South Yorkshire is to provide very cheap transport. This, of course, costs money but at the same time they have got a much bigger usage of public transport, and against the actual costs one has to set the increased congestion of roads and the building of new roads that would otherwise have come about.
As transport Minister, I remember well the first difficult decision I had, because I had to bring in the transport supplementary grant, which was a legacy of the outgoing Government in 1974. I had to give Tyne and Wear by far the biggest percentage of that grant, or else one had to stop their ambitious proposals for a metropolitan transport organisation serving the whole of the North-East area. I read only the other day in some expert transport journal that this is now regarded as a model which should be followed internationally as well as nationally. It is a great success, and I understand there are many demands for it to be extended in Tyne and Wear itself. But initially that was a matter of very great controversy.
In conclusion I would say this: not only would the history of this country but that of the United States have been very different, going back some centuries, if one had paid more regard to what I believe is an essential principle of democracy: that there should be no taxation without representation. That was the factor which concerned the American colonies, and that is what the present Government, in 1984, are ignoring in setting up joint boards.
The Government have already set up similar bodies to run the water industry. The water rates that we pay are not a proper charge for the water that we use. They are a form of taxation. And how water charges have grown since the joint boards took over from the local authorities! I see no reason why that will not be the case with these proposed joint boards. And we never found a satisfactory way of providing a proper joint 311 board system for running the polytechnics and further education.
The only case that the Government have made for their proposals is I believe wholly political. We all accept that there is scope for improving the structure of local government. But let it be as a result of a proper study, prepared by an independent body, not by means of a public relations paper, which is all one can say about Streamlining the Cities. If there are to be further proposals, let us consider the history of local government and how we come to be where we are. I hope that the noble Lord who is to reply will assure us that the views which have been expressed today will be taken fully into account by those who are thinking about the structure which is to replace the authorities that they propose to abolish.
§ 6.52 p.m.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, on a most interesting and enlightening debate. If it has done nothing else, it has made me examine critically a report which. I must admit, under normal circumstances I should have looked at somewhat cursorily. However, it came as no surprise to me that most noble Lords could not resist the temptation to comment on the Government's own proposals for changes in metropolitan government. I shall return to those in a moment. In the meantime, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, for the measured way in which he put his or, perhaps, the Alliance's—could it be that they coincide?—views.
Let me deal first with the immediate subject of our debate. The study by the Institute of Local Government Studies on The Government and Administration of Metropolitan Areas in Western Democracies is a useful but limited piece of work. It gathers together information about 13 metropolitan areas in eight countries that is not readily accessible elsewhere. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, the immediate impression I gained was one of great variety, both in the overall arrangements for local government in each country and the particular methods of governing metropolitan areas. That is hardly surprising. Despite some similarities, the situation in each area is bound to be significantly different. After all, both the history and the thinking of the countries involved are significantly different—a point also made by the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock. I can assure the House that the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, and I did not exchange notes before writing our speeches. However, I failed to find any common thread or any relationship with our own metropolitan government—past, present or proposed.
The report itself readily admits that the institutional arrangements in one country can rarely, if ever, be translated directly to another country. At best, we can make sure that we are aware of the various possibilities represented by the methods adopted elsewhere and make sure that some of the experience abroad is taken into account in devising any new proposals. But local government is local, a point that I made at Question Time yesterday, and it is much less easy to make simple international comparisons than in some other areas of public affairs. Twelve years ago I bought a 312 business. The first management exercise I undertook was to identify what was being done, why, who by and did it have to be done by him or her or would another process obviate it? The Government's aim has been to devise a local government structure appropriate to the needs of London and the other metropolitan areas. Our primary concern has been to look at the situation in those areas and the recent experience of local government structures.
I recognise that the metropolitan county councils in particular believe that the study we are debating shows up some defects in the Government's proposals. They, of course, commissioned the work and they have since tried to make much of the really rather tentative conclusions that the author has reached. This is all part of a major publicity campaign being waged by the opponents of abolition in which they have given a most misleading impression. It involves millions of pounds and many full-time staff—professional lobbyists, publicity organisations and so on—paid, incidentally, by the ratepayers. In passing, why can these bodies find enough money for this sort of activity and not enough for what they regard as real services? I cannot equate it at all. I should like to take the opportunity of this debate to set the record straight.
The main rationale behind our proposals is that the Greater London Council and the metropolitan county councils are an unnecessary tier of government. It seems to me that the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, has voted herself the monetarist of the Opposition Benches. I can tell her that finance is only a spin-off, not a main reason for the Government's plans. The GLC and the metropolitan county councils have not found it possible to establish a proper role for themselves, given the range of powers that they have in comparison with the role of the lower tier—the boroughs and districts. One symptom of this lack of a real role has been the attempt to enter policy areas—even foreign policy—that are quite outside the proper business of local government.
Clearly nothing in this paper or anywhere else suggests that there should be more tiers of government than are necessary, but I notice that one of the study's conclusions is that two tiers are inevitably necessary. But why? They were not so in the past, as several noble Lords have mentioned. This seems to arise from the proposition that metropolitan areas must be treated as a homogeneous whole. I note that the metropolitan counties claim that, if decisions are to be kept local, two levels of decision-making are required. You cannot get more local than the boroughs.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, if the Minister is correct and sincere in saying that the Government do not consider that there is a case for two tiers, why are they leaving 60 per cent. of the country alone and retaining a two-tier system of government there?
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, the noble Lord must not quote me out of context. I said that there is no logic in having two tiers in the metropolitan areas. There is plenty of logic behind retaining the county system in non-metropolitan areas, but that is not what the debate is about. So we approach this question from a rather different point of view. Having a reasonable size for the basic unit of government in urban areas, 313 capable of carrying on most of the executive and operational tasks, we considered whether the remaining tasks do genuinely give rise to the need for an additional, separate tier of government. We concluded that they do not. We were not alone in that view. In March 1979, Mr. Livingstone, the current leader of the GLC, was reported as saying that abolishing the GLC would have been a major saving and would have released massive resources for more productive use. He went on to say:and I think there would have been a lot of support on the Labour side for that, provided that adequate powers were devolved down to the boroughs, and not absorbed upwards by central government".We plan exactly that.
We believe that much can be done by voluntary co-operation, particularly the provision of specialist staff and services. This is something that local government well understands—for example, in joint purchasing of supplies, of which noble Lords have much more experience than have I.
The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, gives me food for thought. He appears to have got all this so wrong that I shall have to read most carefully what he said. For example, some—just a few—operational activities are more conveniently handled through the mechanism of a joint board. This has a separate legal identity from its constituent members and to that limited extent an independent life of its own. Some have suggested that our proposals for three joint hoards in each of the metropolitan counties are an implicit recognition of the continued existence of a separate tier of government.
That misunderstands our intention. Joint boards —notwithstanding propaganda to the contrary subscribed to, I regret to say, by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for whom I have a lot of respect—are not quangos, and nor are they a separate tier. They are a mechanism for co-operation between the basic, democratically-elected authorities. The members will be appointed by those authorities from among their own elected councillors. The joint boards will thus be closely linked to the basic authorities, and have nothing to do with appointments by the Secretary of State. I must take issue, too, with the noble Lord, Lord Mulley, who regarded them as taxation without representation. From the definition I have just given, he will see that that is quite wrong.
§ Lord Mulley
My Lords, if the noble Lord the Minister will give way, the great problem of joint boards is that none of the members is responsible for the totality of the expenditure. They each go back to their own authorities and say, "I was against it, but the others wanted it". That is the whole problem with joint boards, where no one is accountable to the public from whom they take the money. If they need subsidies for transport of any kind—and whether the Government run it or anyone else, it has to be subsidised if it is going to work—then that money has to come out of taxes. Equally, the present cost of water is a form of taxation because the comparison between what we pay now for water and what we paid when the local authority in Sheffield ran it is enormous.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, the noble Lord has somewhat confused me. Does he mean, then, that democracy only works when you win?
§ Lord Mulley
It means, my Lords, that democracy requires that you have a vote over the people who make these decisions.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, as joint boards are comprised of councillors who themselves have been directly elected, as we have already established, this must be democracy in action. I am afraid that I cannot take the point of the noble Lord.
There will be no upper tier with a separate mandate claiming superiority because of its apparent size and power. The basic authorities will obviously not agree on all matters, but they will have a guarantee that their view has been put in the formulating of any overall decision and that they can participate fully in the process of making decisions affecting the urban area as a whole. After all, it is not long ago that there was the local government "Keep Local Government Local" campaign. That seems rather to have been lost sight of in the present discussions. I was particularly interested to learn that another member of the Institute of Local Government Studies, Professor Stewart, was the coauthor of a book entitled The Case for Local Government. I see from page 150 of that book:The basic units of community government could normally be about 150,000 to 500,000, although in exceptional cases larger authorities might be created. In the metropolitan areas they can be based on the present metropolitan districts".The book goes on to say:No other tier of government should be constituted between these local authorities and Parliament. Where functions of government have to be carried out over wider areas, that should normally be achieved through joint action by local authorities. Such joint action is never easily achieved, but it is easier to achieve between adjoining authorities each with its own responsibility for its own area than between two tiers of local government, each with some degree of responsibility for the same area. And it is easier between authorities of equal status rather than between those of unequal status".I am not trying to quote my own authority for the part of the speech I have just made. What I am saying is that even within the local authority study organisation which we are discussing now there is quite obviously a divergence of opinion.
The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, underlined that the present report clearly recognises this problem of relationship between various tiers. It speaks of the possibility of giving "special powers" to the higher level authorities to ensure that decisions are implemented. That would be a possibility—but surely the wrong choice in the present situation. It would intensify rather than reduce conflict, and it would require a significant shift of real power towards the more remote upper tier authorities. We believe that the right course is to make use of the existing powerful lower tier, reduce the possibility of conflict by eliminating the separate upper tier, and thus ensure that the focus for planning and execution is in the basic unit of government.
My noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour pointed out that local government has to operate within the particular fiscal strategy of the Government of the day. I agree with her that until recently that was the local government ethic. It does not apply today. I suggest 315 that her speech will repay a lot of study—not least by myself. She did not say, however, as I understood her, but as accused by the noble Lord, Lord Stewart of Fulham, that local government should agree with the politics of the Government of the day. I agree with the noble Lord: that would be an unhealthy nonsense. My noble friend was making the point that local authorities are responsible for a very high proportion of local public spending—some 25 per cent.—and she is obviously quite right. Any Government of any complexion would ignore that at their peril.
While speaking of money, I noted the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, about the costs and savings which may arise upon abolition. That is not something we can go into in detail this evening, but the Government are confident that the removal of a whole tier of government will certainly give significant potential for savings to be made. We will make sure that the potential is realised. We are very conscious of the experience of previous reorganisations. One has to learn something from history, I suggest.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, if the Minister will give way, have the Government yet started costing this? Will it be costed, and will we know the costing at some time? I am sure that the noble Lord does not have the answers tonight, but as he raised the point I wonder whether he can give some indication.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
That is a fair question, my Lords. The Government do not have the costings and they will not be able to produce the costings until we see exactly what levels of employment and redistribution of staff will be involved between, for example, the metropolitan councils and the joint boards. There are also, of course, specialist staff who, by the very nature of things, will have to be transferred to the boroughs. Until we know about that, there is absolutely no hope of making a definitive calculation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and the noble Lord, Lord Mulley, and many other noble Lords, asked about a prolonged and detailed study. I believe those were the words the noble Baroness used. This study has been used to bolster the call for a major inquiry before we proceed to change the arrangements in metropolitan areas. This is the view taken by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities as well as by the six metropolitan county councils individually. We have considered that view carefully. However, we do not believe that the inevitable delay which an inquiry would cause can be justified in terms of the possible outcome of such a study.
Local government reforms in both 1963 and 1972, as has been remarked tonight, certainly followed major studies, and no doubt that was to some extent helpful, at least in creating a climate of expectation of change. But the main decisions are essentially political, with a small "p"—not party politics, my Lords. They represent difficult judgments on the appropriate balance between the size and powers of various authorities. There is no simple analytical method for arriving at the "correct" basis for local government in a particular area. After an inquiry, the same judgments would have to be taken and an important and valuable reform made.
316 Certainly I do not believe that an inquiry would very usefully add to the amount of information on the subject. If noble Lords have seen even a fraction of the massive amount of material produced in response to our White Paper, they may well agree that most of what can be said has been said. That pales into insignificance beside the absolute mountain of post received as a result of the recent consultation period, which ended on 31st January.
The noble Lord, Lord Mulley, challenged me to take into account what has been said in the House this evening. I very readily do that. I am the first to see that valuable points have been made by some very experienced speakers. I shall certainly make sure that they are all included in the consultation process.
§ Baroness Trumpington
My Lords, this is a Short Debate, and I am sure your Lordships will want to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, the mover of this Motion, close it. If there are more interruptions, she will not be able to do so.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, we intend to press ahead without the delay of an inquiry, but of course this House will have a full opportunity to debate the major legislation that will be needed, and I look forward to constructive discussions on the details of our proposals when the details are formulated. This is not an appropriate stage to consider at length the detail of our proposals—Lady Fisher's trading standards department, and so on—but I assure her the point will be looked at carefully.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
My Lords, will the noble Lord write to me with the reply, or shall I have to wait until the Government make a decision?
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, I think it would be better to give a composite answer to all the points raised both here and elsewhere on the future of local services, but if the noble Baroness would like me to write to her specifically I shall be glad to oblige.
The Government have had many thousands of responses to the White Paper Streamlining the Cities. It is taking us a little time to digest them all. I cannot say now what changes, if any, we shall make to the detail of the arrangements we propose to replace the GLC and MCCs. I shall have to ask the House to be patient while we look at all the material that has been sent to us.
I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for drawing our attention to this international study. As I said at the outset, it is a useful paper to have. However, it is clear that, even when we look into it for some lessons that might be applicable to our situation, we find no clear message from the diversity of international examples. We must continue to rely largely on our own knowledge and experience of the situation in our own metropolitan areas. The Government stand by the basic proposition that the GLC and MCCs are an unnecessary tier of government. Our proposals seek to remedy that by building upon the powerful and more local units of government already in existence to provide a better system free of the tensions, friction and duplications of the present.
§ Baroness Lockwood
My Lords, I believe it is the custom for the mover of the Motion for a short debate not to reply to all the points made. Perhaps that is as well, because I might have been tempted to follow the noble Lord the Minister down one or two tracks which I do not think were actually referred to during the course of the debate. Indeed, it seemed to me on occasions that he was replying to a debate that he thought was going to take place but which did not take place.
Some very important and fundamental issues were touched on in the debate. We looked not only at the structure and functions of local government, and compared them with the continental report, but also at the fundamental nature of democracy itself and how democracy interrelates between national and local government. On those fundamental issues it appeared that the noble Lord the Minister had nothing at all to say. In that respect I feel somewhat disappointed by his response.
If I may say so, I was also somewhat disappointed when I saw the total list of speakers this afternoon. While the title might be somewhat off-putting, I think all those who have experience of local government know, from both the title and a brief glance at the report, that it contains a lot of important principles and important trends in local government which I would have thought would be useful for this House to discuss in a more representative way. I really am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, for coming into the debate from the Benches Opposite. I would have liked to see a more representative list of speakers.
However, be that as it may, I am grateful to the noble Lords and noble Baronesses who have taken part in the debate. I think a lot of important and useful points have been made. I hope that the noble Lord the Minister will, as he has promised, bring them to the attention of his colleagues. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion standing in my name.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.