HL Deb 07 June 1985 vol 464 cc959-65

12.20 p.m.

Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

This comparatively small measure passed through all its stages in another place without amendment or opposition, including a debate in Standing Committee where it received unanimous support and with the Government maintaining an apparently neutral stance throughout. The purpose of the Bill is to deal with a very small anomaly in the Local Government Act 1972. The charter trustees to whom the Bill refers are the creation of that Act and they were a form devised to enable those old cities and boroughs which are now simply part of district council areas to preserve their ancient rights, traditions and identity.

When the Local Government Act 1972 abolished the previous system in favour of the present two-tier arrangement, a number of cities and boroughs, some of them of great antiquity, with very old charters, lost their status. In some cases where they secured borough status under the new dispensation no problem arose. There was continuity in it. Where those ancient cities and towns secured the status of a parish council, again there was no problem because the functions of the old borough council devolved upon the parish council, the chairman of the parish council became the town mayor, and so on. Where in England they became parishes or in Wales communities there was no problem.

However, some cities and boroughs did not secure parish status and for them the 1972 Act provided the device of charter trustees, and there are now 24 bodies of charter trustees in the country. Each comprises the elected district councillors for the wards representing the old city or borough, and, if there are fewer than three, with one or two electors for the area appointed by the district council.

The functions of these charter trustees are not simply ceremonial or devised solely for the purpose of carrying on a historic tradition. Their functions include electing the city or town mayor and his deputy, the making of appointments to local offices of dignity (the high sheriff, or whatever), to hold on behalf of the citizens or burgesses of the town the historic and ceremonial property (not land or buildings), and in particular the charters, insignia and plate of the old city or borough, and to accept any further gifts of that nature that may come forward.

It may seem that that was a simple device which enabled the inhabitants of those old towns and cities to continue a popular tradition and that there was no real reason why that status should ever be changed. But in fact the 1972 Act, while setting up those bodies of charter trustees, also included a means by which they could disappear and be entirely abolished. Under Section 245 the Act permitted a district council to apply for borough status. Noble Lords may wonder why a district council in the depths of the country should want to call itself a borough, which it patently is not, for any better reason perhaps than that the chairman of the district council wants to be called a mayor. Nevertheless that has happened already in 18 cases, and 18 old cities and towns have had their charter trustees abolished and have become faceless units in a large and extensive borough which has no historical foundations at all.

That is a very easy thing to happen. The district council has only to apply for a charter to become a borough and the Crown on the advice of the Privy Council invariably and automatically grants that. It follows that the charter trustees will be dissolved and their rights and privileges transferred to the new borough. That seems to many of us anomalous, since these districts had the opportunity to become boroughs 10 years ago, and it is hard to see why they should want to do so now if they did not then.

As I have said, for many charter trustees this Bill comes too late. Eighteen have already disappeared; there now remain 24, whom we seek to help. This Bill does not of course apply to Scotland or Northern Ireland where the local government system is quite different, nor does it attempt to deal with those where the charter trustees have already disappeared. There is no retrospective element in the Bill and we accept that some of them have been lost. Also, it in no way seeks to prevent the charter trustees disappearing if their area becomes a parish council, which would clearly be a highly desirable improvement in their status, and the chairman of the parish council would then become a town mayor.

If a district council becomes a borough and the charter trustees of an old city or town disappear, an old and valued tradition disappears—and something rather more important than that. However small the area may be, the function of a town mayor is something more than a formality. Apart from the few and generally popular ceremonial appearances that the town mayor makes, a good town mayor can perform an extraordinarily useful social function—one that the chairman of a large district council cannot perform in the same detail.

The town mayor is a popular and well-known figure. If he or she is doing the job properly during the course of his or her year of office, the town mayor will be visiting all the hospitals in the town, will be going to all the school speech days, will be helping to organise drives for funds for the local charities, and will be visiting old people's homes and keeping in touch with pensioners' organisations. Indeed, the town mayor does an extremely useful job. In our view, it would be extremely unfortunate if this office were to disappear.

Thus I hope very much that your Lordships will feel able to grant this Bill a Second Reading. It is of limited extent but of considerable interest and importance to quite a number of people. As your Lordships will see from the terms of the Bill, what it seeks really to do is to delete one section from the 1972 Act—that which provides for the charter trustees to disappear when the district achieves borough status—with a number of small amendments consequential upon that. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon.)

12.31 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I rise wearing two hats. First, I represent the Front Bench of the Labour Party: but secondly, as is the convention with private Bills, I speak in a personal capacity. Together with, I am absolutely certain, all my noble friends who are here as well as those who are not here today, I give a very warm welcome to this Bill and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon, on having the good fortune to be invited to introduce this Bill by his colleague in another place, Charles Morrison. Charles Morrison is very well-known and respected in a wide range of matters, particularly those connected with local government. In another place he was able to bring the special distinction of the seat that he represents.

Although I have yet to see a list of the 24 charter trustees which remain, I very much hope that additional pleasure might have been given to the noble Lord who introduced this Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon, as representing one of those places which have a direct interest in this Bill. I cannot think of anything more splendid or satisfying for a noble Lord with a long experience of what one can call traditional, historical towns—an experience covering a great part of his life—than to have the good fortune to be able to do what the noble Lord, Lord Maude, has been able to do here today. I believe he speaks not only on behalf of the people that he previously represented and still ably represents in this place, but also for many others when he talks in terms of taking the opportunity to stop the drift away from preserving our history, our traditions and our respect for the past.

In my view, no one is being a vandal; these things seem to happen. What has happened today is that an opportunity to stop that drift has been taken. As the noble Lord has said, it is perhaps too late for some. The puzzlement is that from 1972 to 1985 these things have not been done. Perhaps we are just in lime to save some of the traditions and take some of the opportunities that the noble Lord, Lord Maude, pointed out.

I speak with a local government background. I have no hesitation in saying that the office of mayor is important. Particularly in those places where the mayor is a lord mayor, that person in my view always was and always will be the first citizen of the town. The noble Lord has said that the mayor performs functions and that charter trustees perform functions that are more than a formality. They are trustees. They are trustees of the past, and they are trustees for the present and for the future. After a very full public life, at the end or near the end of good service to his or her community, I can think of no finer satisfaction to a public servant than to be honoured, first of all by his or her own party and secondly by the town, by being made the first citizen of the town for a year. As we know, some people are honoured in other ways.

The noble Lord mentioned that there is a pride in being a mayor. I would simply say this. I have been associated with Enfield and Edmonton for some time. Both are towns mentioned in the Domesday Book. they have a long history. They are intensely proud areas that want to maintain as much of that as they can. I would refer to four mayors who have held office since the new borough was formed about 20 years ago. The current two are John Reed, who serves now, and John Jackson, who gave up last year. The others are Kit Harvey, the first mayor, and Charlie Wright, who was mayor about 20 years ago. They were from different parties, and were quite a different nix. As I said last week to a new mayor who said, "I believe you cannot beat the old one". I believe every mayor beats the old one because by the end of the year he is well known and respected.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Maude, will agree with me that as a Member of Parliament there is a fine satisfaction in being invited to give out prizes. However, the man or woman who is looked upon with more awe and with more respect than a Member of Parliament is the mayor of the borough. Not only does he look more important but he is more important than the Member of Parliament. That is because he has an honour which is given for service. It is not a political reward: it is a reward for the fact that he has maintained the traditions over the period.

I certainly think that the intention of the Bill is fine. The traditions which have been garnered together and which form part of our heritage are important. May I say that the history of Stratford is as precious to the people of Edmonton as the history of Salisbury, Devizes or any of the other older towns. Such towns are part of our history. However, it must be even more glorious for the people who live in those places to feel that in a busy, changing world, with the building of motorways and the demolition of traditional places, there will be something permanent; that is, the regalia, the prestige and the paraphernalia, which may be looked upon as pomp and circumstance hut which, if it is, I glory in as much as any other noble Lord.

We need to preserve as much as we can of what is fine from the past. As the noble Lord knows, we know of first citizens who have made names for themselves. At the end of the day they have been good servants of their town and party and of the people they represent. As far as I am concerned—and I believe I speak for all members of my party—we shall not impede this Bill. We are delighted to associate ourselves with it.

12.38 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I wonder whether your Lordships will permit me to speak in the gap, even though I was not sharp enough to put my name down on the list. I should like to join with my noble friend Lord Graham in welcoming this Bill, so ably introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Maude. He himself described it as a relatively modest Bill hut one of great importance to those directly concerned. He also said something that I want to follow up. He referred to the possibility that charter trustees might gain parish council status at some time, presumably through the parish review procedure. He described that as being a desirable change; an improvement in the status and an improvement in the democratic basis for charter trustees.

I rise only to seek his support in future if there should be another attempt such as the attempt that I made in this House in the last Session with my Urban Parishes Bill, which was an attempt to extend town status, parish status, to areas in our cities which are uniquely deprived of this opportunity. I was pleased to note that after my Urban Parishes Bill had been through this House it was Mr. Charles Morrison who sponsored it for its First Reading in another place before it was overtaken by the end of the Session.

Much as I have respect for the ceremonial and other duties and powers of charter trustees, I believe that these should be founded on a democratic base and should be available to all of our citizens. After all, our cities and towns consist, as all of us who live in them know, of urban villages and of areas that may not be recognised in law but which can make meaningful parishes. Their citizens should have these rights and in particular these opportunities to maintain really local traditions and really local government. When I introduced the Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for the Government, was extremely scathing on Second Reading. I was glad to note, however, that as the arguments proceeded in the course of the passage of the Bill, he became considerably less antagonistic. I should like to express the hope that on a future occasion there could be more unanimity on the lines of the Bill that has now been so ably introduced by the noble Lord.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the House will be grateful to my noble friend Lord Maude for pursuing a matter which, as he said, arose in another place. Civic pride, which is what we are talking about today, is a concept that has been sadly missing from your Lordships' consideration of local government legislation in recent weeks. The question that your Lordships have to answer today is whether in this case it is misplaced civic pride. Following the speeches of the three noble Lords supporting the Bill, I should therefore point out that there is another point of view on this matter. The Bill is an extension of arrangements made under a Government amendment to what was then the Local Government Bill 1972, passed in your Lordships' House. That amendment allowed former boroughs which were merged into larger districts in 1974 to retain the former boroughs' Royal charters. These are held in trust by the councillors of the larger unit who are elected for the area of the former borough. The charter trustees, as they are called, may elect as leader a town mayor thus preserving the continuity of the mayoralty of these ancient towns.

It was anticipated in 1972 under Sections 245 and 246, to which my noble friend referred, that when the district obtained a borough charter from Her Majesty, the former charter would remain an archive, an historical document, and that there would be only one effective charter, one mayor, and so on. In other words, the charter trustees would have fulfilled their original rôle. Indeed, the 49 towns with charter trustees have now been reduced to 23. My noble friend rather surprised me when he referred to 24. I made a rapid calculation. I wonder whether he has not perhaps appreciated that Dunstable became a parish on 1st April this year.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, referred to the interaction between this and his desire to see more urban areas being designated as parishes. In fact, there is not quite the rapport between these two themes that he might imagine. Charter trustees can be dissolved for two reasons. Either the district becomes, by Royal charter, a borough and the district council chairman becomes the mayor, or, when a parish is created by order of the Secretary of State, a new parish council takes on the charter trustees' representative rôle. Under this Bill, however, the charter trustees and the town mayor will continue with powers undiminished despite the effective discharge of their trust by grant of a borough charter to the district by Her Majesty. Furthermore, any rights and privileges granted to townspeople under the former charters will be restricted to the area of the former borough, thus preventing extension of those rights to the whole of the new borough.

When the district is granted a borough charter, the district council chairman becomes a mayor. But under the Bill, some new boroughs will now have both a mayor and a town mayor in the same council, and their inhabitants different rights and privileges, depending only on where, in the modern borough, they live. Your Lordships may not feel that this can be conducive to the unity of the modern borough.

The Government are strictly neutral in matters of this kind, and I, as their representative today, will therefore not stand in the way of the Bill progressing through your Lordships' House. However, for the reasons that I have given, neither am I in a position to give it any positive help. This is a matter entirely for your Lordships.

12.45 p.m.

Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon

My Lords, in view of the ill-concealed hostility of my noble friend to the Bill, I should perhaps, with even greater fervour than I would otherwise have done, thank noble Lords opposite who have so generously supported the Bill. I cannot feel that the arguments that my noble friend has adduced really go the heart of the matter. Of course, we know that if a large district council secures borough status, the chairman of the district council becomes a mayor. While it may seem anomalous to have a town mayor in one small part of the district and a borough mayor presiding over the whole, the fact is that the chairman of a district council is a very remote figure to the ordinary people of a town within that district. He cannot, for geographical reasons as well as for reasons of time, get to know and be known by the people of the town in a way that the town mayor can.

Moreover, while my noble friend appears to think that the present situation in which charter trustees disappear, together with the town mayor, is conducive to good relations between the district and the ancient municipality, I can assure him that this is far from being the case. Indeed, the relations between district councils and town councils have required a great deal of mutual understanding and give and take during the past 11 years, but have now settled down, in my view, pretty comfortably. A modus vivendi has now been arrived at between the old cities and boroughs and the districts. But if there is one thing required to exacerbate and start again the old rivalries, it is the suppression at a stroke of the ancient rights, dignities and privileges of the old city and borough and the abolition of its charter trustees and its own mayor. It is surely better at the moment to let sleeping dogs lie rather than to stir up these antagonisms afresh. Does the noble Lord wish to intervene?

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I am grateful. Would the noble Lord not agree that the period we are talking about—that is, the past 11 years—in the context of a thousand years of history is a terribly short time? It may well be that, in some years to come, the wish to cling to the history and traditions of the past will be less strong than it is now. If the Minister is pointing to anomalies and idiosyncracies, I have to say that local government is full of situations that do not sit squarely. What we are discussing—I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Maude, will agree—concerns a tiny fragment of the local government map which may not be efficient or justifiable on any other grounds than that it is traditional, that it is historical, that it is nice and that it is appreciated if only by a part of an enlarged local government unit.

Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon

My Lords, yes. I am grateful to the noble Lord: that is perfectly true. The attempt to get everything tidy, perfectly organised and computerised at the risk of exacerbating the feelings and traditions of numbers of people is a deplorable tendency. I see no reason why we should go along with it. I am grateful to my noble friend for at least saying that while he would not help me he would not put any obstacles in my way. In the light of that, I hope very much that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.