HC Deb 03 August 1978 vol 955 cc752-4W
Mr. Palmer

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he hopes to make a statement on his proposals for the reorganisation of local government particularly in relation to the return to the City of Bristol of the many powers taken from it by the Act of 1974.

Mr. Shore

, pursuant to his reply [Official Report, 25th July 1978; Vol. 939, c. 108–9], gave the following answer:

The Prime Minister at the beginning of the year asked those Ministers with the relevant functional responsibilities to examine with the various bodies concerned proposals for limited change within the present local government structure in England. He asked me to co-ordinate the outcome of these consultations and I can now report accordingly as foreshadowed in the reply by the Lord President on 15th November 1977.

The issues are of course complex and the House will not be surprised to learn that, while the Government have reached a preliminary assessment of the position for the services directly involved, there are still many matters yet to be resolved. These matters will be the subject of further consideration within Government and of consultations with the local authority associations and other interests, including both user and staff interests. I will, however, summarise the position reached by the Government.

The objective of "organic" or limited change essentially is to enable certain improvements to be made in a pragmatic way in the distribution of functions between county and district authorities and so deal with the worst shortcomings of the local government system introduced under the Local Government Act 1972. The impact of such changes would be greatest in the larger non-metropolitan towns and cities which would then be better able to deal with their problems, including inner city problems, in their own way. The changes would not in themselves imply any alterations in boundaries; with the exception of development control they would be selective and would apply only where local opinion favoured them. Greater London would not be affected.

Although opinion is understandably divided on these matters, the Government believe that there is a good case for "organic" or limited change in some of these functions. Discussions has centred on four main functions: personal social services, education, highways and planning.

For personal social services, we have to balance a number of considerations, including the case for a period of stability after the earlier reorganisations, the need for close links with other services, including health, housing and education, and the great importance of placing responsibility for decisions as close as possible to the people served, while maintaining authorities of a size that are cost-effective. We have concluded that the case for transfer of personal social services functions to the larger districts which want them, in particular those which had them before the 1974 reorganisations, is in principle strong. We shall consider further the description of districts which might properly have such powers and the processes by which decisions in individual cases will be reached. The districts in question will need to have a population of at least 100,000. It will be necessary to pay full regard to any recommendations the Royal Commission on the National Health Service may make about the structure of the service and its relationship with personal social services.

In the case of education, responsible authorities need to be substantial in size in order to be able to provide adequate services; most of the non-metropolitan district councils are much too small for this purpose. The Government propose that the case for change should be examined individually in respect of each of the nine largest former county boroughs in the non-metropolitan areas which are of course major cities in their own right. Whether these cities should run their own education service would be decided in each case in the light of all the local circumstances, including the impact on services in the remaining county area.

Highways and traffic management present a problem of a different sort. Most of the larger district councils are already involved to a greater or lesser degree in the provision of highway and traffic management services through agency agreements, although for a maximum efficiency these services need to be planned and co-ordinated over a wide area. However, we will consider the possibility that some districts could exercise these powers in their own right—especially with regard to traffic management—while preserving the counties' proper responsibilities for planning and for allocating resources effectively. The precise distinction between districts which might seek some or all of these powers will continue to be studied.

The way ahead on town and country planning is clear. It is generally agreed that there should be a better defined division of responsibilities for development control between counties and districts to avoid the duplication which so often occurs now and to which the Expenditure Committee referred in its Eighth Report on planning procedures. The Government propose to place the sole responsibility for planning decisions for all but a narrow group of specific matters with all district councils; it will be up to them to pay proper regard to structure plans and county policies. Counties will, however, retain power to direct refusal of applications.

The further consultations mentioned will also provide the opportunity for the discussion of certain other local government functions, including various minor functions where both counties and districts have concurrent powers.

As I have explained this statement relates to England. The Welsh Assembly will be required under the Wales Act 1978 to review local government structure and functions in Wales.