The impression that my hon. Friend gave in his speech was not that there had been a long history of opposition but that opposition had suddenly arisen at the last moment. The one criterion left is whether the administration of the area as a whole—what is now the county council area—will be improved. The amputation of a major limb—yet another limb—must be a serious matter to the county. It involves 25 per cent. of the rateable value.
I do not intend to stress any of the points that have already been so ably made by my hon. Friends in opposing this Order, but I should like to put three points on the matter of timing. There has been a certain amount of talk by my hon. Friend the Member for Torquay about putting an end to the unnecessary length of delay, hesitations, indecisions and so forth. Indeed, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary himself mentioned this. But there are three matters which have changed since the decision was originally taken by the former Minister of Housing and Local Government who is now Leader of the House. First of all, we have had the appointment of the Royal Commission. This was mentioned by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. I would remind him of the words of the Prime Minister about the Royal Commission. He said that the Minister of Housing and Local Government
will be free to go on with any appropriate cases, but when it comes to broader issues and those which involve matters of deep principle, on which the Boundary Commissions have sometimes reached conflicting views, we would
do well to await the reports of the Royal Commissions.
Later he said:
… on the big issues of principle it would be better to await the reports of the Commissions."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 24th May, 1966; Vol. 729, c. 294.]
Surely the creation of a new county borough, the milking of an administrative county, of 25 per cent. of its rateable value must be a big issue of principle. Would not ordinary common sense dictate that it would be much wiser to await the outcome of the Royal Commission's Report?
The second point is the alteration in the grant structure for local government. This is a matter of great alarm for all ratepayers living within the County of Devon. Will the Minister give us some assurance about the future of the rate grant as it affects the administrative County of Devon as it will be if the Order is passed?
I would remind the House of remarks that the former Minister made on this very matter. As we know, it will be possible for the Government, as a result of provisions in the Local Government Bill, to do away with the rate deficiency grant. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman said that the rate deficiency grant
is another of the things which will go, because it is no good. It has the grave disadvantage of basing the deficiency on rateable values and, in different parts of the country, they represent a strange way of defining need. …I think that it is probable that rate deficiency grant … will go."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th May, 1965; Vol. 711, c. 1496.]
The Joint Parliamentary Secretary said on 14th June, when talking on the Local Government Bill:
There are two main reasons why, as far as one can see, some counties could probably lose. …The other is that some counties have benefited for quite a time from the weighting of the low density formula. Under the new system they will cease to get that benefit."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th June, 1966; Vol. 729, c. 1378–9.]
This Order means that 25 per cent. of the rateable value of Devon will go. Will the Parliamentary Secretary say that if the rate deficiency system also goes something will replace it to make the remaining County of Devon a viable entity and an economic administrative unit?
The last point which leads me to the conclusion that the timing is very bad, and most unacceptable in a time of economic crisis, for the Government to propose to establish a new county borough, is the expense not only in absolute terms in the cost of local government administration but in the probability that county boroughs with a population of 100,000 will not continue as all-purpose authorities when the Royal Commission's recommendations have been given effect. Surely the wise thing would have been to await the outcome of the Royal Commission's Report, before going ahead with this on the excuse which was given by the Minister in introducing the Order that the matter has gone on for long enough and that there have been delays and hesitations.
If the expense that is now being incurred by the ratepayers, and indeed by the taxpayers, will be abortive, tonight's debate and the Order will have been so much wasted breath. It would be wise for the Minister, even at this late stage, to withdraw the Order and await developments, await the Royal Commission's Report, await the decisions that are made about the deficiency grant system or about what is to replace it, so that we can see clearly ahead both in the county and in the councils of Torbay.
For those reasons I ask that the House reject the Order.