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I beg to move,
That the English Non-metropolitan Districts (Definition) Order 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 22nd November, be approved.
The geography of local government reform has perhaps occupied more of the time of the House than any other single aspect of local government reform. That is probably right and as the House would wish. It is important to get the districts, the counties and the whole geography of reformed local government right.
In the Local Government Bill, which is now the Local Government Act 1972, we set before the House the division of England and Wales into counties, metropolitan counties and non-metropolitan counties, and the division of the metropolitan counties into metropolitan districts. In those cases it was for the House to decide where the boundaries should lie, what counties there should be and what metropolitan districts there should be. Having decided that, there were left 953 existing authorities in the non-metropolitan counties to be organised into new districts which would be large enough to have the resources to carry out the functions given to non-metropolitan county districts in the Act but small enough not to be too remote from their public.
We appointed a Boundary Commission to advise the Secretary of State on the division of the counties into districts. That commission started its work shortly after the Second Reading of the Local Government Bill in November 1971. It was then only a commission-designate because it had not the authority of the Act until some months later. But it has been at work for more than 12 months.
On its appointment as a commission-designate it immediately asked for representations from existing local authorities and from anyone who liked to make representations to it. I know that a number of right hon. and hon. Members made representations separately perhaps from their local authorities, as did members of the public and other organisations. During that stage I understand that the commission received some 2,500 representations. It had various meetings and it produced a report showing its draft proposals for districts. That was in April 1972.
That report gave an opportunity to all those concerned to get their teeth into something: here were proposals which could be argued about, which could have representations made about them and which could be accepted if people saw fit. Following that report containing draft proposals, there were no fewer than 28,000 representations to the commission. It worked out, however, that well over 80 per cent. of the resultant districts were acceptable.
The commission held a number of meetings in areas where there were issues and eventually came to its final report. The result was that the 953 county districts with which it started were reduced to 278 in its draft proposals. This figure was slightly increased in the final proposals to 296, and that is the number which appears in the order.
It is interesting to note that between the draft proposals and the final report the commission produced 14 districts with populations below 40,000. In its draft proposals there were no such small districts. The guidelines which the Secretary of State had given stated that in exceptional circumstances there could be small districts of that size where the population was sparse and the area large. Apart from those few districts below 40,000, there resulted 104 districts within the figures given in the guidelines as the average which the commission should seek—districts with populations between 75,000 and 100,000—and 111 below 75,000 and 81 above 100,000.
Those guidelines appear in the report on pages 2 and 3. I will not weary the House by reading them. However, I should refer to one point about the guidelines which has recently received some prominence in the Press.
My noble Friend Lord Sandford, in a debate on the order in another place, made a remark about how the guidelines might affect areas in the Home Counties. A newspaper read more into his words than he intended. It interpreted them to mean that some guidelines had been given to the commission relating specifically to these areas around London. This is quite untrue. There were no such guidelines.
My noble Friend was interpreting paragraph 2 of the guidelines as it might apply to London. That provides:
Except in sparsely populated areas the aim should be to define districts with current populations generally within the range of about 75,000–100,000.
Applying that to populated areas around the metropolitan area of greater London it could be said that that is the kind of figure that the commission could be expected to find. Indeed, on average, it did. The average of those districts is about 90,000.
In the process of reaching its final report the commission undertook a very thorough examination of all the representations that had been made to it. It held meetings where it thought there were issues and made unaccompanied visits so that it might be well acquainted with the districts about which it had to make a decision.
Looking at the calibre of the commission—we were lucky to obtain Sir Edmund Compton as the chairman and other members well experienced in public works and particularly in local government—looking at the process by which it carried out its work and looking at the final report, my right hon. and learned Friend and I decided that it would be right to accept the report and recommendations as a whole.
I do not mean by that that we merely took the volume and made an order without reading through the report with great care. I studied the report with great interest especially as, after the process of the Local Government Bill going through the House. I felt fairly well acquainted with the districts which appear in the report. I was deeply interested to see how the commission, with all the work that it did, had come to its conclusions over the various areas.
This is an exercise in which it is not possible to please everybody, and it is astonishing that following the 296 districts produced in the report there are tonight only seven amendments on the Order Paper complaining—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] There may be some others. The number of hon. Members present tonight is not a high proportion of the districts proposed.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The time allowed for this debate, which started at 11.30 is insufficient to allow all those who wish to take part in the debate to do so. I make no complaint about that now. Do I understand that the debate is open-ended, or is it limited to an hour and a half? If the latter, ought not the Minister to be a little lenient with the House and allow those who want to protest about the order to do so instead of hogging all the time that is available to us?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. During business questions last week I asked the Leader of the House whether he did not agree that it was outrageous that we should change the whole face of local communities in an hour and a half, and he replied that we should see how we got on and that it might be necessary to provide more time.
If it is thought that I have been hogging the time by spending 11 minutes on introducing a very important order, if I have misjudged the opposition to it from my right hon. and hon. Friends behind me and from right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite and if it is the wish of the House, I shall sit down at once and trust that the House will give me the opportunity to answer any points that may be made.
I shall be very brief. I merely repeat the point that I made earlier, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that if you feel that there is insufficient time for right hon. and hon. Members to cover points which they may feel—and which many of their boroughs may feel—are vitally important to the future of whole communities you will bear in mind the view, which is a purely persuasive authority, expressed by the Leader of the House during business questions last week, and look with a fair amount of flexibility at the matter to see whether more time might be allowed.
I wish to refer to only one matter, but it is of general application because it touches upon the procedures of the Boundary Commission. As regards North Devon, I happen to believe that the initial proposals made on 26th April, which were provisional, were the correct ones. They are on page 15 and what they basically say is that there should be one area, the North Devon area, of 102,000. I happen to believe that the majority of the local councils, which were fully consulted, gave overwhelming support to that proposal then and now, and those councils represent the majority of the population living in that area.
We then move on to the final proposals, which we find on page 12, where for the first time two particular districts are proposed, one with a population of about 42,000 and another of 66,000. None of the major councils concerned had been consulted as to whether or not they approved of this change. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] From that response I judge that other hon. Members may have had the same experience.
I find the procedure very odd, therefore. If one considers the letter which Mr. Delapons wrote on behalf of the Local Government Boundary Commissioners on 25th April, one sees that in paragraph 18 he made it clear that the provisional proposals would be changed or amended only if certain criteria obtained. The first was that there must be a substantial measure of agreement among the local authorities concerned for any variation. In this case there was no substantial measure of agreement, and indeed, two of the largest authorities, Barnstaple and Ilfracombe, were never consulted, and nor were Lynton and South Molton—all four of which were in favour of the original proposals and first learned of the variation when it was published in the final review.
The second criterion was that any variation must be within the close or preferred population range of 75,000 to 100,000. This variation in fact does precisely the reverse. It creates two districts with a population of 42,000 and 66,000 respectively and further depletes another district, that of Okehampton, by the extraction of Holsworthy.
The third criterion was that the variation should not involve the division of existing county district areas, nor should it render invalid the pattern of districts elsewhere in the country. The proposed variation does both those things and, I repeat, without consultation with the major boroughs involved. We were then told that another criterion was the parliamentary boundaries. Again that has been overlooked, and overlooked without consultation.
Finally, the one particular matter is that, by immediately reducing the population of the borough of Barnstaple to less than one-fifth of the whole area, what happens to be the oldest borough in England may now have difficulty in retaining even a parish status.
No alternatives were put forward and no indication was given that the plan which these councils had originally agreed would suddenly, without notice, be varied. Therefore, I believe—this is my major point—that it is very strange that, when councils have agreed to draft proposals, they should suddenly, amend without having been consulted, find that those proposals have been changed.
It is ridiculous, when one is trying to reduce the number of districts, to create two major centres which are only nine miles apart in the middle of a purely rural area. The last time I was opposing a change of this sort in the county of Devon was when the Labour Government, with their lack of wisdom, made Torquay into a county borough. I am very pleased to say that the present Government have reversed that decision and I prophesy that they will have to reverse this proposal, and for substantially the same reasons.
Now that we are moving 250,000 people out of Plymouth into the county of Devon, it becomes essential that the other centres are of a sizable proportion. When one considers that Torbay, Exeter and Plymouth will be three of the regional centres and Barnstaple the fourth, the very least one could hope is that it would have a population of, say, 100,000, and not of the very small area which is now suggested.
Finally, on the merits, North Devon is an entity on its own. Barnstaple, which is the civic centre, is the centre for planning of the North Devon area, although of course, under these varied proposals, all that would have to change. It is the centre for the fire and police services, the post office, the medical officer of health and the hospital management committee. It is regarded as one area for the purposes of roads and spur roads under the Department of the Environment. It is the centre at the moment for the administration of the courts, it is the centre for the water board and for the Department of Employment, where the manager is, and it is the centre for the tourist industry. Indeed it has a civic centre which is an adequate administrative centre for looking after the whole of the area. Already we have operated a working committee on the basis that the two areas will be combined—or, more accurately, that there would be one North Devon authority.
Finally, the procedure involving variations is strange to say the least. If people had been more thoroughly consulted in this case we would either have suggested that areas 1 and 2 be combined as was originally intended or that the area should correspond to the parliamentary constituency, or the parliamentary constituency possibly with the addition of Torrington. I believe that the procedure here is regrettable and that the recommendations are potentially disastrous.
I agree with the general points made by the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe). I add my personal regret that a matter of this importance has come on at this hour of the night and with limited time. The constituencies of a very large number of hon. Members are affected and those hon. Members should have an opportunity to speak. For that reason I shall be extremely brief.
My second reason for agreeing with the right hon. Gentleman is that in the case affecting my constituency, as apparently in the case affecting his, no consultation whatsoever took place between the announcement of the provisional and the final recommendations of the Commission.
The third reason why I feel strongly that the order should not pass tonight is that, as I understand what my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Development had to say, the Government have decided that it is easier to accent all the recommendations without any consideration rather than to examine the problem on its merits; and on its merits, certainly in the case I have in mind, there is no case whatsoever for the change which the Boundary Commission proposed and which the Government have endorsed in the order.
Taking the case of Essex districts Nos. 2 and 8, district No. 2 as proposed by the provisional Boundary Commission report last April consisted of Halstead urban district, Halstead rural district, Braintree urban district and Braintree rural district, with a total population of 75,897 and a rateable value of about £2¾ million. This was supported by Essex County Council and by two of the four district councils involved, the two biggest ones.
At the same time the Boundary Commission provisionally recommended a district No. 8 of Maldon municipal borough, Burnham urban district, Witham urban district and Maldon rural district, with a total population of 57,590 and a rateable value of about £2½ million. Both these were small, by the guidelines which the then Secretary of State laid down, but they were viable.
Subsequently and without any consultation a second report was produced transferring Witham urban district from district No. 8 to district No. 2. The result is that district No. 2 will now have a population of 93,000 and a rateable value of £3½ million, while district No. 8 will have a population of 40,000 and a rateable value of £1½ million. No reason for this change has been given, but I think that certain facts should be brought out.
First, the change has been produced by the move of Witham urban district from district No. 8 to district No. 2. Witham urban district is a growing area. The result is that district No. 2, which is already twice the size of district No. 8, will continue to grow, while district No. 8 will remain reasonably static, until the great new airport at Maplin, or Foulness—whichever one cares to call it—begins to have an effect there. Even then it is unlikely that district No. 8 will be viable for a very great number of years.
There was no consultation. No proper reasons were given. There is no community of interest whatsoever between Witham urban district, which now goes into district No. 2, and the area which I represent, which is a purely rural area to the north of the proposed new district. The result is that the Government, by accepting these proposals, have created a district wholly imbalanced, with far too heavy a population in the southern area, and the northern area, which I represent, almost totally deprived, as it will be, of services in this part of the world.
I hope that I have been brief. I believe that the procedure which has been adopted in this case has been outrageous. The House is being asked to accept proposals at a very advanced hour of the night and in a very short time which it should not be asked to accept. I hope very much that the debate will be adjourned until a time when we can consider these matters more properly.
I strongly echo the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Kirk). To expect the House of Commons to conduct a serious debate on a matter like this at 11.30 p.m. on the eve of Christmas is not only an outrage; it is to treat the House with complete contempt. I do not want to exaggerate anything or to waste time, but I with other hon. Members interested in this matter have been putting pressure on Her Majesty's Ministers for some time to bring this matter before the House. Had it not been for the activity and the vigilance of a few hon. Members who see in this proposal a challenge to the basic democratic structure of this country, there would have been no debate at all.
It was only last Thursday, when I had my last exchanges with the Leader of the House, that I began to see that we were at last going to have a debate. But this debate is only going through the motions. Here we have a document of 44 pages covering 296 districts and about 2,000 towns and villages throughout the length and breadth of England, the future administrative structure of which is to be fixed for many years ahead in a desultory debate of this kind, when most Members who would love to join us are away in their constituencies or keeping appointments on the eve of Christmas. This is not only discourteous to the House; it is a breach of the Statutory Instruments Act.
It is laid down that where the Government need orders for delegated legislation, by either the negative or affirmative procedure, such orders should be laid on the Table for 40 days. We seem to have reached a stage in our affairs when civil servants and those who guide them—and one does not criticise civil servants so much as the Ministers who allow the machine to operate in this way—are able to create a situation in which the matter that ought to come before the House for 40 days never does so. Therefore, the proposal to operate these specific orders—and I shall be as brief as I can on the point of principle—
If I may interrupt the hon. Gentleman, he is mistaken on the question of the laying of orders. He suggested that an order had to be laid before the House for 40 days. Of course, the 40 days applies to the tabling of a Prayer—a negative resolution.
I accept that. With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, I served for three years as a member of the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments, so I speak with some authority and knowledge of these matters. The Minister is quite right. The negative procedure requires 40 days. But even the affirmative procedure does not allow any Executive to take it for granted that at any time they like, by merely printing the order and putting it in the Vote Office, they can put the order into operation without consulting the House about it.
To deal with my part of the country, the county of Lancashire is being cut up in a most peculiar way by the order, on page 23 of the document which is before us. I represent a district of Lancashire, the Westhoughton constituency, which is composed partly of small industrial towns and a large part geographically of truly rural villages stretching along the Douglas Valley over the foothills of the Pennines, in one of the most beautiful parts of England. I say that, I hope, without exaggeration because the right hon. Gentleman is as familiar with it as I am. He occupies the neighbouring constituency.
Here we have a situation that all the rural districts in West Lancashire—the Wigan rural district, which I represent, and the West Lancashire rural district, which the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Soref) represents—are not being attached, as they should be by any common sense administration, to the country market town of Ormskirk, which is their natural centre. If they are to be detached from Wigan rural district, the other parts which I represent should be centred on Ormskirk and not on Skelmersdale. This has been ignored by the Boundary Commission.
I wonder whether this is a judicial process or whether we are deluding ourselves by imagining that some superhuman beings, however distinguished, can cloister themselves in London and then inspect different areas for the sake of appearances but otherwise amass a pile of maps and statistics about demographic figures of population and from that produce rational proposals. I deny that that is possible. There must be a community of interest. Not only must there be an aggregation of a certain group of approximately 75,000 people, which by some mysterious process has become the norm for the new areas; there must be a community of interests between the districts concerned.
Here are three rural districts—Parbold, Wrightington and Dalton—all bitterly objecting to the Boundary Commission's proposals and being completely ignored.
I have received support from other parts of Lancashire represented by the hon. Member for Ormskirk, from the Skelmersdale new town and from my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. McGuire), who is not present.
The Boundary Commission is stupidly and maladroitly lumping together a vast rural area of country villages, with Skelmersdale new town which already has a population of 40,000 souls. In the next few years it will achieve a population of 85,000. That is sufficient for it to form a unit on its own. The Skelmersdale new town, under any form of local government, will have sufficient growing pains to keep it busy for the next 10 or 15 years without having to take into consideration the needs of rural village life patterns, which are totally different from those of Skelmersdale, a rapidly developing new town.
I therefore plead with the Minister that if we are to retain faith in democracy, we must abolish the notion that however much the people living in the rural districts protest the machinery must have its way, we shall go through the motions and the people will receive what has been ordered for them.
This is a subject about which I raise my voice loudly tonight. I shall continue to protest. I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw his orders and to provide us with sensible solutions and not try to rush them through the House like so much legislation which is being rushed through in this way.
I have put forward at what is clearly the eleventh hour the simplest amendment and suggestions possible: that Morecambe borough should form a district on its own. I cannot see that any of the neighbouring authorities left in a district of 80,000 people could object to that suggestion.
My right hon. Friend referred to the guidelines to the commission. They laid down that the commission
should have particular regard to the wishes of the local inhabitants, the pattern of community life and the effective operation of local government services.
The unit which the commission is proposing for district No. 1 in Lancashire will lack the community of interest, both
social and economic, that is necessary if local democracy at district level is to function effectively and happily and attract the involvement of the electorate.
It is important when discussing these matters to try to secure a structure of local democracy that will work and enjoy respect and support. It is not that Morecambe and Lancaster are hostile to one another. There is little economic competition between them. This is because their economics are so different. It is this difference which makes the present proposals an impediment to local democracy and a potential danger to the jobs and prosperity of many of my Morecambe constituents.
It so happens that the economies and employment characteristics of Morecambe and Lancaster have recently been the subject of a most detailed and expert study. I refer to the study published earlier this year for the Water Resources Board by the Economic Study Group, running to several hundred pages. This shows that although Lancaster contains a univerisity and a major hospital complex, nevertheless its service employment is only marginally greater than that for Great Britain as a whole. There is no evidence of any employment in the tourist or holiday industry any greater than would be found in any other inland town of similar size in the country.
The picture for Morecambe and Heysham is totally different. The employment pattern in Morecambe is approximately three people employed in services to one in manufacturing industry. That is twice the average figure for Great Britain and three times the figure for the North-West region as a whole. The preliminary results of a research survey now being conducted show that 10,000 jobs in Morecambe—with a population of 40,000—depend on the holiday industry.
This brings me to the crux of my argument. Anyone familiar with holiday resorts here or abroad knows that they require special support from their local authority. Local authorities have to promote the name and reputation of the resort. They have to see that certain services are available on a scale far beyond what would be necessary just to provide for the resident population.
The scale on which these special services have to be provided in Morecambe and Heysham is shown in the study group report which revealed that at tile peak period there are 100,000 visitors in Morecambe—40,000 of them staying and being in number equal to the resident population—and 60,000 day visitors. They all require extra services and special provision. What concerns me is whether a district authority of which a holiday resort comprises only one-third will be prepared to devote the time and energy necessary to cater for these requirements, of which the other two-thirds has no equivalent, no experience, and from which it will derive no benefit. Will the ratepayers of the other two-thirds of the proposed No. 1 District be prepared to foot the bill? Is it right that they should be expected to do so? I am advised that the bill is of the order of £400,000 a year, or equivalent in Morecambe and Heysham to a poundage of 23p. If they are not prepared to go on footing the bill, what will happen over the years to many of those 10,000 jobs in Morecambe?
For Morecambe to become a minority element in a district with different characteristics could be damagingly decisive for its future prosperity. If the Bay barrage goes ahead the future of the holiday industry is assured. If it does not, and the matter is still in the balance, the Morecambe holiday industry will need the whole-hearted support of the district council of which it forms a part. If there were any doubt in the commission's mind—and it recognised the merits in Morecambe's submissions—the benefit of the doubt should have been given to Morecambe and two districts created. The effects on the other districts can at best be only marginal, whereas the effect of Morecambe could be extremely damaging and irreparable.
I have never heard so many charming apologies for short speeches as I have heard tonight. I wish, however, to join in the universal criticism against a system which gives us only an hour and a half to discuss this most important matter. It is damnable—and I use that word advisedly—that we should have only this brief period of time. It is an insult to hon. Members in this House and, indeed, is an insult to people outside. Many thousands of local authorities are watching what is happeing in the House tonight. They also will feel that it is almost impossible to attempt to discuss this matter within such a short time-span.
I am in an unusual position. I am a Northumberland man and in this debate I speak not for Hull but as a junior burgess of Scunthorpe. I know the feelings of the people of Scunthorpe and of the city council on whose behalf I have the honour to speak. Perhaps it will help if I quote a couple of sentences from a letter I have received from Mr. Alec Moore, who gave evidence to the Boundary Commission on behalf of the Scunthorpe Town Council.
The whole issue relates to whether the extension of the Anchor steel site, which is just over the eastern boundary of the borough of Scunthorpe, should be included in the new district No. 6 of Lincolnshire. Mr. Moore said in his letter:
When the members of the Boundary Commission came up here, I was asked to put the case for the Anchor site to be included in the borough boundary. … As you will be aware, the Commission has stated that it considered that 'there was a strong case for the inclusion of the whole site in a district with Scunthorpe' … The Commission further stated that they recognised that it was difficult to describe a suitable boundary. In heaven's name, why? Half an hour with the British Steel Corporation, at either local or national level, would have enabled them to draw an appropriate line.
The council gave the commission maps containing four separate lines. In the least generous of these to the town of Scunthorpe, which would have included all the extension of the Anchor steel site, there is only one small cottage which is now in district No. 7, formerly the old rural district council of Brigg. This is the absurdity of the commission's decision.
I have already told the Minister that this will include the whole of the new Anchor site development and also any additional works which are to come. We must bear in mind that the site for BSC purposes involves 2,500 acres. This will make no material impact on the viability of the neighbouring council—indeed, it will amount to a bonanza. The financial implications are well known.
The BSC scheme began in 1970 and is due for completion at the end of 1972. The scheme is to be "in Scunthorpe" rather than "near Scunthorpe"—in other words, not in North Lincolnshire but in Scunthorpe. Indeed, the whole of the development of the Anchor site and the entire negotiations between the BSC, and even before the days of the BSC, and the local people have been carried out completely within Scunthorpe and by the borough of Scunthorpe. The whole thing is completely self-contained. Therefore we are completely flabbergasted that this small area contiguous to the east side of the city has not been included. This has happened even after the spirited protest in which the borough council sent a delegation to London. I need not say that it is the most sophisticated steel plant in Europe. It is awe-inspiring and it is completly linked with the town.
I recognise that tonight there is no chance of making an amendment to the provisions of the order. It was puerile of the Minister to suggest that the order was not opposed because there were not thousands of amendments on the Order Paper. He knows that that is purely a debating point and one which is not worthy of him. Why, therefore, will not the Minister withdraw the proposal? Is it impossible for him to do what we in Scunthorpe and what people in many other towns want? Failing this I hope that the Boundary Commission will work live a beaver from New Year's morning until All Fools Day in 1974 so that if and when the time comes to make amendments we shall have something we can work with and work upon.
I shall be as brief as possible. I wish to draw the Minister's attention to Part 24 of the schedule dealing with the county of Leicestershire.
On the whole, the revised recommendation for the county resulted in an almost ideal pattern. After the consultations on the May recommendations we were left with a pattern which gave us the best possible form of democratic Government. We have an ideal pattern of the marriage of town and country by the inclusion of the Leicester County Borough. We have seven district councils varying from 75,000 plus down to 27,000, plus each of which is a complete unit in itself with a good rural, urban and suburban blend. This makes two districts of about 30,000 population, two districts of over 50,000 population, three districts of around 70,000, and the Leicester County Borough of 283,000, cohesive, well-established units, all of them good district units providing good democratic local government for the people concerned.
Then, quite incongruously, we have one unwieldy, incompatible district composed of the Borough of Loughborough, the urban district of Shepshed and the rural district of Barrow upon Soar. It is a district of 126,000, with an ill-assorted population, lacking all community of interest.
When the first recommendations were published for Leicestershire, giving Leicestershire a variety of large authorities, the local government of Barrow on Soar and of Loughborough decided to set up a working party to work out how they could best get together and prepare the way for the new authority. They tried to be as cooperative as possible in the light of the recommendations which were made. But these meetings, which were entered into seriously for the purpose of finding a common unity of interest, have revealed that there is a great and fundamental difference between the two authorities.
Our opposition to the proposals is not based on the emotion of not wanting change or on the fact that other districts in the county have got what they want. It is based upon an assessment of the hard facts that here in this area, the largest outside the county borough of Leicester but within the county is a wholly incompatible district. There is agreement among all parties in the district that this is not in the best interests of local government. The Loughborough borough wishes to stand alone together with the Shepshed urban district. The Leicestershire County Council backs the proposal. The Barrow upon Soar Rural District Council naturally wishes to remain as it is, one of the largest districts in the area by all the considerations of rateable value, acreage and population. All the political parties, the parish councillors and the residents all wish that the two districts should be divided so that there will be two compatible districts. It is not an emotional argument but one based upon hard facts. The Loughborough borough and Shepshed RDC should form one district of 54,000 population plus and the Barrow upon Soar RDC should form one district of 71,000 plus, thus making 10 districts for Leicestershire.
We are proposing that we should have in Leicestershire what would amount to just about the ideal pattern of local government. We would have four districts of around 70,000, three districts of about 50,000, two districts of about 30,000 and one large country borough of nearly 300,000. That would provide an ideal pattern for Leicestershire. Each district would be a cohesive unit which would reflect the interests of urban, suburban and country districts. Each unit would be viable and would give good democratic local government to the people concerned.
I want to be constructive and as quick as I possibly can. I will confine my arguments to the advantages of the Barrow upon Soar RDC being a district on its own. I know that if the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin) could have been here he would have put forward the constructive argument for the Loughborough and Shepshed districts being units on their own. If the Barrow upon Soar RDC is a district on its own, it will still be one of the largest in the county by any criterion. It is already a well-established local authority with full delegated powers. It is highly efficient and forward looking. It is a diverse area but it is a focal point in the area. If the area were broken up and added to Loughborough it would mean that instead of having two well defined areas, one in Loughborough and one in Barrow upon Soar, with their own offices and officers, we would have another office in another place which would break up the two units, with all the extra expense, extra officials, extra work and extra dislocation. It would mean an extra centre of government in an unwieldly and over-large area.
In the Barrow upon Soar area there is a population of over 71,000. It is a geographical unit with a community of interest. It looks to Leicester, as it has always done and will continue to do, because of the traditional interests along the Soar Valley and the A6. The road network makes the location the most convenient for communications throughout the district.
There are at present 32 parishes in the rural district which all have close links with the present authority. The greatest problem in an area of this kind is the retention of public/member contact.
At present the Barrow upon Soar RDC has 71 members. In the proposed amalgamation the 71 members would be reduced to 33. It is proposed that one new ward will have one member and will comprise five existing parishes which now return seven members. The new ward would cover 9,500 acres, which is far bigger than Loughborough at present, twice as big as Shepshed UDC and twice as big as District 7, Wigston and Oadby. If Barrow upon Soar is separated it could have a membership of 45 or 50, which would give it proper democratic representation.
District 2, as it now stands in the order, would be an overgrown, incompatible, bureaucratic nightmare smashing up two efficient authorities to produce one which could not adequately reflect the impossibly wide diversity in the area. District 2, if it were divided as we suggest, would truly reflect all the guiding principles laid down by the Minister for the creation of good local government. Barrow upon Soar as a district would continue to be one of the largest, best-established and most efficient in the county. It would meet all the guide lines laid down. If I had time I would quote the guide lines and show how in each case the order as it stands does not meet them, whereas if it were divided into the districts all the guide lines would be met.
The Minister has had all these arguments. He has been courteous enough to discuss them with me fully. I will not waste the time of the House by going through the order paragraph by paragraph. I had intended, given time, to show how with a divided district every-body within the district and all the authorities would be better placed. The districts should be as I suggest, so that in Leicestershire we have a compatible pattern, with districts reflecting the interests of the community, all of them able to have a good democratic representation throughout the county as a whole, all of them properly balanced in a proper pattern, with districts set at about 70,000, 50,000 and 30,000 and this one over-wieldy, over-large district in- stead of this distorted pattern of local representation.
The Minister knows this question well. I ask him to reconsider the matter. We in Leicestershire are proud of our pattern of local government. We are glad that the Boundary Commission listened to most of the views on the ground. The only views it did not listen to were those of Barrow upon Soar. When the Boundary Commission came to Leicestershire and listened to parish interests, it produced an ideal pattern of local government. In this one instance where the Boundary Commission would not listen to the views of the local people and to parish councils it has produced a pattern which is not only a complete nonsense but an abnegation of good local government.
Mr. Graham Pave:
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is evident from the number of right hon. and hon. Members who have risen to speak that when we reach one o'clock we shall not have finished the debate. It is within your power to extend the debate on another day. In view of the number of Members who have risen, would you be inclined to do that? Right hon. and hon. Members could better order their speeches and would not have to gabble them so much in an effort to make their points. We should have a better debate.
It would not be proper for me to make known how I shall exercise my discretion until it comes to one o'clock, but it would be right for me to indicate to the House now that I am entirely sympathetic to the Minister's point. It might therefore be in the interests of the House were I to extend that sympathy in the proper way when one o'clock comes.
We cannot, of course, debate the amendment on the Order Paper in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Mr. Hall-Davis), for the simple reason that it is, and always has been, out of order. However, I wish strongly to oppose what has been said by my hon. Friend to corn-mend to the House the Local Government Boundary Commission's recommendation for the district council which includes the constituency which I have the honour to represent.
May I say in passing, without wishing to be lynched by other Lancashire Members, that it is highly appropriate that the district containing the county town should be the No. 1 district of Lancashire.
The report recommends a balanced area of town, country and seaside, with an ideal population of 123,000, a rateable value of £5 million, and a penny rate yield of £48,000. It would be an area sufficiently large and rich to carry out efficiently the duties laid upon it. The local authorities which the Boundary Commission proposes to amalgamate are Lancaster city, Morecambe, Carnforth urban district, Lunesdale rural district and Lancaster rural district. Of these five authorities, four—Lancaster city, Carnforth, Lunesdale rural district and Lancaster rural district—are in favour of the commission's proposals, very strongly in favour, as the Minister heard when he was kind enough to speak to them at his office in London.
Only one authority, Morecambe, is against it. But the crucial point is that whereas the four authorities in favour of the Boundary Commission's proposals were unanimous within themselves, there was, no doubt disguised by my hon. Friend, a very bitter split on the Morecambe Council on its own proposals, the voting in favour being only 17–9. One Morecambe councillor described Morecambe's alternative for a coastal strip as
a Fantasia in the best Disneyland tradition
Is that the local respect and support to which my hon. Friend referred?
Another Morecambe councillor warmly welcomed the commission's proposals in these words:
I think this is the best possible thing. I think it will work very well in all ways—industry, tourism and everything else—and I feel that Morecambe will have a wonderful future in the five.
Not only was the Morecambe Council split on the merits of the proposed coastal strip but two of all Morecambe's largest organisations were similarly split. The Chamber of Trade, which presumably wants Morecambe to remain prosperous, voted no fewer than 15 to 2 against Morecambe's own proposals and
in favour of the Boundary Commission's proposals, which were also backed by the Hotels and Caterers Association, which one would think is interested in tourism, and by the Ratepayers Association. Even the former Town Clerk, Mr. Roger Rose, stated publicly that he believes that the amalgamation of the five authorities is in the best interests of Morecambe. My hon. Friends seems to be getting into a more minute minority as time goes by.
Moreover, Morecambe's proposal for a coastal strip has twice been considered and twice rejected by the Boundary Commission. It envisages seizing the wealthiest part of Lancaster RDC, and taking six-sevenths of its rateable value but only one-third of its acreage. The Lancaster RDC is unanimously and bitterly opposed to Morecambe's proposals, as is Carnforth, which would be similarly taken over.
My hon. Friend has made great play of the position of Morecambe as a seaside resort and the alleged danger of its being associated with an industrial town. If that danger exists, I fail to see why Morecambe Chamber of Trade and the Hotels and Caterers Association should support the Boundary Commission's suggested for amalgamation with Lancaster. Many seaside resorts have found great benefit from marrying their seaside activities with an industrial town. Yarmouth is one example. Another is Southsea, which does not appear to have suffered as a seaside resort from becoming part of Portsmouth.
Even more important, Lancaster has just been offered a category "A" tourist centre, and will be in a position to do a great deal for the tourist industry of Morecambe. Indeed, Morecambe's position will be strengthened by becoming part of the larger area of District No. 1. Its present vulnerable situation is shown by the recent Census figures, which show that Morecambe and Heysham had only 17 per cent. of its population under 15 years of age, compared with the average of 25 per cent. in the county as a whole. At the other end of the scale, the Morecambe and Heysham male population aged 65 and over was 21 per cent., compared with 9·9 per cent. in the rest of the county. The female population aged 60 years and over was 39 per cent., compared with 22·1 per cent. in the rest of the county.
Moreover, the Morecambe proposal ignores the fact that the area embraced in District No. 1 is already a close-knit area, with many services already being operated on a joint basis, and that the pattern of travel throughout the area for work is clearly established. The last survey on places of work and places of residence shows that 3,600 people living in Morecambe work in Lancaster, and the traffic is also the other way.
All in all, the overwhelming balance of advantage for all concerned is on the side of the Boundary Commission's proposals, and I beg the House to accept them as they stand.
I intervene only to draw attention to the impossible position in which the House, no doubt inadvertently, has placed itself, and to support the representations which the Minister made to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although I appreciate that the matter is entirely within your province. Many times during the passage of the Local Government Act we spoke of the weight of legislation contained in that one measure. Tonight, the House is attempting in this order to define the boundaries of every local authority in England in the space of one-and-a-half hours.
We are in grave danger of local government democracy being brought into contempt by our procedures. Every local authority that wishes to make known its objections to the proposals contained in the statutory instrument has an absolute right to do so. Even more important is the right of the local authorities to have a reasoned reply to their objections from the Government. I have a great deal of sympathy for the Minister in his task on another day if the suggested course of action is followed. Not only is there a danger of local government democracy being brought into contempt, but our parliamentary democracy will be brought into contempt by a failure to provide opportunities for objections to be heard.
I have been sitting here, disinterestedly on this occasion, listening to the contributions. Hon. Members have all been expressing the real concern of a large number of their constituents and hardly a minute has been wasted. Even if the statutory instrument is debated for one-and-a-half hours on another day, I do not see how all the objections can be made and, even more important, how the Minister can possibly reply adequately to them in the time available to him. It is important that he should be able to do so and, therefore, although the situation is unprecedented, I support the Minister's application.
I regret that this debate has come on at this late hour, and I further regret that in discussing three orders tonight we seem to have taken the most controversial one last.
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Housing is handling the debate. When he was a back bencher he was the champion of the small local authorities, and I am sure that if we push our point sufficiently he will see the fallacy of the Government accepting the Boundary Commission recommendations in total without any amendment.
My right hon. Friend said that 84 per cent. of all the districts were quite happy. This may be so, but as a Conservative I worry about the 16 per cent. who are not happy. It is no argument to say that because 84 per cent. are happy we can steamroller the order through and forget the 16 per cent.
I have a local interest. Together with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Carshalton (Captain W. Elliot), who unfortunately cannot be here because he is at the United Nations on parliamentary business, I tabled an amendment trying to exclude Banstead from the proposed marriage with Reigate.
My right hon. Friend will recollect that Banstead has put up a very strong case. At this hour, I shall not rehearse the various arguments. But neither the Boundary Commission nor the Department of the Environment has ever suggested that there is any inefficiency in Banstead. It is an extremely well run local authority.
The guidelines speak of a population of 40,000 upwards. Banstead has a population of 45,000. It is proposed that there shall be a marriage between Banstead and Reigate. However, my right hon. Friend has made a decision about Horley. This is one alteration to the proposals of the Boundary Commission which has been accepted. Horley, with its population of 19,000, will no doubt join with Reigate. This one decision has put in jeopardy the district that my right hon. Friend has in the order. I hope that my right hon. Friend will bear in mind the arithmetic in his guidelines. When Horley is extended and joins with Reigate, the Reigate—Horley—Banstead district will have a population of more than 140,000, which is way outside the guidelines.
One of the matters worrying Banstead is that, with that sort of area and with an escarpment between Banstead and the rest of the district, Banstead will be the back garden of the new district. It adjoins London, and I do not think that my right hon. Friend has really explained away the remarks of my noble Friend the Lord Sandford when their Lordships were discussing the order. The inference from Lord Sandford's comments was that he wanted strong local authorities around London. Is the reason for that the fear that the GLC may again extend its tentacles and claw in a weak authority? That must be the inference, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will explain a little more clearly what the noble Lord meant.
The noble Lord also drew attention to the guideline which refers to the need for powerful units of local government around London. That was not contained in Circular 58/71 which was sent to all local authorities. Therefore, the Boundary Commission must have decided this arbitrarily, and I can assure my right hon. Friend that there was no discussion on this change in the guidelines with Banstead, Reigate, Esher and the rest of them. This is a point which must be hammered home in this argument about local authorities. There has been a lack of consultation. In the case of Banstead, no one from the Boundary Commission even visited the area. I suggest that that is bureaucratic arrogance. To have someone sitting in an office and not looking at the geographical situation or the topography of an area but merely taking a piece of paper, a compass and a pencil and joining areas together is not what we in the Conserva- tive Party think local government is about. It is people sitting in ivory towers, not knowing the area, and amalgamating areas merely to be tidy on paper.
If Lord Sandford was worried that the GLC would take over any weak district on the border of London, this put the Boundary Commission in difficulty, because it accepted this guideline. If the GLC ever wanted to extend its area and it was put to the Boundary Commission, I suggest that the Boundary Commission would have prejudiced its future integrity in this matter.
I will not rehearse all the arguments why Banstead should not join Reigate and vice versa. However, I should point out that the police force for Banstead comes under the Metropolitan Police whereas Reigate comes under the Surrey police force, and the water authorities and the drainage authorities are different. What a nonsense, when we are trying to get administrative streamlining, that we should have to deal with two police forces, two water authorities and two drainage authorities. That in itself should prompt my right hon. Friend at least to have another look at the matter. If local government is to be local, it is essential that we amalgamate areas that have localties.
During the commission's deliberations Banstead was given two months in which to test public opinion. How can one within two months test public opinion? However, Banstead was extremely keen and within four weeks collected 12,000 signatures. It is estimated that had there been more time 22,000 signatures would have been collected. That is not a bad percentage when we consider that the electorate there is 32,000. It is, in fact, a 66 per cent. poll.
Banstead has no argument with Reigate. I am sure that my right hon. Friend has noted that my noble Friend Lord Brooke, with all his experience of local government as Minister for Housing and Local Government, as it was, in another place said that Banstead has a case. I think that the Government, under this order, are condemning an efficient local authority to a shot-gun wedding between a reluctant bride and and even more reluctant bridegroom. I urge my right hon. Friend to think again on the matter. It is ludicrous that this House, despite the shortness of time, should have to accept in totality all the recommendations of the Boundary Commission and not take notice of the representations of the local authorities or of the Members of Parliament who represent them.
We must give more comfort to local authorities throughout the country by proving to them that their representations are not just taken as representations and filed away but are taken notice of.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will exclude Banstead and these other areas which, for different reasons, should not he in the new authorities.
It is extremely difficult in the short time available to get in all I need to say on behalf of three local authorities—Esher, Walton and Weybridge, and Sunbury, which is a local district within the area of my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Humphrey Atkins) which is involved in this same matter.
Briefly, these are three independent local authorities which now stand on their own. The proposals of the Boundary Commission are that Esher and Walton and Weybridge should amalgamate, which they do not want to do—Esher wants to remain independent—and that Sunbury-on-Thames should amalgamate with Staines, which Sunbury does not want to do. Instead, a perfectly viable alternative has been proposed whereby Walton and Weybridge will amalgamate with Sunbury, and Esher will stand on its own.
Esher is an extremely viable local district on its own. It has sufficient population—64,000 rising to 71,000 in nine years—one of the largest rateable values in the country for a district authority of £4·4 million, and an adequate size of 23 square miles.
I am not criticising the reasons why this recommendation was made. What I am criticising is the way in which it was done. It seems to me that the way in which districts were reorganised was without precedent. On the last occasion, under the Local Government Act 1929, the counties were empowered to review their districts and there was provision for a public local inquiry. On this occasion there was no such provision. There was no provision for any hearing at all before the Boundary Commission if, as in this case, it was unwilling to meet these local councils.
Secondly, the English counties and the metropolitan districts have had their changes made under an Act of Parliament, with all the procedures that are open under it, and the Welsh counties and districts have been dealt with under the same procedure. That has not been done with the English non-metropolitan districts. The whole thing has been done by subordinate legislation, and we have seen tonight the situation into which that has brought us.
Esher Council made its representations and put forward a strong case to the commission on 16th June. At the same time it asked for a meeting with the commission. That request was ignored. In fact, the letter was not even replied to. All that the council received was an acknowledgement card from the commission and I submit that, at the least, this is an extraordinary way in which to treat an authority of this kind. It has caused great aggravation to the Esher Council, which cannot understand why it was treated in this way.
A further request for a meeting, this time to the Secretary of State, was also refused. In all fairness I must tell the House that rather late in the day—about three weeks ago—I was able to meet my right hon. Friend privately with representatives from these councils, but there was no hearing at all by the commission itself.
I think that what has happened ill accords with the guideline statement that the fullest practical consultation should take place. There were no consultations, and I do not believe that this is in the spirit of the White Paper.
On the question of the missing guideline about which we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. William Clark), perhaps I may remind the House of what my noble Friend Lord Sandford said in the other place:
but this was one of the guidelines—and I submit it was a correct guideline—that around a great metropolitan area like London there should be powerful units of local government at the district level. If you accept that guideline, then it was right for the Boundary Commisson to stand firm over a number of places such as Esher, Banstead and others we have heard of."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 12th December 1972; Vol. 337, c. 545.]
No such guideline was published. It is not in any of the documents concerned. It is not in the Department's Circular 58/71. It is not in the letter of 25th April. I submit that it is no explanation for my right hon. Friend to say that the noble Lord was reading more into his words than he intended. Was this guideline issued to the Boundary Commission, or was it not? I hope that my right hon. Friend will give a clear answer to that.
I have already denied that there was any such guideline. What I said was not that my noble Friend had read something into the words that he used, but that a newspaper had read into his words something that he did not intend.
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's reply, but I read out exactly what was said, that this was a guideline. I am glad to know that it is important for authorities around London to stand firm; this will prove a useful hostage to fortune in future.
Therefore, in the final report of the Boundary Commission no reference at all was made to the public response in the Esher area, although other areas in which there had been public response were mentioned. But the Esher councils sent letters from 16 residents' associations and from seven out of the nine wards in the district, with a population of 64,000. This is a substantial public response, which should have been noted in the report.
I believe that the three local councils are justified in feeling aggrieved. Lord Brooke, who, my hon. Friend said, has great experience in these matters, said in the other place that, whatever the grounds for these recommendations, they "entirely flouted" the wishes of the existing local authorities. Coming from a man like that, that is something which my hon. Friend should note.
We have been put in an impossible position tonight. We can do nothing about the order except throw it out in toto, and wreck the whole of the reorganisation of local government. It is absolutely impossible to amend, or suggest any changes to, the recommendations.
We should not be put in this position. My right hon. Friend has been put in a difficult position, too, but surely he must agree that an injustice has been done, not only in my case but in the case of many other hon. Members, and that the method of procedure has left a great deal to be desired. I hope that, whatever conclusions he reaches and whatever action he decides to take, this will at least be an object lesson for the future.
A great number of people in my constituency have reason to be grateful to the Minister for the decision he took to bear in mind the wishes of the people of Horley parish and to give a chance to the people of Charlwood parish to decide whether or not to remain in Surrey. The people of Horley have decided to remain in Surrey, and the Minister has pledged to put them back into Surrey, in spite of the fact that the order would seem to transfer them to West Sussex.
Charlwood still has to make up its mind, once the Minister has made up his mind about the boundaries of the airport. We are grateful for that decision, but the people are placed in a really hopeless dilemma. They are now facing the prospect of having to elect to councils in West Sussex—that is, District No. 1 in Part 36 of the Schedule—people who in a short time will have no part in, and do not wish to be associated by any means with, the county of West Sussex. In the meantime, they will be excluded from elections to the district authorities to which they will ultimately belong. This is a very difficult period for the people in this area, and I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister, who has agreed to find procedures by which—
It being one and half hours after the commencement of Proceedings on the Motion, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER, being of opinion that because of the importance of the subject matter of the Motion the time for debate had not been adequate, interrupted the business, pursuant to Standing Order No. 3 (Exempted business).
I have now exercised the discretion given to the Chair by Standing Order No. 3, to which I have already referred. The debate will stand adjourned until the next sitting.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We should all like to thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for taking that decision, which is within your discretion, but would it be possible for the Leader of the House to say at what hour and on what day the debate will be resumed? There has been considerable criticism tonight, with which I wholly concur, that to debate such an important matter so late at night and so near the end of the Session is not relevant. To do so, perhaps, tomorrow night would surely only make matters worse.
Further to that point of order, which appears not to have been a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have listened to what has been said. I should have thought that it would be for the convenience of the House if we took this as the first order after 10 p.m. tomorrow. We obviously cannot take it before then because of the Coal Industry Bill, but it should come on straight away at 10 p.m. For the convenience of the House, I think that that is as much as we can arrange at this stage.
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is aware that this presents certain administrative inconvenience? Those hon. Members who have spoken will feel that they would wish to be present for the wind-up speech as a matter of courtesy and, indeed, in order to elicit information. That means that every hon. Member who has spoken and every hon. Member who still wishes to speak must at 24 hours' notice take a decision which has been forced on him because of the fact that the Government saw fit to introduce at a late hour, in one and a half hours, matters affecting vitally important boundary decisions, and then, because they have messed it up, they expect everyone to return at 24 hours' notice.
We had hoped, and had reasonably expected, that the debate would begin at an early hour. I apologise to the House for the fact that it did not. In the circumstances, all that we can do is to resume at 10 p.m. tomorrow. I hope that that will not cause undue inconvenience to those hon. Members who will have to stay tomorrow night in order to listen to my right hon. Friend's reply, but in the circumstances I cannot suggest any other course.