Local Government

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28th April 1976.

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Photo of Mr Dafydd Elis Thomas Mr Dafydd Elis Thomas , Merioneth 12:00 am, 28th April 1976

I agree almost entirely with the hon. Lady particularly, on cross-finance between central Government Departments and local government departments. We have the right to expect central Government, as a result of such things as the CPRS paper on the joint approach to social policy, to take a lead to inspire local government into cross-financing between services.

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady's comments about empty properties in London. I have a strong interest in empty or partially empty properties. Twenty per cent. of the housing stock in one council area in my constituency is empty for most of the year. These are second homes. I have advocated the utilisation of these for the winter period by young couples.

It is quite miserable to have many cases in constituency surgeries of young people who have been forced out of these properties for the summer period because of the lack of adequate housing stock. If we had better control over second home development, and either a voluntary or a compulsory scheme for utilising this stock outside the summer period, we could alleviate much of the housing crisis in rural areas.

As to the amendment, I am in a similar position to the spokesman of the Liberal Party, in that I shall support it tonight in the hope that the Government takes its words seriously. The first part of the amendment refers to the relationship between the Government and local authorities. I am bound to look at this in the context of the Government's proposals to devolve power from the House to Edinburgh and Cardiff. There is a growing consensus within the Labour Party in Wales—I am sure that the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will bear me out on this—as well as within the Liberal Party that there ought to be a total reappraisal by the Welsh Assembly of the local government structure.

In a recent Welsh Grand Committee debate on devolution, we pressed the Secretary of State for Wales to make a statement on this very issue and to indicate that he considered it would be appropriate for the Welsh Assembly, as one of its priorities, to take a new look at the structure of local government. We hope that an examination will be made not only of the two-tier system, which has been much criticised in the debate, but also of the structure of the other arms of central Government, the location of offices such as DHSS and the Department of Employment, and the functions now being carried out by nominated bodies and agencies within Wales. We could then devise for the first time ever, a local government system which is answerable and sensitive to the needs of the people. When that has been done, it is the district council that will be the fundamental unit, developing, on the basis of the existing councils, most-purpose authorities.

In the interim, there ought to be more effective links between county and district levels, with far more use made of the joint committees. This is particularly urgent in sparsely populated rural areas, where the travelling time to Caernarvon, Llandrindod Wells, or wherever the centre of county government happens to be, makes the place even more remote from the people it is intended to serve.

But not only must we seek an opportunity, in the context of devolution, to restructure local government in Wales. We must also seek an opportunity to make that system more efficient. We have already heard a tremendous amount from the Conservative Opposition about efficiency in local government, yet there has been an increase of 14,000 in the numbers employed by local government in Wales as a result of the 1972 reorganisation.

I find the anti-bureaucracy posture of the Conservative Opposition in the debate rather odd, because they arc the people who have created bureaucracy not only in local government but in the National Health Service, as well as in the water and sewerage services—particularly in that great monstrosity called the Welsh National Water Development Authority. It is urgent, in my view, for reasons of bureaucracy and efficiency as well as for reasons of answerability, that both local government and the all-Wales bodies, such as the water authority, should be restructured.

The return of the water services and the sewerage services to the local government sector is an urgent reform. I am very much opposed to the recent antics of the Welsh Water Authority in starting up a system of direct billing. This means that the rebate system, which functions as part of the charge in the rating system, will not be able to function as part of direct billing. I hope that the Secretary of State for Wales, if he reads my comments, will take this up with the water authority.

But the major crisis facing local government in Wales, as in England, is financial. The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall)—I agree entirely with most of what he said—inquired whether the Welsh Office was a spending Department. I am sure that the Under-Secretary will confirm that it is a spending Department. It is, in fact, a reducing spending Department, and it is with the reduction in capital spending by Welsh local authorities that I am concerned tonight.

There is to be a scheduled drop by a staggering figure of£25 million in real terms in 1976–77 as compared with 1975–76, and for the following three years, as we see from the White Paper on Public Expenditure, a further reduction of£26 million. This will mean not only the abandonment of capital projects, but undoubtedly we must also be concerned about redundancies that will occur in the direct labour units of district councils. Indeed, the terms of the Conservative motion will no doubt be carried out by the cuts of the Government.

These cuts are particularly severe in the Welsh context when we take into account the identifiable per capita expenditure in Wales. In important sectors it is already below the United Kingdom average. Spokesmen for the Government in Wales are always telling us how much higher public expenditure in Wales is, and what a marvellous benefit it is, therefore, for us to be part of a centralised United Kingdom system.