Local Government Reorganisation

Oral Answers to Questions — Environment – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th March 1977.

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Photo of Mr Bruce Grocott Mr Bruce Grocott , Lichfield and Tamworth 12:00 am, 16th March 1977

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the extent to which the 1972 reorganisation of local government has achieved its objectives up to the present.

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

I cannot answer for the objectives of the Tory reorganisation, but the present structure of local government is widely criticised. We must seek ways of improving it.

Photo of Mr Bruce Grocott Mr Bruce Grocott , Lichfield and Tamworth

I welcome my right hon. Friend's reply, but does he agree that even at this stage we can try to rescue something from the shambles of the 1972 reorganisation by establishing a proper inquiry into the reorganisation to determine, first, how much the reorganisation has cost so far; secondly, what were the major mistakes that were made; and, thirdly, who was responsible for them? Does he agree that it is almost impossible these days to discover anyone who is prepared to defend the reorganisation? Does he accept that those who were responsible—

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. It is not fair to the rest of the House when a supplementary question goes on so long.

Hon. Members:

Sit down.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

I was not asking the hon. Gentleman to sit down. I was asking him to come to a conclusion.

Photo of Mr Bruce Grocott Mr Bruce Grocott , Lichfield and Tamworth

My conclusion, Mr. Speaker, is to ask my right hon. Friend whether he agrees that those responsible for the reorganisation have a great deal to answer for to the ratepayers.

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

I think that the length of my hon. Friend's supplementary question merely reflects a widespread feeling about the unsatisfactory state of affairs following the 1972 Act. I do not think we need any post-mortem to determine who was responsible. We shall study carefully the performance of local government since reorganisation and try to draw the proper conclusions from that.

To turn to the two main points made by my hon. Friend, I am considering whether we can, as he put it, rescue something from what has been done. As my hon. Friend knows, in the context of the broader consideration of devolution we issued a Green Paper, a consultation paper, and we shall be receiving views on it during the next few weeks and months.

Photo of Mr Stephen Ross Mr Stephen Ross , Isle of Wight

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman not to have too much regard for further commissions and inquiries? Will he allow local authorities which wish to reorganise themselves to get on with the job and put their proposals to him, and will he receive them favourably? My own constituency would dearly love to be an all-purpose authority. If we put the proposals to the Minister, will he consider them gratuitously and let us get on with the job?

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

I do not want to overexcite expectations. I made a number of comments in a speech at Harrogate about a month ago, and they reflect the general drift of my thinking and the lines on which we are at present examining the problem.

Photo of Mr David Madel Mr David Madel , Bedfordshire South

As some of the criticism of reorganisation is from those who believe that some of the units created were too large, may we take it from the right hon. Gentleman that in no circumstances will he have English regional government, which would create even larger units?

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

I see, in terms of most services, why the hon. Gentleman would express that view. I share it. I should not wish to see many of the personal services and other services that are handled by local government going to larger and more remote local government units. However, there are certain powers of government and local government, and certain agencies such as those concerned with health and water, that have no democratic control. It may well be that they would be appropriate to a form of regional government.

Photo of Mr Gerald Fowler Mr Gerald Fowler , The Wrekin

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that valour is sometimes preferable to discretion and that there are many who believe that a single tier of local government, a regional tier that is democratic, controlling functions already exercised undemocratically at regional level, might be the best form of local government we can obtain, whatever the long-term implications within the EEC?

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

I believe that I have already conceded that point. If I did not make it clear in a previous reply, I confirm that this is an area in which the possibility of change in the direction of a new pattern of local government may be sensibly explored.

Photo of Mr Michael Heseltine Mr Michael Heseltine Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that, of all the Ministers in this Government, he is the least likely to over-excite expectations? Does he understand that the single greit,2st cause for complaint about the rising cost of local government has been the fact that prices have increased by 69·5 per cent. since 1974 when his Government were elected? The other increasing burden on local authorities is that the House continually imposes additional financial responsibilities on local authorities without producing the financial resources to carry them out.

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

I think that the House will judge that as a pretty tame intervention and excuse by a spokesman of a party that is responsible for the present unsatisfactory form of local government. I remind the hon. Gentleman of what his predecessor as spokesman, the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison), had to say when speaking on local government matters. Only a fortnight ago the hon. Gentleman said: It must be admitted that the 1970–74 Tory Government did not get either local government or health reorganisation right. Certainly, during the time I was Shadow spokesman on the Environment I found it increasingly difficult to defend local government reorganisation.