Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:28 am on 1st July 1983.

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Photo of Mr Reginald Freeson Mr Reginald Freeson , Brent East 11:28 am, 1st July 1983

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), and to congratulate him on the manner in which he made his remarks. I agreed with much of the content of his speech. I even found enjoyable the quotes from his election manifesto, which he made towards the end of his speech. Whether I would phrase my remarks in the same way is another matter.

I have some knowledge of what he said about London, Heathrow and the south circular road. It occurs to me that the problems mentioned by the hon. Gentleman pinpoint the need for a more effective strategic approach to the difficulties of London and the south-east. It is doubtful whether these problems are better dealt with by a quick decision, without proper study or research, to destroy a large part of London government because of a commitment in an election manifesto.

A great deal needs to be done about London and the south-east. The Government are offering not a solution, but some kind of political reflection that has no basis in consideration. I find that ironic, to say the least, although it is now 20 years since a Conservative Government, following three years of study by the Herbert commission, introduced legislation to create the GLC, against constant opposition by the Labour party with which I did not agree either privately or publicly.

Now a Conservative Government containing a number of Members who were in the House at that time propose to abolish the GLC without any real study or research into the implications of what they propose. We in the Labour party stand united in opposition to its abolition and in defence of its retention. It is the irony of history—the turning of the wheel. I am among those on this side who have been consistent; I supported the concept of the GLC then and I support it today. The Conservatives supported it then but are opposed to it today. The Labour party was opposed to it then but now supports it.

I wish to make it clear that when the London Government Act 1963 was going through Parliament—I was not then a Member; I was active in my local authority, which was then a Middlesex borough just outside the inner London area—I took the view, as I still do, that radical major changes were required at national and local level in the way that we ran our affairs in London.

We need more radical effort and public enterprise—I use the term broadly—in London. There is urgent need for major internal reorganisation in Government Departments, in County hall and among some of the London boroughs to tackle the more pressing problems—social, economic and environmental—from which we suffer, particularly in the inner London area. For the past 20 years there has been inadequate effort in those respects under successive Governments.

The case for establishing the GLC was set out fully and clearly in the report of the Herbert commission. I wonder how many Conservatives have looked at that report and read the debates that took place in Parliament in the 1960s before committing themselves to the abolition of the GLC. For example, that report clearly pointed to the need for more effective organisation at all levels to tackle the problems of planning, development, traffic management, highways, transport, intelligence services and the application of intelligence and research.

At that time a careful study was made of transferring those functions to central Government; of establishing consultative machinery to deal with all issues affecting London; and of having joint and ad hoc boards to deal with different functions. The commission rejected them all and argued the case accordingly. It did not simply say, "We reject them all." It set out the case fully, unlike the Conservatives today who simply propose abolition. In the event, having examined all the possibilities, the commission decided on the creation of an elected Greater London council.

One can argue at length, and with justification, that local government in London should be more effective. Equally, one can argue that under successive Administrations, city problems have not been dealt with effectively enough by Government Departments. But that is not an argument for the abolition for the GLC. One might argue—it was mentioned in the Herbert report all those years ago and it has been discussed since—that we should extend the boundaries to the GLC to make it a more regional authority. Indeed, by their transport proposals, the Government are implying that. There is logic for that argument in respect of planning matters, intelligence, the problems of London airport and the problems raised by the M25.

Such arguments are worth pursuing now, as they were then. The fact that we did something 20 years ago does not mean that it must go on for ever. Nor is that an argument for abolishing the GLC. Instead, we should examine the way in which it has been operating, the way in which central Governmnt have been operating in relation to it and what those relationships should be in future to tackle the essential problems of London.

The GLC—or an enlarged authority, if that time ever comes, and there is a good case for it—should be more effective on matters such as land assembly and development. The GLC should integrate its departments more closely to tackle the problems of urban renewal. The Government should also be taking that type of action. That is an argument for improving, not abolishing, the operations of the GLC.