HC Deb 21 December 1972 vol 848 cc1705-33

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [20th December]: That the English Non-metropolitan Districts (Definition) Order 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 22nd November be approved.—[Mr. Graham Page.]

Question again proposed.

10.1 p.m.

Sir George Sinclair (Dorking)

There are many activities which one would not seek to have interrupted, but to have some important points to make on behalf of one's constituents, with only two minutes in which to make them, and then to be allowed to start the next one and a half hours of debate on the next evening is a most agreeable and welcome experience. I am grateful to those who so arranged it.

I was among the few who were able to say to my right hon. Friend how grateful to him many of my constituents were for taking into account their wishes on the county in which they would wish to stay. He agreed in Committee that they should express their wishes. However, they had no time to express them before the Bill passed through. But when they did, the first of the parishes expressed themselves in an unequivocal way. And the Minister has said, and he gave a pledge, that they would be allowed to stay in Surrey. All those who were greatly concerned about the proposed change of environment are now rejoicing that the Minister has honoured the pledge or given the promise to honour the pledge which he and his colleagues gave in Committee.

I know that this pledge has produced some procedural difficulties. However, hope that, when winding up, the Minister will say that he will make all speed with the arrangements by which those who have been in Surrey for time immemorial will be allowed to regain the sanotuary of our county after the shortest possible interval. It is, of course, ridiculous that many thousands of my constituents should take part in elections which will put them into West Sussex—a county with which they have nothing in common and with which they wish to have no association—knowing that after a short time, thanks to the Minister's decision, they will be back with those whom they know.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)

I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring, as he was when the House adjourned, to the promise which he alleges was made in regard to what is to be Area 8 in Surrey. The point which the hon. Gentleman is making is of great interest to many other hon. Members. But is the hon. Gentleman aware that the proposition that the Minister can subsequently amend any part of this statutory instrument is something which is novel to me? I doubt whether the Minister has that power. If there is such power, there will be quite a few hon. Members who would like to see it exercised.

Sir G. Sinclair

The right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) as usual has a point and he grasps it with a determination for which Devonians, or those based on Devon—I speak as a Cornishman—are famous.

We are grateful to my right hon. Friend for his speech. There is one parish in my constituency—Charlwood—which has yet to make up its mind. It has been told that until the question has been properly posed on the boundaries of Gatwick airport—which has unfortunately been sacrificed to a county which knows nothing about the management of airports—it will not be forced to make its decision. All the indications are that this parish will decide to remain with the kindly mother county which has nurtured it.

My right hon. Friend's decision has certain consequences. According to Part 36 of the Schedule, under District 8, two of the parishes which are to remain in Surrey, although they are to undertake a short visit to West Sussex—however disagreeable that may be for them—are going to have to be reabsorbed into one of two districts in Surrey. It is important that the Boundary Commission should have an open mind on this question. It is not clear that these two parishes would wish to come into Surrey District 8. They might well prefer to go into District 9, which is Reigate, their geographical neighbour.

I am glad to see that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Carshalton (Captain W. Elliot) has just flown back from the United Nations. "Ladybird, ladybird"—I mean no personal reference—"fly away home, your house is on fire…". He is defending Ban-stead, and Banstead is a very considerable local authority area, extremely welt run by any standard we know. If the two parishes of Horley and Charlwood, which I believe are coming home like roosting pigeons to Surrey, tell the Boundary Commission that they want to go to the new District 9 of Reigate, this district would, I suggest, be far too big if it also absorbed Banstead. What I have said, will, I hope, reinforce the case for Banstead remaining a district of its own.

I ask my right hon. Friend, who, I know, does not issue directives to them, to consult the Boundary Commissioners and ask them to take into consideration the new situation which will arise when the two parishes of Holley and Charlwood come home to Surrey. I ask, first, that the Commission should keep an open mind on their final disposal as between District 8 and District 9 and undertakes the maximum local consultation and, second, that it reconsiders the possibility of Banstead remaining an entity on its own.

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Roger White (Gravesend)

I congratulate the Government on allowing us this time tonight—

Mr. Thorpe

Why congratulate them?

Mr. White

It will be the only thing on which I shall congratulate them, so the right hon. Gentleman need have no fear. I express my regret at what my right hon. Friend had to say in the short debate we had on 6th December last, on the Consolidated Fund Bill, when he spoke of my jumping the gun somewhat in raising the question of Districts 2 and 3 following Report No. 1 of the Local Government Boundary Commission.

My right hon. Friend was unable to give any concessions on that occasion. However, both he, on 6th December, and my noble Friend in the other place, on 12th December, were at pains to emphasise both the impartiality and the integrity of the Boundary Commission and of the local meetings held under the chairmanship of Sir Edmund Compton. I do not imagine that any hon. Member would doubt the integrity or impartiality of either of those bodies, but what is in doubt, in my view, is the wisdom of some of their findings.

In his reply to me on 6th December, my right hon. Friend quoted from the proposals of the Kent County Council and the support which the county had given to the Boundary Commission's Report. In fact, Kent County Council's proposals were almost identical to what was presented in the draft proposals, so it was not surprising that they should be quoted and favourably commented on by the county council when it came to look at Report No. 1.

On 6th December—this is col. 1541 of HANSARD—my right hon. Friend said that Strood rural district had been part of the city of Rochester since mediaeval times. That is plainly true, but it in no way obscures the fact that there have been changes since mediaeval times. One might almost say that the changes have been legion.

Further, my right hon. Friend said that Strood Rural District Council was the moving force in pressing for a separate district for Strood."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th December 1972; Vol. 847, c. 1540.] That is equally true, but it does not invalidate the referendum held by the Strood rural district authority in which 60 per cent. of the population voted and in which 97 per cent. of those voting voted in favour of the Strood Rural District Council's proposals. There was also a very sensible opinion poll taken in the Strood urban area, which confirmed the feeling of the people locally that they wished to take their place alongside the rural district area.

All the way through the guidelines, the point has been made by the Government and by others that consideration should be given to local feeling, and here we have a referendum and an opinion poll which underline that local feeling. But it was dismissed in the Boundary Commission's Report No. 1, paragraph 18, on page 147, and it was not mentioned at all in paragraph 21, which included a summing up of the local meeting on 5th September last in Rochester under the chairmanship of Sir Edmund Compton Nor was it referred to by my right hon. Friend in his reply to me on 6th December.

I want my right hon. Friend now to consider the suggestion that the Government should look at the possibility of transferring the five parishes, Cobham, Higham, Luddesdown, Meopham and Shorne from District No. 2 to District No. 3. At least, this would preserve the present Strood rural district as it is now, albeit, perhaps, joined to Rochester. Such a concession would no doubt ease the ill-feeling and indignation that the Government have unfortunately brought upon their shoulders and show that they are not as inflexible as they would seem to be.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Peter Trew (Dartford)

The points that I want to mention briefly are procedural and arise from the fact that the Boundary Commission in its final recommendations affecting my constituency has departed from its draft proposals of April this year.

The original proposals provided that the whole of the Dartford rural district should be included in Kent District No. 1 based on Dartford, but the final recommendations provide that while the northern and predominantly urban part of the rural district should remain in District No. 1, the southern and predominantly rural part should go into District No. 9 based on Sevenoaks.

This change in recommendations has resulted in two problems which are reflected in the two amendments standing in my name on the Order Paper which you, Mr. Speaker, in your wisdom have decided not to call. Had the original proposal been the same as the final recommendation, the parishes concerned could have made representations to the Boundary Commission on the problems arising; but, in view of the way that the order is being handled, they will have no such opportunity.

There have been a number of criticisms in the debate about the way in which this matter has been handled. I suggest that it might have been better to have separated all the districts in which there were no changes from the original proposals and to having put them into one order and to have put into another order all those districts where the final recommendations differed from the initial proposals so that fresh problems arising could have been considered at greater leisure.

The first of the two problems which I have mentioned concerns the parish of Sutton-at-Hone which, in the Commission's final recommendation, finds itself included in District No. 1 based on Dartford and separated from nine other parishes which have gone into District No. 9 based on Sevenoaks. The parish council of Sutton-at-Hone believes that it would be better for it to be included in the more rural District No. 9 than in the predominantly urban District No. 1. I do not wish to go into whether it is right or wrong in that belief. However, the fact that the parish council would like to be in another district is in itself a matter which merits consideration by the Boundary Commission.

The second problem concerns the residential area of New Barn which, as a result of the Commission's final recommendation, now finds itself split amongst three new local authority districts. New Barn is a comparatively small residential area, 310 acres in extent, with a population of about 3,000, and surrounded by green belt. It makes no sense at all for a comparatively small residential area to fall into three local authority districts.

I am encouraged to see in paragraph 5 of the guidelines for the Local Government Boundary Commission the sentence: Once the new authorities have taken over, the Commission will be invited to carry out a thorough review of proposals for detailed adjustment of boundaries, including those of the counties and metropolitan districts. I believe that the problems to which I have referred, which arise on the boundary of a new district which has come into being as a result of the Boundary Commission's final recommendations, would come within the scope of that paragraph in the guidelines. I hope that my right hon. Friend will give me a firm assurance that the two boundary problems that I have mentioned can legitimately come within the scope of that guideline, that it will be able to hear representations from the parish councils concerned, and, indeed, any others who wish to make representations on similar problems, and that, if necessary, it will be able to take appropriate action.

10.20 p.m.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

I cannot conceive of a subject less likely to produce a festive atmosphere in my part of the world than this Local Government Act and the subsequent orders. For once in a while I heartily agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Liberal Party and the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. J. T. Price) who severely criticised the disgraceful timing of this order and its tabling both last night and tonight. I accept that it is a bad argument that hon. Members are unable to be present. Nevertheless, this vastly important subject which covers every constituency in England deserves to be debated at a time when hon. Members have not made previous arrangements in their constituencies and in their private lives.

If I were to examine at length the history of the Act I should take too much time in this curtailed debate, but the fact remains that at all times when there has been any opposition to it the Government business managers have seen fit to push this legislation through either at the end of the Session or in the middle of the night, and not only in this House, but also in another place. I am in no way proud of what my party has done and the way that it has got this legislation through the House. In case hon. Gentlemen opposite derive any satisfaction from that and take a certain pleasure in seeing us squirm under the embarrassment of what has happened let me point out that apart from the Whip on duty only one other hon. Member of the Labour Party has seen fit to be present at this moment for this important debate.

There can be no doubt that the voice of the people in my constituency has been totally ignored and I cannot support an order which confirms that and puts into practice some of the Act's recommendations. The Boundary Commission examined matters in my constituency but so far as I know it had no consultation with the local authorities on the ground, and certainly not with me. I have read the Commission's Report No. 1 and I find no mention, certainly in my counties—and I shall have two under this Act—of any notice being taken of Members of Parliament and their recommendations. I can honestly say that the total sum of my own achievements in fighting for my constituents, 70 per cent. of whom oppose the Act, is that one uninhabited rock in the Bristol Channel that was mistakenly put into Bristol has been returned to its own home.

As I am unable to support the order I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend would say what would be the consequence of withdrawing it and laying it again in an amended form, taking into account the points made by many of my hon. Friends in relation to their own constituencies. I appreciate that there is a tight timetable and that withdrawing the order would have disastrous consequences, but perhaps my right hon. Friend could spell out what they would be.

I must make the point that to raise false hopes among people who think that this debate is going to change anything is wrong, because clearly we cannot amend the order. We must either reject or accept it as it is.

I understand the feelings of my right hon. Friend when he reminds the House of the gerrymandering of the constituency boundaries by the previous Government and says that he has adopted a policy of accepting without alteration the Boundary Commission's report. But is that the right and proper thing to do? Does not the House have the power to make representations? Do not we, as supporters of the Government, have a right to be listened to over this matter? I believe that we do, and I further believe that we have been ignored.

I have two constituency points to raise. The first concerns the famous split parishes on the Mendips. I understand that the law of the land, the Act, lays down where this boundary shall be drawn, subject to another order which the House will have the opportunity to debate. Perhaps it could be confirmed that it will be debatable. There will be another order to define the precise line.

There may be the possibility of my right hon. Friend taking consultations in my part of the world. Nevertheless, Axbridge rural district has made representations to his Department and pointed out that for the parish of Burrington the administrative centre would be more than seven miles away. In the parish of Blagdon the number of electors affected would be larger and the administrative centre a similar distance away. These are in hilly areas which are inaccessible in bad winter weather. The famous Rock of Ages cleft, where Toplady wrote that famous hymn, will now be split from the church which was his at Burrington Coombe. These matters may sound small but they go deep into our countryside, and rightly so.

On the subject of the split parishes, the previous Secretary of State wrote to me, in a letter publicised at the time, making it clear that the Boundary Commission would as a matter of priority examine the county boundary between Somerset and Avon through these split parishes. I think that I am right in saying that the Boundary Commission cannot do this until the Act comes into effect in 1974. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend would spell this out and confirm that the priority in my right hon. Friend's letter is maintained. These split parishes should go into one county or the other. We should get rid of this ridiculous arrangement which exists at present.

On the question of Avon District No. 4. I am not over-critical of the present situation because the members of the local authorities concerned have worked together for a considerable time to create an entity. But the House will realise the traumatic experience of local government in my part of the world and the lack of faith of my electors and constituents in the present set-up. It will be disastrous if this new district authority did not have some stability. Therefore, I wrote to Sir Edmund Compton. I commend him for the very prompt way in which he responded to my letters. I asked him if he could give any guarantee that his recommendations in the matter would last for at least 10 years. That is a reasonable request. But he is not in a position to give any such statement in return. Indeed, the Government may say that they are unable to do so. But at least the Government can say that they will not review these matters in five years' time—assuming that they are still in power, as they will be.

Of the top 10 to 15 local authorities in terms of population and electorate, I find this rural area, in which the largest town is Weston-super-Mare, growing at an unprecedented rate and likely to be surely within the top 10 or so in a period of 10 years. Currently we have a population of 139,000 and an electorate of 102,000. It could easily be split into Axbridge and Weston, with a 74,000 population and 55,000 electorate, and the other three authorities, with a 65,000 population and a 47,000 electorate.

I make this point because I am no great believer in size for the sake of size. As I understand the way that the Act has been thought out, there is nothing to commend size from the point of view of functions or efficiency at district level. I hope that my right hon. Friend will say that he can foresee some period of stability now at district level in the new County of Avon. Assuming that we pass the order, the Minister has the power under the Act to ask the Boundary Commission to look at all these matters, at his complete discretion. On a request from the local authority, the district boundaries can also be examined.

I hope that we shall have an assurance that my right hon. Friend is not closing his mind to investigations of the points made by some of my hon. Friends as well as mine. The Minister has powers to do this and I hope sincerely that he will tell us that lie will use them.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Michael McGuire (Ince)

I apologise for the sound of my voice. Normally I am not accused of speaking softly. but I am not in the best of "nick" tonight.

I should like to know whether the Minister of State is happy with the way in which we are debating a matter of such fundamental importance on what I regard as an awkward day and at a very awkward hour. I certainly am not happy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. J. T. Price) is a good watchdog on matters affecting principles of democracy and has quite a strong bite. He has already been mentioned as complaining about this order. He and I have been joined by the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Soref) in putting down an amendment. We have waited quite a while to debate this subject, and we think that the principles of democracy have not been followed. When we had the local government proposals for the metropolitan districts we were able to debate them on the Floor of the House at some length, and in Committee. More important, we were able to amend those proposals. Paragraph 8 of the famous White Paper laid down the essential ingredients for local government reorganisation, namely that the grouping should have that essential community of interest.

I did not serve on the Committee, but my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) was able to get a Christmas box for my constituents in Skelmersdale and Holland. Almost 12 months ago to the day we were able to get the first amendment to the Bill. Previously people had said that to get the right hon. Gentleman the Minister for Local Government and Development to listen to sensible arguments was like trying to get blood out of a stone. However, the Christmas spirit came upon him and he was convinced by the logic of the argument of my hon. Friend, who naturally used my brilliant arguments on Second Reading why Skelmersdale and Holland should not be part of the St. Helen's District 11 (c) in the metropolitan county of Liverpool. Skelmersdale and Holland were taken out of the district because there was no community of interest between them.

Democracy is not served by this kind of exercise. We cannot amend this order. We cannot debate it as fully as we were able to debate the metropolitan counties. It seems to me that once the decision has been made, that is that. This is fundamentally bad. Governments are far too fond of this kind of exercise. Nothing would have been lost if we had been given the same opportunity to debate the non-metropolitan districts.

We know that our amendments cannot be accepted. The purpose of the amendment in the names of myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton and the hon. Member for Ormskirk is to make a separate district out of Skelsmersdale and Holland. There is no community of interest. The hon. and learned Member for Southport (Mr. Percival) probably knows the area as well as any hon. Member, along with the right hon. Gentleman, some of whose constituency I think is mentioned in the grouping. They both know that that essential ingredient of community of interest does not exist. The exercise is therefore pointless. I believe that it will destroy the viability of the group.

The officers have already met to try to get some understanding in the new district. With Skelmersdale and Holland being included at the last minute, they have not had as much opportunity to get together as they would have liked, certainly not as much as the metropolitan district. Skelmersdale and Holland does not consider itself in any way superior, but it and the other parts of the grouping feel that it has too many problems of its own, being a new town, and that its population, which is bound to grow in the next decade to at least 85,000, and possibly more, will be such as to dominate much smaller grouped communities.

Although it is happy to escape the clutches of the Merseyside Metropolitan District 11(c), a strong case has been made for it to be a district on its own, in what is almost its own right. Unfortunately, it was not listened to. The case can still be made that it would be much better on its own. It would not be necessary to do much more than to add other close communities with a better community of interest to reach approximately the present figure with the Skelmersdale population as it is.

What chance is there of remedying what I consider to have been a big mistake? Skelmersdale and Holland will undoubtedly grow. It is a new town, designed for that. We are trying to push in industry as fast as we can and to build the houses. It will be almost a monolith among smaller authorities, mainly rural or semi-rural.

On those grounds, even though it is a forlorn hope, I ask the Minister to give us an assurance that there is a possibility of altering the grouping, and that Skelmersdale and Holland shall be allowed to be a district on its own, in what is almost the old Lancashire County Council setup. There are already in the county setups many districts which will be much smaller than the new Skelmersdale target figure of 80,000-85,000 in about a decade. I believe that it will be a viable unit, able to deal with its own special problems, and that the other districts can find a smaller grouping perhaps. They will have that necessary community of interest. In that way we shall have a much better arrangement for local democracy and local government.

10.49 p.m.

Mr. John Cordle (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

My right hon. Friend the Minister has paid tribute to the Boundary Commissioners, and no doubt there has been a great deal of satisfaction at their work throughout most of the country. But, although Christchurch was very satisfied with the outcome of their work, the Bournemouth Borough Council wishes me to register its entire dissatisfaction with the outcome, particularly in respect of the boundary line drawn between Bournemouth and Christchurch.

It is stated that the Boundary Commissioners paid various visits to the area. If they had done I am sure they would have recognised the difference between these areas and paid some account to the boundary line affecting the Hurn area. It is here that the bone of contention lies.

The Boundary Commission was clearly given too little time to complete a work of such great importance. In Bournemouth it seems that the convenience of the Government outweighed all other considerations so that the best interests of the people were sacrificed to the expediency of the moment.

The published report takes no account of the existing situation as clearly set out in Bournemouth's written submissions. The submissions have been made constantly during the past 18 months by the Chief Executive, Mr. John Bowen. I have been amazed to find that my constituency, as the major authority in the eastern area of the county, was not allowed to make personal representations to the commission on matters which Bournemouth had sought to include in its new district area.

A hearing on one issue affecting the new district was arranged in the area but the county borough was not only refused the opportunity to give evidence but was not even allowed to send an observer. The imposition of these district boundaries follows closely on the eastern county boundary which was based on political opportunism and will serve to perpetrate an illogical and impractical system of local government in this conurbation.

For many years the conurbation in and around Bournemouth, with a population of over 350,000, has been divided between two economic planning areas, two counties and a county borough, making three planning authorities and eight boroughs and districts. Boundaries—which in built-up areas can be identified only by long-term residents—even divide houses and streets and require special arrangements for refuse collection, sewage, street lighting and so on. It seems incredible that every one of these boundaries now has to be preserved so that artificial divisions of single communities will remain for years to come.

As for the parish of Hurn, Bournemouth Borough Council sought to ensure that the special position of this parish was brought to the knowledge of the Commission by the Department of the Environment. The county borough took the initiative in ensuring that when Bournemouth-Hurn airport was to be sold by the then Board of Trade, the airport would be brought within democratic community control rather than being operated commercially for profit, despite the probable cost in rate aid for losses incurred. Neither Hampshire nor any of its districts was concerned to join in that purchase, but Bournemouth now has to expect that the rate income and planning control of this airport must pass to Christchurch—that is to the only council in the new county area which has no contribution to airport deficiencies and which is unaffected by flight paths and environmental considerations.

It can hardly be argued that the 381 people resident in the Hurn parish had any bearing on the population of the new Christchurch district which has been given independent existence despite a total population of only 33,462. For the next five years at least the people of this area must suffer from the imposition of a system in which logic appears to have played no part. In Bournemouth the present arrangements are regarded as an abysmal failure to grasp a unique opportunity for better local government. I ask my right hon. Friend to take a further look and make it possible for the Boundary Commissioners to re-examine the boundary line between Christchurch and Bournemouth.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. Peter Rees (Dover)

My intervention relates to the five Minster parishes. For those hon. Members who are unfamiliar with East Kent, these are the five parishes which are in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) but which lie in the Eastry Rural District Council, the greater part of which lies in my constituency. Their names roll impressively off the tongue—Acol, Minster, Monkton, St. Nicholas at Wade and Sarre. If the plan is carried into effect it will involve their transfer, and I use the word advisedly although inaccurately, from new District No. 7 of Kent to new District No. 8. The former district will, I expect, be called the Greater Dover District and the latter will be that of the Isle of Thanet.

The basis of the Boundary Commission's change of heart—because its original proposal was that these five parishes should follow Eastry Rural District into new District No. 7—was in deference to the supposed views of the majority in the parish of Minster. Its main conclusion was that a sufficient geographical barrier was constituted by the river Stour to justify a minor split of a local authority area in this case. That is a ludicrous generalisation, for anyone who knows the river Stour, significant and historic though it may be, knows that it is not in any real sense a geographical boundary. The commission has by implication recognised that only in exceptional circumstances should a current local authority area be split.

What the commission has totally failed to recognise is that these are five agricultural, rural parishes which feel that their interest would best be served by remaining with the rest of the Eastry Rural District in the new District No. 7, which will be, if not in numbers at least in area, a predominantly rural second-tier authority, rather than being cast into a new second-tier authority, District No. 8, which will be predominantly urban or seaside. I say that with no disrespect to the new District No. 8, but it will be different in character from the Eastry Rural District from which these five parishes will be snatched.

The views of the inhabitants of the five parishes were canvassed. Four parishes —Acol, Monkton, St. Nicholas at Wade and Sarre—held parish council meetings or parish meetings. There was a surprisingly high turnout of 75 per cent., and 90 per cent. of the people at those meetings voted to remain with the rest of Eastry Rural District in District No. 7. The fifth parish of Minster, which I concede is the largest, held a meeting, but only at the requisition of those who were opposed to the proposal to move Minster into the Thanet district authority. Only 137 turned out, which was far less than 75 per cent., and 62 of those voted to remain with Eastry and 67 voted to go to Thanet. That is a very flimsy majority in just one parish to move five parishes from their natural home in District No. 7 to District No. 8.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that this was an afterthought of the Boundary Commission and a very bad afterthought. It would be optimistic of me to imagine that my hon. Friend will withdraw the order in deference to my speech tonight, but unless he gives me an assurance that the matter will be kept under review and accept that in 1973 or 1974 it may be possible to rectify this glaring error, I shall feel unable to support the order in the Division Lobby tonight.

10.48 p.m.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim (Gloucester)

I entirely support everything that has been said by my hon. Friends and hon. and right hon. Members opposite who have expressed dismay, regret and even stronger emotions about the position of this debate in the parliamentary timetable. I should like to make clear one thing which has not so far been touched on, and that is that my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State were absolutely right to refuse to criticise the decisions of an independent Boundary Commission, or to attempt themselves to alter them. But there is no constitutional reason why those decisions could net have been amended by the House had the House been given an opportunity to do so and had this debate taken a different form so that amendments were in order as they are not at present.

Indeed, it seems very difficult to justify that we are not to get that type of debate on the district boundaries when this House and another place were given an opportunity to amend county boundaries. It will seem to the district authorities, which have felt for some time that they are to be the secondary councils, although we have been telling them that they are to be parallel, that they have not been given the same importance in this House as have the county boundaries. Although I appreciate that we have been allowed, due to the discretion of Mr. Speaker, another one and a half hours in which to debate this matter, it is totally inadequate. The form of the debate is inadequate as we cannot table amendments because this is an order and not a bill. The situation has been somewhat exacerbated because last night had there been a Division there is no doubt that the Government would have been defeated.

I feel so very strongly in this case, naturally with relation to my own constituency and to the boundaries which have been recommended for the district councils for the city of Gloucester, because it seems to me that the Boundary Commission has completely ignored the recommendations of every rural council, every parish council, every town council, every city council, and even the county council of Gloucestershire and their appeals in its recommendations. It has also ignored the express wishes of the people.

It will certainly appear to the people that the commission in doing this has also ignored the dictates of sanity, has been looking merely at statistics and maps and not at all at people and places, and has ignored completely the guidelines set down with regard to remoteness, particularly in the case of Gloucestershire. For example, people who live in the parishes of Brockworth, Church-down, Minsterworth, Highnam and Hucclecote will have to travel through Gloucester, past the Guildhall, with a wistful look no doubt, past the Shire Hall, with a wistful look, and continue many miles at considerable expense to Tewkesbury to ask about their rent or rate rebates, to ask about their improvement grants or whatever it is they are worrying about. In some cases they will be deterred from doing so because they will not be able to afford the cost of the journey.

Apart from that, their interest is in the city of Gloucester. Some are within two miles of it and others within four miles. In the case of Sandhurst, the original country lane which links Sandhurst and Gloucester is still in existence and the cattle market in Gloucester is used by all the farmers in these parishes, which are only a few miles outside the city. The amenities which the Ministry of Agriculture provides in the city are also used by them.

Again, the boundary as proposed does not reflect the natural and economic configurations of the catchment areas in this district. In the case of a small city like Gloucester, a mix of urban, semi-urban and rural communities is both economically and socially desirable. People who live near Gloucester identify with the city and enjoy its amenities, but they are to be denied representation on the council in the city of Gloucester, and the council itself is to be denied the revenue of their rates, although they enjoy all the city's amenities.

There is not even an argument for the proposed boundaries on the ground of size of the electorate, because the size of the electorate within the district boundary as proposed is 62,000, and if all the parishes were included in the city of Gloucester District Council, as proposed in the Number 6 District Scheme, the electorate would be 70,000, which is a good deal smaller than in many other district councils.

Then again, very often people are affected immeasurably more by decisions taken at local level on such matters as housing and education than they are by decisions taken in this House. Therefore they must feel that they are being represented in the area with which they identify with regard to the decisions which affect them most.

Although I regret very much that the timing of this debate has made it necessary, I have come here tonight from a dinner party at which I am the hostess in order to express my bitter opposition to this order and to say that I should not be representing my constituents if I did not, in the event of a Division, vote against it. Indeed, I should welcome the opportunity to do so.

10.55 p.m.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor)

I want to express. first, the disappointment of the Royal Borough of New Windsor, which has always wanted to be separated from District No. 4 and re-grouped as a separate district with a population of approximately 65,000. There is the disappointment of the Windsor Rural District Council, which has been working for a long time under the misapprehension that the Boundary Commission proposals were final and not mere draft proposals. The effect of these final proposals is to put all my constituency back into District 4.

What are we to do now? As this is a statutory instrument and not amendable, I believe that the Government are right to persuade the new local authorities to work together in the framework which has been selected. Any alteration by the Government would savour of gerrymandering, as happened in 1950. If the order were taken back and had to be debated again, it would probably delay the 1973 elections.

My right hon. Friend the Minister has made it clear that in Berkshire we shall have priority of revision in 1974. I hope that he will say a further word about that.

After the elections in 1973, I believe that the councils and councillors of the new authorities, the organisations within the new authorities and the electors should make recommendations and that the Boundary Commission should listen to those recommendations. In the meantime it is essential that we give no false hope to any of the local authorities. It must be in the interests of all concerned —ratepayers and authorities—for people to forget the past, to work together. and to realise that these local authorities must be made a viable proposition.

10.58 p.m.

Mr. Brian Harrison (Maldon)

I hope that my right hon. Friend will not pay any attention to the suggestion that he should withdraw this order. I have had the strongest representations from the clerk of the council of Witham and from the two Maldon councils that the order should be accepted as it is printed. There have been strenuous negotiations and discussions with the Ministry, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will not accept any of the blandishments from my hon. Friends to withdraw the order.

10.59 p.m.

Captain Walter Elliot (Carshalton)

I cannot resist telling my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) that although she left an important dinner party to attend this debate, I left New York at four o'clock this morning to be here. If my argument lacks clarity as a result, I hope that my right hon. Friend will understand the importance that I attach to the matter.

I want to ask why it is that, since the original White Paper, the Government have gradually escalated the size of councils. Originally it looked hopeful for councils of the order of 40,000 to continue in existence. Gradually that firmed up to between 75,000 and 100,000. However, that number falls between two stools. It is not big enough to exercise powers other than those of a second-tier authority. At the same time, it is more remote than the smaller councils.

Great play was made in the White Paper about the wishes of the inhabitants. In Banstead, in a short time, 11,000 people signed a petition—and if there had been more time many more would have signed—against amalgamation with Reigate. But it was not unanimous. The Labour Party was against it. It was opposed because it has poor representation in the Banstead UDC and if Banstead amalgamated with Reigate it would probably have a bigger representation. I make no complaint about that, but it had nothing to do with the efficiency of local government.

One or two Conservative areas supported the amalgamation. But the reason they gave was that they thought it would give better protection against being swept into the Greater London Council if it expanded its boundaries. They may have sound arguments behind that reasoning, but they are nothing to do with the efficiency of local government.

Since I returned I have read that Lord Sandford in another place has put forward the argument that it is desirable to have large and powerful districts on the edge of London. Again, there may be arguments for that. However, I cannot see that that is anything to do with the efficiency of local government.

Banstead is a well-run district which is closely in touch with the ratepayers. It has harmonious relations with the upper tier, the county council, and it would be a disaster if the area were amalgamated. We were told by the previous Minister to write to the chairman of the Boundary Commission and to give our objections and our various reasons. I should have liked to have quoted my objections at length. However, I made the point that I hoped that he would be able to come to the area and have a look at it for himself, talk to the people and see how it works.

Banstead is an exception in the delineation or the topography of the area. If there is one area which, judging by the topography, should not be amalgamated with Banstead, it would be Reigate. The land drops deeply down several hundred feet and makes communications extremely difficult. I wrote and pointed that out to the chairman of the Boundary Commission. He replied, in a nice letter, saying that he had noted all my points. He said that he could not come to the area. I have represented the area for 12 years and unless one visits the area I do not understand how one can possibly assess whether the area should be amalgamated.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that the districts, as the White Paper suggests, are bound to vary considerably in size and resources. Of course, we do not want uniformity for its own sake. Banstead has practically all the powers proposed in the new setup and effectively exercises them. A mistake has been made and I am sure that it is within my right hon. Friend's power to put it right.

11.3 p.m.

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

If I may have the leave of the House, I hope to answer as many as possible of the points which have been raised during the debate by right hon. and hon. Members. First, I am sure that the House will wish me to express its thanks to the Chair for adjourning the debate so that we have had this extra time in which to debate the order.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. William Clark) said that there had been bureacratic arrogance. Let me clear up any misconception about the Boundary Commission. I can assure my hon. Friend that there was no such arrogance. It was not sitting in an ivory tower. Its work was based on proposals which were put to it by local authorities. That was the whole basis of its work. Its main job was to act as an arbitrator between conflicting interests which were put to it by various local authorities.

Mr. Peter Rees


Mr. Page

Not at this stage please. I have only a short time in which to try to answer many points.

In two cases put before the House we have heard both sides of the argument. In the case of Witham one side was put by my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Kirk) and the other side by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Brian Harrison). We have heard the two sides of the case for Morecambe and Lancaster. The case for Morecambe was put by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Mr. Hall-Davis) and the case for retaining the Boundary Commission's district for Morecambe and Lancaster was put by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman). It was not the first time I have heard that case argued. I have had the pleasure of hearing both arguments before.

In regard to Morecambe, it is no argument for separation that the towns are of a different character whether in employment offered or in way of life, whether between resort and industry, or between town and country. In many of these cases in local government reform we seek to produce a more viable local government unit by the variety of interests which will be represented in one district.

Before the appointment of the commission—and I am going back to July 1971—my Department asked local authorities to submit proposals for the new district preparatory to a submission to the Boundary Commission. The county was the forum for collecting the voices of the districts—the existing local authorities—on the proposals to be put forward. That is why in each case the Boundary Commission's report begins by referring to the proposals which it received from the county. I am not saying these were unanimous among all the local authorities in the county, but in almost every case the counties endeavoured to put forward proposals agreed by the majority of local authorities in their areas. In certain cases individual authorities made it known that they did not agree with what had been proposed by the county and put forward different proposals to the commission. But by the time the commission was appointed, in November 1971, we could put before it a classified bundle of proposals from all over the country. It therefore got off to a flying start with that material, but it was dealing with proposals put forward by the local authorities concerned and not sitting in an ivory tower turning com-passes and drawing lines on maps, as was suggested by my drawing line. Friend the Member for Surrey, East.

Captain W. Elliott

Would my right hon. Friend be interested to hear that the Chairman of the Surrey County Council told me that the only reason he proposed that Banstead should amalgamate with Reigate was that the Government had stated that districts had to contain between 75,000 and 100,000 people?

Mr. Page

My hon. Friend will appreciate that if hon. Members interrupt on their own cases before I reach them, I shall not be able to answer all the points. I shall come to Banstead as quickly as I can.

I want to look at the basic authority for the setting up of the Boundary Commission. Section 46 of the Local Government Act 1972 said: There shall be a Local Government Boundary Commission for England (in this Act referred to as the English Commission') who shall carry out the functions conferred on them by or under this Act. The first two paragraphs of Schedule 3 of the Act said: The English Commission shall as soon as practicable after the passing of this Act make proposals to the Secretary of State for the division of non-metropolitan counties into districts, for defining the areas of those districts and for naming them, and the Secretary of State may give the Commission directions for their guidance in making any such proposals. The Secretary of State shall by order give effect to any proposals under this paragraph either as submitted by him or with modifications, but an order shall not be made under this paragraph defining the areas of non-metropolitan districts unless a draft of the order has been approved by resolution of each House of Parliament. That is what we are debating tonight.

The Commission went through the representations which were made to my Department before November 1971 and those made to it direct after November 1971, and by April 1972 it was able to produce its draft proposals. The right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) referred to the letter which was sent by the secretary to the commission and which accompanied those draft proposals. That letter asked for further comments, proposals and representations to be made on the draft proposals. In paragraph 15, it said: The Commission Designate will review the draft proposals in the light of all the written representations received. They will then consider whether in certain cases further consultations with individual local authorities or groups of authorities are needed before they can reach a final recommendation". Then, paragraph 16: Any such meetings will be with representatives of local authorities, and the Commission Designate could not undertake to hear oral evidence from other organisations or members of the public". Thus, again the commission was working with the local authorities and endeavouring to obtain representations through that democratic method.

Having appointed a statutory body of this kind, Parliament would wish the executive to leave it to decide whether it had sufficient information by written representation to reach a decision for recommendation to the Secretary of State or whether to arrange for the parties to be heard through some form of oral hearing. I do not think that any Minister could properly interfere in the procedure of a statutory body of this sort at that stage. We, therefore, left the commission to proceed with its job of deciding for itself whether the written representations were sufficient or whether further hearings should be arranged.

In the event, the commission did arrange a number of hearings throughout the country. One may perhaps think that in some case or other the commission would have been wiser to hear the parties. But there can be nothing improper in the commission deciding that it had sufficient information on which to come to a decision without actually hearing the parties.

The right hon. Member for Devon, North spoke of what he described as the guide lines set down in that letter from the secretary to the commission. They are not guide lines in the sense of the guide lines laid down by the Secretary of State to the commission. They were a statement to those who might wish to submit representations to give them some indication of what the commission would require. Paragraph 18 of the letter said: In general, the Commission Designate will find it difficult to consider suggestions for alternative areas unless the representations show that they are practicable alternatives which (a) show a substantial measure of agreement among the local authorities concerned. In the North Devon case which the right hon. Gentleman put, there was not that agreement: six authorities out of 10 disagreed with the proposition which he put to the House yesterday. The paragraph continued: (b) are within (or close to) the preferred population range"— —the 75,000 to 100,000— (c) do not involve the division of existing county district areas; (d) do not render invalid the pattern of New Districts elsewhere in the county. Having asked for those representations the commission had about 28,000 put to it in the next few months. The commission certainly was not composed of superhuman beings cloistered in London, as the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. J. T. Price) described them. The commission was carrying out the job which Parliament entrusted to it.

I want to draw attention to two paragraphs in the commission's report, because I hope to draw conclusions from them in dealing with the specific cases which have been put to the House.

The commission, in paragraph 46, states: At this stage we have been concerned with establishing the general structure of the new district pattern. Within this general structure there will need to be detailed boundary adjustments at a later stage. The Commission's task is a continuing one, but it is one that has to be tackled in stages. In paragraph 55, it states: the guidelines state that 'Once the new authorities have taken over, the Commission will be invited to carry out a thorough review of proposals for detailed adjustments of boundaries, including those of the counties and metropolitan districts We are conscious of the need for such a review, and would wish to include in it a review of the boundaries of new districts". I assure my hon. Friends that there will be a review of the boundaries. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State proposes to invite the commission to review certain cases as a matter of priority. Of course, the commission is a statutory body and can make up its own mind, but I should think that it would read carefully the debate we have had on the order and note the cases to which priority ought to be given.

Before the debate we had undertaken to deal with two cases in particular. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) referred to the Mendip parishes. We shall certainly ask the commission to give priority to a review of that line. There will be an order fixing that line for a period—that order will come before the House shortly—but after 1st April 1974 we shall ask the commission to look at that boundary.

We shall also ask the commission to treat with priority the case, put forward by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson), of Scunthorpe and the Anchor steelworks. The commission itself, in its report, suggests that that should be reviewed.

In the course of the debate powerful speeches by hon. Members on both sides of the House have satisfied me that there are prima facie cases for similar treatment. I know that what I say now will not wholly satisfy them. I am sure that they will say, "If this can be done in 1974, why cannot it be done now?" However, I do not accept that they are completely right. I refer again to cases such as Witham and Morecambe. We have heard the two sides of the argument in those cases. But in many other cases we have heard only one side. However, in many of the cases where we have heard only one side I believe that a prima facie case has been put for consideration by the commission. I undertake that we will ask the commission to review the boundaries in those cases as soon as practicable after 1st April 1974.

For example, I think the case put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) concerning the area between Gloucester, Tewkesbury and Cheltenham needs review, as does that put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Trew) about the parishes of Sutton-at-Hone and New Barn, and that put forward by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Peter Rees) relating to the four Eastry parishes. I say four advisedly, because I understand that Minster does not want to be included. However, it may be that all five ought to be looked at. There is also the case put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle) so far as it relates to the boundary at Hurn. I could not encourage him over the whole boundary between Bournemouth and Christchurch, but I think that the Hurn boundary might be reviewed at a very early stage by the commission.

We have what I might, with irreverence, call the freak case of Horley, but this is the alteration of a county boundary. Through my hon. Friend's great skill in argument throughout the stages of the Bill, and through my generosity perhaps, I gave an undertaking which, with the passage of the Bill, I have not been able to carry out—not fully, anyway —but I assure my hon. Friend that I shall carry it out. There will be an alteration in the county boundary as Horley wishes, because that was the undertaking that we gave. It may be that Horley will have to reside for an hour or two, or some very short period, in one county and then move back into the other. I am sorry about this Gilbertian situation, but that is how it has worked out.

The other points have all dealt with the structure of the districts rather than with the boundaries. Let me come back to the case put by the right hon. Member for Devon, North. In that case six out of 10 local authorities preferred to split into two districts. The Boundary Commission considered them very carefully and gave its report on the structure of North Devon. This is not a boundary matter. It is not one which I could ask the commission to review at an early stage, but any local authority in a new district can ask the commission to re-examine its decision. This comes under the Act itself. All I am saying is that in these cases the Government would not take the initiative in asking the commission to take any steps.

That applies also to the cases of Witham and Morecambe, and to the case put by my hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Miss Pike) about Barrow-upon-Soar. This is a difficult case. It is a very large district, and I appreciate that there are problems there, but if it were split it would leave Loughborough and Shepshed as a district that was not viable, and I hope that Barrow-upon-Soar, Loughborough and Shepshed will be able to settle down together as a varied and valuable district. It is not an easy district, but it is one that will be of great interest to administer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East put the case of Banstead, as did my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Carshalton (Captain W. Elliot). In this case the commission specifically says that it looked at this twice—both on its broad proposals and before it made its final proposals—and took cognisance of the feelings of local people. There is not in this case unanimity between Reigate and Banstead, the two areas that are put together. Reigate is happy with the situation, but Banstead wishes to be on its own. I cannot hold out any hope that the Government can take any initiative in this case.

The same applies to the case put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Mather). He wishes to have three districts where there are two at present. The commission studied the matter carefully. Rather surprisingly, to my mind, it did not have a further inquiry before making its final report, but it was satisfied by the representations that it received. To a great extent the case put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher is a very strong one from the point of view of the wishes of the district, but not a strong one from the point of view of having a viable local government unit.

I have dealt with part of the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Marc—the Mendip parishes. I cannot hold out any hope to him that we can assist at this stage in forming another district in the area of Axbridge, Clevedon and Portishead, about which he was speaking.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Roger White) has had his go once, and I have answered him. He would not expect me to answer again after the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

I have only one more point with which to deal, and that is Skelmersdale. This gives me the greatest difficulty. Looking at the guidelines we gave to the commission concerning new towns and the expected growth of population in new towns, I find the decision reached by the commission perhaps a little surprising. However, it is defensible on the ground that if we make Skelmersdale a separate district at present, it is a district with a population of something under 40,000, and it does not come within our other guidelines that small districts of that sort should be covering a sparse population over a wide area.

But there is no doubt that Skelmersdale will grow, although at present it would be wrong to make it a separate district. We are talking of an area which is a new town corporation and an urban district, and I foresee that if Skelmersdale in 1974 has grown to the size to which we rather hope that it will have grown in that short period, there would then be a case for it to say to the Boundary Commission, "We are a large enough district and a closely knit district. We are a new town coming within the guidelines." I therefore put Skelmersdale at a little higher rank than the others I have mentioned.

I hope that I have covered all the points. I hope that I have not gone too far in the promises I may have given tonight. I am always dubious about the words I utter to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorking (Sir G. Sinclair). I hope that he will not read too much into it when I say that I am trying to carry out my undertaking in his case.

In view of assurances I can give about the review of boundaries and in view of the structure of the Act concerning the review of districts, I ask the House to accept the order.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the English Non-metropolitan Districts (Definition) Order 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 22nd November be approved.