§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 3.55 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Gordon Oakes)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It may seem almost a contradiction in terms to say that a Bill is both important and non-controversial, but I believe both these adjectives apply fully to the present Bill.
Because the powers of local authorities are limited to those provided by statute, it is necessary to provide powers in a number of instances for quite small matters. These are powers that individual local authorities have found to be necessary to secure the efficient conduct of their work, to protect the public and so on.
Over the years there has been a great flow of legislation promoted by individual local authorities in Private Bills to secure such powers either for a single local authority or for all local authorities in a county. The process has continued over the years until we now have a quite unmanageable mountain of local legislation.
The previous Government quite rightly concluded that the reorganisation of local government, which would leave new authorities with a hotch-potch of powers for different parts of their areas, was the ideal opportunity to tackle this mountain of local legislation—much of which is no longer appropriate to present-day needs, or related to a specific period of time and is now spent, or has been overtaken by public general legislation. Section 262 of the Local Government Act 1972 therefore provided that the great bulk of local legislation which had been promoted by local authorities should be repealed in 1979 in the metropolitan counties, and in 1984 elsewhere.
That deferred repeal gave local authorities a breathing space to comb through their existing legislation, decide what they still needed, and promote Private Bills before the existing legislation 40 expired, to give them the powers they still need and in an up-to-date form. Local authorities are proceeding with this exercise, and the first such rationalisation Bill was presented in another place last Session.
However, action by the local authorities is not all that is required. Some of the powers which many authorities had before under local legislation are of general application, and it clearly makes sense for these powers to be conferred by public general legislation applying to the whole of England and Wales rather than for each county to include parallel provisions—perhaps in varying forms—in their local Bills.
Thus public general legislation is needed to complement the rationalisation Bills on which local authorities are at present working. Such public legislation is needed to keep the volume of new local Act provisions within a reasonable compass for the benefit of the promoters, their agents, Parliament itself and all manner of ordinary citizens who will have dealings with this legislation in the years to come. The present Bill is such a measure. It consists almost entirely of well-precedented and non-controversial clauses which have been assembled after consultation with the associations of local authorities. I say "almost entirely" because there is one other matter which is also covered by the Bill. This is a first step in the rationalisation of the Public Health Acts, and I shall be coming back to it again later.
Meanwhile, I should like to linger for a moment on the concept of well-precedented and non-controversial provisions, as it may be important when we come to Committee. We have concentrated on well-precedented provisions because this Bill is, as I said, intended to complement the "rationalisation" Bills promoted by local authorities. Thus it is intended to pick up existing provisions which a substantial number of local authorities have found useful. It is not intended to break entirely new ground or to pick up pioneering provisions restricted to a few local Acts. In this respect it is similar in kind to the Public Health Act of 1961, which was similarly restricted to these well-precedented provisions.
We have also concentrated on non-controversial provisions because we wish 41 to provide local government with a substantial array of useful and generally acceptable powers without taking up an inordinate amount of parliamentary time.
It may be felt by some that this is not enough: that local authorities need for their smooth and economical working to have further powers which are new departures, not well-precedented in local legislation, or for which a good case can be hammered out on merits, despite some areas of controversy. Both these things may be true. We are considering with the associations of local authorities what provisions may come into these categories, and will then consider how to carry the matter forward. But meanwhile such provisions are not apt for the present Bill.
I now say a word on finance. In view of the current restraints on local authority expenditure, I should stress that all these modest powers are discretionary. They place no obligations on local authorities, and only Clauses 10 and 11, which relate to district heating, depend on the availability of capital.
Now that I have dealt with the general purpose of the Bill, what it aims to do and what it does not do, let me come to the individual provisions.
§ Mr. Ian Grist (Cardiff, North)
In view of the fact that there will be more controversial provisions coming forward either in Public Bills or in privately-promoted Bills, will the Minister say whether, under Section 262(9)(b) of the 1972 Act, the Government may be prepared to defer the dates by which authorities have to bring forward their own Bills, since the time is very short for them to do so?
§ Mr. Oakes
I do not think that we should talk about deferment. We are talking about powers of the metropolitan authorities which expire in 1979 and about powers of the non-metropolitan authorities which expire in 1984. This Bill, dealing with the non-controversial aspects and provisions in many local Acts, may cut out many of the things that local authorities would have to ask this House to do.
In terms of local authorities' own requirements, two matters arise. The first is the Public Bill, such as the one we are discussing with the associations 42 at present. It is still only 1976, which will give us three years to run until 1979 anyway. Then there are their own Private Bills. Only last week we had an example of an enterprising authority bringing a Private Bill before the House. I have no doubt that many others will do likewise. I stress, however, that this is a very different kind of Bill. In my opinion, it would be very difficult for any hon. Member to raise a spark of controversy on the provisions of this Bill.
§ Mr. Peter Rost (Derbyshire, South-East)
The Minister referred to financial provisions with regard to the district heating clauses. Will he confirm that it is now intended to allow district heating schemes to be eligible for grants under the housing subsidy grants rather than simple loan finance, which appears to be the present situation?
§ Mr. Oakes
I am coming specifically to the district heating provisions, and I hope that I shall be able to satisfy the hon. Gentleman, if not during my speech, from advice that I am able to give him during the course of the debate.
I said that I should be coming to the individual provisions. The first of them relates to Clause 7, which enables a local authority to secure property condemned as unfit and vacated as a result of action under the Housing Acts. I know that some local authorities would like us to extend this to cover all empty property. But we are not convinced that local authorities should be made the general guardians of empty property. The clause is therefore limited to property which is empty as a result of local authority action.
§ Clauses 10 and 11, which enable local authorities to produce and sell heat and electricity, are perhaps the most significant clauses in the Bill. They have been welcomed by the District Heating Association and the local authority associations. Their purpose is to enable local authorities to supply heat from a common source to both the public and private sectors. Often low-grade fuels will be used and it can, therefore, offer worthwhile fuel savings as well as providing social benefits, particularly for the old and the sick. In the long run these powers should be of great value, but no additional provision is made for capital investment for the purpose. We may, therefore, see a slow start to its use, 43 apart from areas which have already established district heating schemes under their old local Act powers.
§ In answer to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost), I understand that we are now considering the point he has made and that it will be clarified during the Committee stage.
§ Clause 12 and Schedule 1 empower local authorities to acquire compulsorily, on payment of compensation, rights over land instead of purchasing the land itself. This should avoid the acquisition of the land itself when only an easement or right is required.
§ Mr. Arthur Jones (Daventry)
Is it the Minister's intention to deal with Clause 14? I note what he said at the begining of his speech, but am I right in thinking that this clause does not extend powers in any way? May I have an assurance that there is authority at present to produce the evidence of authority to enter after entering the land which is referred to in subsection (3)(a)?
§ Mr. Oakes
I am afraid that I cannot at the moment answer the hon. Gentleman's question about Clause 14. I hope to do so during the course of my speech. I tried to single out those clauses in the Bill, where there is very little controversy, which I thought would be of the greatest concern to the House. However, it is an important point and I shall try to answer it before I sit down.
§ Sir Derek Walker-Smith (Hertfordshire, East)
I shall not trouble the House with a speech on this matter, but the Minister dealt rather quickly with Clause 12, which relates to compulsory purchase orders for the purchase of rights. He said that this would enable the compulsory purchase of easements. However, in subsection (1) there is a reference to "new rights", meaning rights which are not in existence when the order specifying them is made. Any easement must be in existence at that time because it arises normally by a process of prescription which envisages the passage of a period of time. Can the Minister clarify that reference?
§ Mr. Oakes
There is this point of prescription, though no doubt we can deal with it in Committee. But it is not only that kind of provision that the sub- 44 stance of the clause is aimed at. Under many local Acts, but only local Acts, there are at present powers for a local authority to acquire an easement or right over land for a specific purpose. Under general legislation, they would have to acquire the land itself. Clearly there will be many instances where a local authority has no desire or need to acquire the land. We are trying in this legislation to make general provision for a right to acquire an easement rather than to have to purchase the land where only an easement is required. But the point of prescription with regard to new rights as well as to rights acquired by prescription is a matter which we can look at in Committee.
§ Clause 15 gives local authorities a general power, for the purpose of performing their functions, to obtain information about the ownership of land. This, like the other provisions, is well precedented in Private Acts and replaces several such powers already in Public Acts.
§ Clause 18 is based on various local Act precedents to provide golf courses and other specific items which, it has been argued, do not come within the scope of Section 4 of the Physical Training and Recreation Act 1937. The clause replaces Section 4 by a more widely-drawn new power to provide all the kinds of recreational facilities which are needed today. The clause would be subject to the same financial constraints as Section 4 of the Physical Training and Recreation Act 1937.
§ I stress again that the powers provided by this legislation are discretionary powers. They are discretionary powers which have to be exercised within the present financial restraints that the House is imposing upon local authorities and, indeed, upon our nation generally.
§ Clauses 22 and 26 are the only ones which are not based on local Acts. They reflect the secondary purpose of the Bill, which is to make certain repeals and amendments to the Public Health Acts 1875 and 1936. This is a piece of tidying up needed by the Law Commission before it tackles the enormous job of consolidating the Public Health Acts. All the powers repealed are spent, and local authorities will not be handicapped in any way by their demise. Subsection (6) preserves them in so far as they may be 45 applied by any other enactment, including a local Act.
§ Clause 23 amends Schedule 13 to the Local Government Act 1972 so as to enable local authorities to establish funds for the purpose of meeting expenditure in connection with their functions. Frequently local Act powers have been conferred for the establishment of specific funds for such purposes as insurance, renewals and repairs, research and even, in some instances, for snow-clearing. It seems right now to give local authorities discretion to establish such funds as they wish.
§ Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)
I wonder whether the Minister would confirm during the debate whether the point about the precepting of one authority upon another has been approved by all the various associations of councils?
§ Mr. Oakes
I understand that it has been approved by the three main bodies affected by the Bill—the County Councils Association, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the District Councils Association. I am not over-sure whether this point has been cleared by the Local Councils Association, if that is what the hon. Gentleman is referring to. I cannot answer off the cuff on that, but I shall let him know. It has certainly been approved by the three main associations.
Before coming on to Clauses 27 and 28, I come to the matter raised by the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Jones), who asked about various points arising in Clause 14. I am afraid that the dramatic answer that I shall give now—because of the complications—is that I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on these points before the Committee stage so that he will have the points cleared up by then.
Clauses 27 and 28 are indeed somewhat modern in their provisions because they reflect the ravages of Dutch elm disease and give powers for local authorities to cut down trees in certain circumstances on private land. I know that some local authorities would like us to extend the power to give an unfettered right to local authorities to enter all land and to cut down trees at their discretion but at the expense of the owner. We believe that this would be wrong. Powers for local 46 authorities to enter on private land need to be approached with great caution and I do not believe that such wide powers would be justified. This clause is therefore designed to enable local authorities to enter and cut down at the invitation of owners or occupiers or where a tree endangers persons or property adjoining land.
These, therefore, are some of the more substantial powers in the Bill. It is not a Bill which will make significant changes in local authority responsibility but it is an important Bill in the context of attempts that the local authorities and central Government are making to bring sense and order into the local legislation statute book. I think that nearly all the provisions of the Bill are entirely uncontroversial, and as a reflection of that fact I say to the House that the members of the Committee, on all sides, will be given full notes on clauses in the Bill in order to speed its passage, because, as I say, it is entirely uncontroversial although nevertheless a welcome and useful measure.
§ 4.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Keith Speed (Ashford)
I should like to thank the Minister straight away both for the careful way in which he has taken us through this legal maze and in particular for the offer that he made in his closing remarks, which we accept. We certainly put him out of his misery by saying straight away that we do not propose to oppose the Bill this evening, although I think that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends and I would not be quite as enthusiastic about the non-controversiality of the Bill as the hon. Gentleman.
As the Minister said, to an extent the Bill flows from Section 262 of the Local Government Act 1972, and particularly subsection (9), which, we appreciate, provides that powers under Private Acts, to a greater or lesser extent, will be repealed in metropolitan counties in 1979 and five years later elsewhere. However, there is one point here that I want to put to the hon. Gentleman. Part VII of the 1972 Act, particularly Section 111, gives very wide miscellaneous powers at present to local authorities. I presume that it is their view, as well as that of the hon. Gentleman and of the House, that many clauses in the Bill will be helpful, in addition 47 to the wide powers given in Part VII of the 1972 Act.
In giving general approval to the Bill, perhaps I should also start by giving the Opposition's general approach to these matters. I hope that in so doing I shall not be ruled out of order, Mr. Speaker, because the hon. Gentleman referred to other and perhaps more substantial Bills about local authority powers which are to come.
We certainly believe that the time has come to give local authorities much greater freedom than they have been given previously, under any Government. Indeed, many of their present problems and the problems of previous years are caused and have been caused by constant references backwards and forwards between central Government and local government departments. There are many things that local government could and should determine locally. Since the 1972 reorganisation we have at least got basically the right sort of set-up, so that we now have local authorities which are viable to make these local determinations. Clearly, there are certain essential and fundamental matters of policy—housing, education, transport, health and other social services—on which one has to have basic minimum national standards. I do not think that the House would want to get away from that matter. Having accepted the national basic minimum standards however, there are many other areas in which we can trust local government much more than we have been prepared to do in the past.
In recent weeks around the country I have had experience of matters such as housing improvement and transport—I am sure that the Minister has, too—in which a great deal of time, effort and money has been wasted both by the Department's officials and by officers of local government and councillors in trying to determine things which local government ought now to be able to determine. That being so, at the same time the Opposition would also go much further on the path that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is now hesitantly treading and would impose meaningful cash limits for total local government expenditure, which is now nearly one-third of an already much-too-high public expenditure.
48 In a nutshell, we are now convinced that much tighter control of local government expenditure has to be exercised from the centre on the basis of what the country can afford and not on the basis of what services are desirable. Within that tight cordon of expenditure, much greater freedom should be given to local authorities to determine their own priorities and carry out functions in the way they see best.
My personal view—I stress the word "personal" as I have said this previously—certainly as far as England is concerned, is that this is the only kind of devolution that I want to see from Whitehall to county hall and town hall. Perhaps the Bill is a hesitant first step. I do not think that the Bill helps in the strategic approach to greater freedom, and the hon. Gentleman has not advanced the case that it should. It is a series of rationalisation measures most of which we find acceptable, but there are question marks over one or two of them.
The first item in question is the matter of consultation. As I understand it, the Bill has been kicked around the Department for some time. I suspect that I could hear rumblings of it floating around the Department when I was there, and it has been discussed with a number of bodies—the CBI, the AMA, the ACC and the Association of District Councils. However, they have also put forward—I know that the Association of County Councils has done so—the view that there are a number of other items which ought to be included. I have here a letter from the National Association of Local Councils, which has some reservations and, indeed, some amendments that it would wish to see made to the Bill.
From reading the letter I am disturbed to learn that the association has apparently not been consulted. If that is so, it is unfortunate because that association represents thousands of parish, town and community councillors. It does not promote a vast amount of private legislation, but it is concerned in all these matters. When the Minister replies, perhaps he will tell us whether it was consulted. If it was not, it was not only discourteous but, frankly, not sensible. I hope that it can be included in future consultations.
49 When my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) replies to the debate from this side, he will make a number of fairly pungent and relevant points about individual clauses of the Bill. The Minister did not go into Clause 1 at great length, but we support it. However, there are problems of access for private owners which are not referred in the clause. That matter could be quite important and we may wish to examine it further.
I particularly welcome Clause 5, which deals with what I call the aerosol paint spray syndrome which seems to be prevalent throughout the country. This is a thoroughly vexing issue and many people, including myself, get excited at the aesthetic vandalism that takes place. There is the problem of enforcement of the new powers given in the Bill and the new penalties, because highways, signs or trees are usually sprayed in the middle of the night and the first anyone knows of it is early next morning. Nevertheless, we should not throw out the clause on those grounds alone. I welcome Clause 5.
The Minister mentioned Clauses 10 and 11. If my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will enlarge on those clauses. They give a general power which is quite wide, and some small authorities could be involved.
I accept what the Minister said about Clause 18. The recreational powers also seem to be drawn pretty wide and this, perhaps, should be looked at in Committee.
The principle of the Bill is that clauses for inclusion should be both non-controversial and well precedented. I understand that Clause 26, which the Minister dealt with quickly together with an earlier clause, has been taken from public health legislation and deals with works connected with that legislation such as, sewerage.
Clause 26 gives us great cause for concern at present. It is one reason why I welcome this debate on the Floor of the House today rather than in Committee. It is one of the shortest clauses in the Bill and could be potentially the most explosive. I understand that local authorities could exercise their powers to carry out considerable work outside as well as 50 within their areas and could thus greatly extend the scope of their direct labour operations, particularly in connection with their land acquisition powers in other local authority areas.
In another context the Minister referred to the recent West Midlands Bill which is now, happily, 6 ft. under. He will be aware that Conservative Members are extremely sensitive about this matter for a number of reasons. There are also the proposed Tyne and Wear Bill and the Greater London Council Bill, which propose a considerable extension of direct labour work. We know that the Minister for Planning and Local Government and the Minister for Housing and Construction have well-publicised desires for a massive extension of direct labour—a concept which we reject, particularly in the light of the Government's refusal to endorse or recommend local authorities to accept the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy recommendations on the tendering for and administration of direct labour work.
Although we shall not oppose the Bill, because that would be wrong, we shall want to probe that clause in Committee. We must reserve the right, if we are not satisfied, to take appropriate action on Report or on Third Reading.
We accept the concept of the Bill. It does not go far enough in certain fundamental areas and in other respects it goes too far. There must be a major reappraisal of central and local government relationships, because basically we believe that local government is now equipped to do more than any Government have allowed it to do in the past. That fundamental change has to await fundamental changes in local government finance which, we believe, are necessary.
At this stage I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading. We hope that it will prevent a plethora of Private Bills being promoted in the future, which is both expensive and time-consuming for the House and for local authorities. The Minister will, of course, appreciate that we shall wish to probe a number of matters in Committee.
§ 4.26 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)
I was amazed to hear the hon. Member 51 for Ashford (Mr. Speed) make a statement which he said all hon. Members can accept. He claimed that the local government reform of 1972 had produced basically the right set-up, and that it could now be given increased powers. I should have thought that it was common ground among all hon. Members that the reorganisation of local government left us in a worse and more difficult situation. If not, I do not know what the hon. Gentleman meant by his statement.
§ Mr. Speed
The hon. Gentleman should put that question to his right hon. Friend the Minister for Planning and Local Government. About a year ago I asked the Minister whether he had any proposals for basic changes in the present set-up and he replied "No". I made the point that we have a stronger and more viable local authority organisation which has been hit by inflation. Under the present set-up we can give it more powers.
§ Mr. Blenkinsop
The reorganisation of the health service is an example where so many changes have been made that it is not practicable, without considerable disturbance, to propose immediate further alternations. People would not know where they were. That does not mean to say that we accept the situation. We look forward to the time when the local government set-up can be more effective.
I agree with the hon. Member for Ashford on some matters. I believe that the Association of Metropolitan Authorities would have wished more powers to be included in the Bill. We understand the arguments on matters of this sort and the efforts to achieve a relatively non-controversial Bill. However, we can be so non-controversial as to be anaemic, and the Bill is just that—it lacks vitality.
I want to suggest one or two areas, which would still come within the definition of "non-controversial", which it would have been valuable to include in the Bill. I regret that the Association of Local Councils was not consulted. No doubt the Minister will clear that matter up when he replies. When he introduced the Bill and explained its general intentions, my hon. Friend said that both metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties were considering their own local powers, as they are required to do, and 52 were bringing forward their own proposals. He said that he hoped that this measure would make unnecessary some provisions which might otherwise have to be dealt with on a local basis. That is broadly true, but I still regret that items which have been long discussed in local government quarters and in this House have not been included.
An excellent private Bill has been presented by the Tyne and Wear Council—a Bill to which the hon. Member for Ashford referred discouragingly.
§ Mr. Blenkinsop
Obviously the hon. Member has not read that Bill. One clause which I believe would have his support deals with some of the problems of licensing hackney carriages and private hire vehicles. This matter has been discussed in the past in an attempt to clarify the position because of the great difficulties in the North-East and many other areas where strong objection has been expressed to the way in which some private hire vehicles have been allowed to operate to the detriment of hackney carriages. Some local Acts have been passed, notably in London, in a modest attempt to deal with this matter.
Some years ago, some of my hon. Friends and I secured promises from the previous Government that they intended to bring in legislation to deal with the matter nationally. Private measures have been withdrawn on that understanding. But despite the passage of years and the application of a good deal of pressure, nothing has been done. That is why the Tyne and Wear Council has included a lengthy clause on the matter.
This matter is pre-eminently suitable for inclusion in a Bill of this sort. It affects many areas, not just Tyne and Wear. It certainly involves no party divisions. I hope that the Minister will tell me either that a kindly view will be taken on an amendment to the Bill along these lines or that this will be a strong point in favour of the House accepting the Private Bill which I have mentioned.
It is common ground in these times that major local authorities should have reasonable opportunity at least to help to deal with severe unemployment problems, especially in industrial areas and above all in the most severely-hit older industrial areas. With that very proper 53 issue in mind, the Tyne and Wear Council included in its Bill modest provision to ensure that the main local authorities there should have wider powers to stimulate industrial and commercial development, with good will and in partnership with private enterprise and other authorities. Surely that is precisely the kind of provision that we should welcome. Again, it might have been included in the present Bill, since it is of concern not only to local authorities in my area.
I am sure that the Bill is valuable, but I still regret the omission of the provisions to which I have referred. I hope that we shall be able to discuss them in Committee.
§ 4.36 p.m.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)
As the Minister said, this is a non-controversial Bill and I do not want to introduce controversy. I agree with the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop). I, too, was surprised to hear what the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed) said about giving greater autonomy to local authorities. I support the idea in principle, but the last local government reform did not help in that direction——
§ Mr. Ross
We did not get what we wanted in the Isle of Wight and anyone will say privately that the system we have is almost impossible to work.
The hon. Member for Ashford does not want to see any further changes in the two-tier system of the county and the district. Is that a structure which can give meaningful devolution to local authorities? I do not believe it is. We must think regionally if we want to give power back to local areas. In that way, Acts of Parliament could be adapted according to local needs. For example, it would be helpful if it could be provided that the 1974 Rent Act need not apply in some areas. To make such a provision for the area of a county council, however, would involve numbers which were too small.
54 If we really want to give power to local authorities, they must have power to raise a proportion of their own finance without interference. Neither major party has made such a proposal. They should be able to raise, I believe, between 20 and 30 per cent. of their own finance. The right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) moved in that direction, but what he produced was a bed tax which the coastal resorts naturally did not feel was beneficial. However, a landing lax would be popular with local authorities in the Isle of Wight and others come to mind.
I welcome Clause 1, which gives local authorities powers to erect flagpoles and pylons on the highway to display advertisements. They should also be able to display election material. When I visited the borough of Solihull once I was impressed by the fact that at election time candidates' posters were put up by the local authority one after another on the lamp posts. That was a neat way of avoiding the tendency to scare the countryside at election time something of which all of us and our supporters have been guilty. That kind of election-time vandalism could be avoided in this way.
Clause 16 arises out of the Public Health Act 1961 and Section 231 of the Public Health Act 1936. This matter is dear to my heart. I introduced a Ten-Minute Bill to give local authorities the power to take action in respect of private swimming pools whose facilities are enjoyed by members of the public for which they pay no fee. I believe that a simple amendment to the Bill would cover that situation. A Home Office working party examined the subject of safety in swimming pools and on our coasts and that working party admitted that new legislation was required. I believe that the point could be covered by a slight addition to Clause 16, and perhaps we can consider this matter again in Committee.
I welcome Clause 18 covering recreational facilities. Facilities could be improved in many areas, and this certainly applies to my constituency. Obviously the burden will fall on local authorities, and anything that can be done to make the extent of their powers clearer will be greatly welcomed.
I am a little concerned over the situation which is arising where premises that 55 are empty are half-rated. I am all for the half rating of domestic properties that are left empty and put to no useful purpose, but I believe that this matter has got out of order. No doubt the right hon. Member for Crosby could assist me on this matter. I understand that it falls within the Local Government Act 1972——
§ Mr. Ross
I am obliged to the right hon. Member for putting me right. Some authorities appear to be taking these powers to ridiculous lengths. They are being applied to commercial premises that are empty and for sale and where the owners have done everything to sell the property and have even tried to obtain planning permission to change to residential occupation but have been refused. A case was brought to my notice on Saturday where an empty rundown property in a secondary situation has been rated to the extent of £650. That is surely unfair, and the authorities should reconsider the case.
I have had recent personal experience of this problem. I purchased a property for my 82-year-old mother-in-law which I intend to modernise. However, I was surprised to receive a demand for half rates. The local authority said that it had no power to waive the demand since the property had been empty for six months. Since that provision came within the 1974 Act, the local authority had no choice but to implement it.
§ Mr. Graham Page
The hon. Gentleman may be pleased to know that in cases of hardship local authorities can waive demands.
§ Mr. Ross
I am glad to have that remark on the record. I shall use that quotation from Hansard when I next write to the borough treasurer in my area. The advice I was given was to see the local valuation officer and to ask him to put a nil assessment on the property, but he would not be likely to agree to that request. I was certainly unaware that the property when I bought it had been empty for six months, and therefore I was most surprised to receive that demand for half rates. I cannot believe that that effect was intended in the original legisla- 56 tion, and I hope that perhaps somebody will listen to my plea and take the necessary action.
It is a pity that the Bill could not be widened in many respects. This is a great opportunity to give some non-controversial powers to local authorities. It was inevitable that the West Midland County Council Bill was lost, but there were provisions in that Bill which would have been of value to local authorities. I particularly instance the provision relating to noise, dogs and other important points. When Private Bills of that nature are thrown out, a substantial cost is thrown on the ratepayers—and all to no avail. I appreciate that there is a need to produce legislation reasonably quickly, but perhaps we should seek to give local authorities more powers in other respects.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Gwynfor Evans (Carmarthen)
I wish to select three matters for comment in this many-faceted Bill. First, I wish to refer to the matter of unoccupied premises which is dealt with in Clause 7. I should like to see that clause amended and extended to enable Welsh local authorities to deal effectively with an issue which causes much anxiety in many parts of Wales. I refer to the subject of decaying village communities. This is associated with what are called tai haf—summer houses—which are unoccupied for all but a few weeks of the year.
Local authorities in Wales need power, finance and a directive to do all they can to maintain small rural village communities in existence and to foster them. It is anti-social to uproot people from their local communities, but too often they are forced to move out, not only by lack of work but by lack of housing.
For example, my own district council of Dinefwr intends to build 150 houses in the town of Llandovery. Apparently the council will build no houses in the smaller villages within a 12-mile radius of Llandovery, although those areas are being rapidly depopulated. The local authority is prohibited from buying houses that come up for sale in those villages. In consequence, where there used to be vital communities and excellent rural schools we see a situation such as that in Cilycwm, a village now composed almost entirely of summer houses or 57 houses occupied almost exclusively by old-age pensioners. As a community, such a village dies.
In my parish there is a chapel in the district of Gwynfe in which there is a memorial stone to the late Reverend William Thomas, who ministered in that chapel for 40 years at the end of the last century and the beginning of this century. The stone notes the fact that he gave over 1,000 introductory letters to other churches to members of his church who had moved from the district to other, mainly industrial, areas. The whole population of that district is now fewer than 250. Yet no houses are being built there or bought in the village by the district council.
Power for local authorities to buy local houses and to let them to local people is a desperately important need in many adequate arts and sports facilities, and which a generation ago was almost monoglot Welsh-speaking, there are large villages, such as Llanbedrog and Aberdaron, where over 75 per cent. of the homes are now summer houses. So it is in Merioneth, where one house in five is a summer house. In the village of Rhyd, the proportion is over 80 per cent. summer houses. This lamentable situation is fairly general in West Wales, most of which is Welsh speaking—and we must remember that that area comprises half of Wales.
One way of measuring the sincerity of the anxiety professed by the Government to help the language and traditional life of Wales is not only to examine what is being done about a Welsh national television channel but to see whether the Government intend to give local authorities power, finance and directives to take over empty houses in these circumstances and to let them to local people.
I turn briefly to Clause 16, which promises to be useful for Dyfed, where we have a long and lovely coastline which attracts many thousands of visitors each year. Much of the coastline is in the national park area, and I would like to draw attention to the fact that discord and even conflict between the district council and the national park authority is possible. For example, the two authorities might differ about what should be done on a beach. One authority might think it right for cars and other vehicles 58 to be allowed on the beach, where there might be a source of revenue, but the other authority might think that this was contrary to its duties. The Bill should make plain where the ultimate authority lies, and the district council should be obliged to consult the county council when framing its byelaws.
I welcome Clause 18, which enhances the powers of local authorities to provide creational facilities. The clause refers to physical recreation, but there are other means of providing facilities for recreation in the arts. I therefore make a plea for the easiest and closest co-operation between the local councils, the Sports Council, the Arts Council and the education authority in order to provide comprehensive leisure centres with facilities for both physical and arts recreation.
For a long time I have believed that we do not show enough vision when constructing and using school buildings. Too often when facilities are provided for adult education courses, for recreation in the arts and for sport, such as swimming and field games, they are unnecessarily put in buildings which are separate from the school buildings or on land which is separate from that belonging to the school. In most cases new schools should be designed with community needs in mind. They should include a canteen, rooms for meetings of all kinds, a place for concerts with a good stage, and dressing rooms, and they should be buildings where the local library and health centre can be housed all under one roof. A swimming pool and playing fields for public as well as pupil use should be part of the complex. Such facilities are needed as much in rural areas as in industrial districts and urban conurbations.
To illustrate what I have in mind I refer to my county town of Carmarthen, where I hope that we shall have that kind of co-operation in the future. A strong movement in the area is working for a comprehensive leisure centre with a swimming pool, provision for other sports, a theatre and facilities for opera, music and the other arts. The plan coincides with the reorganisation of local secondary schools on comprehensive lines and it provides a golden opportunity for the education authority, the district council and other councils to co-operate together closely to ensure that we have adequate arts and sports facilities, and 59 for co-operation with the representative committee which has been elected by the public. In that way we could secure, in association with or as part of the buildings or territory of the comprehensive school, a leisure centre worthy of the province of Dyfed. It would serve a wide area including part of the industrial belt.
A development of that kind would transform facilities for some sports and all the arts in the district. All the authorities that I have named are anxious to co-operate to make Carmarthen a notable centre for physical and other recreation. I hope that the Bill will help and stimulate that aim.
§ 4.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Rost (Derbyshire, South-East)
We do not often have the opportunity to give credit to any legislation introduced by the present Government, but I regard this as such an occasion. I shall confine myself specifically to two clauses which I think have been slipped into a Bill, which is largely hotchpotch. I regard Clauses 10 and 11, which deal with district heating, as important. They mark a breakthrough by the Government to a recognition that they have a rôle to play in the promotion of a more rational use of our energy. I wish to comment on the two clauses because of my particular interest in energy conservation. I am especially pleased to have the opportunity to address my remarks to the Minister for Planning and Local Government rather than having to pester the Secretary of State for Energy.
The purpose of the two clauses is to allow local authorities to produce and sell heat and electricity. By that we have reached a notable milestone. Many experts on energy conservation and many concerned with plumbing and heating engineering, fuel consultants, scientists and many authoritative reports, official and otherwise, for many years have urged that we should do more to use our heat well and sensibly, particularly in the form of district heating.
The District Heating Association, whose membership includes more than 30 local authorities and representatives from the electricity industry, has been trying for three years to secure legislation along the lines of the Bill. 60 Individual district heating schemes require a Private Bill before they can go ahead. We hope that Clauses 10 and 11 will change that.
Although the clauses appear to be a move in the right direction by the Government in recognising that they have a responsibility and have to set the framework, they are only a start and do not go far enough. The powers are too limited. Restricting the powers to the production of heat and electricity, but to the sale only of heat, is not good enough.
In other countries where district heating is more advanced than here local authorities have the discretion to produce heat and to sell heat and electricity. In this country we are still encumbered by the monopoly statutory powers of the electricity industry, powers which make it impossible for anybody else to sell electricity. Under Clauses 10 and 11 it will be possible to produce heat and power and to sell electricity, but only by agreement with the CEGB and with the approval of the Secretary of State.
Can the Minister tell us how the powers are likely to be applied in individual cases as they arise? For example, how will agreement be reached? To what extent will the CEGB tolerate competition by local authorities in the sale of electricity? To what extent will the Secretary of State authorise schemes involving the sale of electricity as part of the generation of heat and power for district heating?
One of the reasons why district heating has not progressed as much in this country as it has elsewhere is that the most economic form of production generally involves the joint production of heat and electricity, using electricity almost as the by-product, the heat being the main product. Therefore, unless we can find a realistic market for the electricity produced in such schemes, with a fair price paid or with freedom to sell that electricity, the whole scheme will fall down economically. We need clarification of whether this is a genuine attempt to allow sensible, cost-effective schemes to go ahead, by ensuring that a fair price is obtained for the electricity produced, or that there will be discretion for the marketing of that electricity independently of the CEGB.
61 I should like to see the clauses widened to cover bodies other than local authorities. Why are only local authorities to be given powers to produce heat and electricity? Why is the private sector, for example, not to be given such powers? District heating would be most suitable for many privately-built housing estates. Housing co-operatives should also be included. There are industrial and commercial enterprises combined with homes where district heating would be an advantage and commercially viable. Nearly everywhere in the rest of the world where district heating is making rapid strides it is because many of the schemes are developed by private industry or private groups and not only by local authorities.
It is important to refer to the background of district heating in this country in order to emphasise my point that we need to do much more. In 1963 there were about three schemes. Today we have more than 500, but we should not be complacent about that figure, because most of those are very small municipal schemes. The percentage of district heating compared with domestic housing is very small here, and does not compare favourably with the rest of the world. For example, I understand that of the 30 new or developed towns in this country, which one would imagine were ideal for the development of district heating schemes, only two—Peterborough and Basingstoke—have largish district heating schemes. That is not good enough. We should be making much more progress.
Although developments are proceeding satisfactorily in a small way, what is alarming is that virtually none of the schemes that are in operation, being built or projected use reject heat from our power stations. That is a nonsense. Even Battersea Power Station, which heats part of Pimlico, does not—contrary to the general view—use the reject heat. It uses a small auxiliary generating set. We must begin to make progress in the use of waste heat from power stations for district heating rather than burning extra fuel unnecessarily. It is a criminal waste of national resources not to use the reject heat from power stations, which would be ideal in many places. Instead, we are continuing to develop district heating 62 schemes with their own boiler systems using their own fuel.
One major scheme in Nottingham uses municipal refuse. That is a move in the right direction. But other schemes should be tying in with the CEGB and consuming waste heat. That is what happens in the rest of the world. Here we still waste two-thirds of the energy we put into our power stations. The heat lost in the cooling systems should be used for district heating.
A reduction of air pollution has been one advantage of schemes combining heat and power production using waste heat from power stations. That has been found particularly in heavily-populated areas of Europe. The fact that we continue to waste two-thirds of our fuel in power stations and then develop separate district heating systems, burning extra oil or gas, is a scandal. The Government should take the initiative to end it.
§ Mr. Oakes
I am most interested in the hon. Gentleman's speech, though it does not arise directly from the Bill—I do not say that disparagingly. The Waste Management Advisory Council, of which I am chairman, is looking into all aspects of the utilisation of not only local authority waste but waste heat. It has a committee studying the matter jointly with the Energy Committee. The hon. Gentleman is raising very important considerations.
§ Mr. Rost
I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention. I am aware that a Government committee is studying the matter. I know that under Dr. Marshall, the Government's Chief Scientist, it has been investigating the application of waste heat, including its use for district heating, for about a year. But it is time for a bit more action, less talking and fewer committees. We have only to see what is happening in the rest of the world to realise that no new technology is involved. I hope that the clauses will be a beginning, and that the Government will appreciate the need to move further towards the more sensible use of our energy resources.
The matter is especially relevant today, when problems of hypothermia are affecting particularly those on low incomes, pensioners, the disabled and the housebound, who are incapable of paying the 63 huge electricity bills which face those who are entombed in local authority homes heated entirely by electricity. This is the sort of area where district heating would be cost effective, because in any case the taxpayer is having to subsidise these hardship cases through supplementary fuel allowances.
Apart from the benefits to comfort and health that would result, such investment in the promotion of more district heating by Government aid would make sense. The incentives which are provided in other coutnries, such as Sweden, which offers interest-free loans for connections to district heating, are well known to the Government. In Denmark one-third of all houses are now connected to some form of district heating.
Tremendous progress is being made in other countries. In Germany a vast scheme is going ahead for the application of waste heat from power stations to district heating, and Germany is not a country which wastes its public funds or resources. In fact, most of its projects are cost-effective, and there is no doubt that this project also has been found to be cost-effective.
If I were to dilate in detail about developments in the rest of the world I might be straying out of order, and I do not wish to do that. The point I wish to emphasise is that these clauses ought to be amended to provide a little more initiative for the speeding up of district heating developments, and in particular I should like to see more co-operation between the CEGB and local authorities in marketing waste heat from power stations. I understand that the CEGB has for some months been looking at 21 possible major district heating schemes using waste heat. We have not yet heard about any of them, and this is the sort of subject about which one would like to have some information to find out how seriously matters are progressing.
The benefits to the economy would be enormous. The Building Research Establishment, in its report of June 1975, estimated that we use one-third of our primary energy in this country in power stations and that only 27 per cent. of that energy actually reaches the consumer in the form of electricity, the rest being rejected. The overall efficiency of power stations in the production of electricity 64 and steam for district heating could be raised from about 27 per cent. to over 70 per cent.
Although one is theorising in suggesting that all domestic space and water heating could be provided from waste heat, because this is not a practical solution, nevertheless the heat being rejected by power stations in this country is enough to heat every building in this country free—free in the sense that the heat is at the moment being wasted and a large proportion of it could be used. If we were to move a fair way towards this reform, it has been reliably estimated that we could save something approaching 10 per cent. of our primary energy consumption, and that represents £1,000 million a year of our fuel bills at current prices.
The backing to what I am suggesting comes from a very wide range of authoritative reports. The recently published Plowden Report on the structure of the electricity industry emphasised the need for district heating. I therefore hope that the recommendations of the Plowden Report—I refer in particular to paragraphs 4.22 and 4.23—will be borne in mind in Committee when we consider Clauses 10 and 11.
I should like to quote the Plowden Report as follows:A good deal of evidence has been presented to us suggesting that the electricity industry could do more to secure the economic use of fuel.The Report also states:The industry's structure must not impede the economic use of resources.It goes on to refer to district heating. The Select Committee on Science and Technology produced its report on energy conservation last September. That Committee took overwhelming evidence from a large number of sources, and its recommendations included the promotion of more district heating and the removal of any disincentives in the form of statutory restraints.
By having introduced Clauses 10 and 11, the Government recognise that some action is needed. But the clauses do not go far enough. We want further widening of the powers so that we can move ahead more rapidly. I should like the Government to go even further. Why not start with a pilot scheme in Whitehall 65 and the surrounding areas and give real encouragement to the more economic use of our energy by using the waste heat from nearby power stations? London power stations alone could domestically heat every building in the whole of the Greater London area. One does not need to draw attention to the urgency of the more rational use of energy and the alleviation of financial and physical hardship which would result among large sections of the community if we did this.
I welcome the Bill, hoping that we can regard this as only a beginning to the Government's recognition that there is a role to play here. I hope that we shall hear less of the difficulties in the use of waste heat for district heating and a little more of the advantages, and that we shall accept our responsibilities in this House for removing the statutory constraints, for providing a few incentives and for shaking up the inertia in our system. The energy savings that will result are too large to allow us to continue to ignore them. The investment involved is cost-effective. That has been proved. It is time that we took this matter more seriously.
§ 5.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)
As the Minister said, much of this Bill is uncontroversial. We have to assess whether it should be passed into law. We all recognise that local government is going through an unhappy period, not least because of the recent history of massive rate increases, due not to the nature of reorganisation, but primarily to inflation and lack of control over staff levels.
The Bill has to be seen against the background of public disillusion and the prospect of nil growth in the expenditure of local government—a prospect not just for one year but extended over three years or for even longer. I say "a prospect" because there are still counties like Bedfordshire which continue to flout the exhortations from the Minister, and my own county of Northamptonshire which, after cutting £2 million of the impending rate increase, happily decided thereafter to spend a rate support grant of £2 million, so that the rates are going up unnecessarily. If I am selected to serve on the Standing Committee, I shall regard it as my duty to question in detail the 66 necessity of these clauses at a time of financial stringency. They also have to be questioned in the knowledge that there are certain functions in local government which are not being carried out adequately and for which local government cries out time and again for more resources.
There are a number of clauses with questions-marks hanging over them. I recognise the importance of Clause 7, but with my background in one of the inner London boroughs I wonder whether the power for local authorities to board up uninhabitable homes should be only discretionary. Perhaps we ought to think seriously about making it mandatory. Much of the problem of squatting and desecration of neighbouring properties is caused by the fact that empty houses have not been boarded up.
My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) spoke wisely and at great length about Clause 10. I hope that we shall consider the rôle of oil in heating. It is being used by the Northampton Development Corporation and has proved a mixed blessing in district heating.
My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Jones) has expressed concern, which I share, about Clause 14. I should be grateful for a copy of the letter which is being produced for my hon. Friend.
Many of us welcome Clause 18, though there are a number of unhappy examples of local authorities providing recreational facilities with phoney costing. A golf course was provided in Northampton and electricity cables had to be re-routed, but that was not costed against the job. If we are to widen the powers of local authorities to provide recreational facilities, we must include safeguards so that ratepayers know the exact cost of projects.
When I was in local government, I viewed with considerable horror precepts from other authorities and I find it a little strange that local authority associations have accepted the power in Clause 23 to allow authorities to precept on others in order to build up their capital funds. We shall have to discuss this matter further in Committee.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed), I view the provisions 67 of Clause 26 with some concern. There is an unhappy ratio in the Bill of powers increased to powers decreased. There are two clauses which tidy up or amend legislation and withdraw local authority powers and 35 clauses seeking more powers.
There are several points of common interest. Perhaps the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) and I can get together in Committee to draft a new clause dealing with hackney carriages and hire cars. There are a number of towns with very unhappy experiences in this respect. This would be a marginally more controversial but considerably more useful subject for a new clause than would many other subjects.
Other matters need airing. I hope that the Government will be more forthcoming in telling the House when Bills dealing with more controversial subjects in local government are likely to come forward. There could be nothing worse for the House than having to deal with a plethora of individual local authority Bills. It would be an enormous waste of our time and of the time and resources of people in local government, as well as of ratepayers' money. If we are to have legislation on some of these more controversial subjects, the Government should tell us and give us some idea of the timing.
If there is to be nil growth in local government, we ought to ask local authorities to look stringently at some of their activities and tell us which they would like to give up. Nothing would give us more joy than to have a Bill from local authorities saying that 36 functions were out of date and that Parliament should take them back until it was prepared to give local authorities the resources to carry them out.
§ 5.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)
I have some nostalgic affection for this Bill, which has been cooing seductively in the pigeon-holes of the Department of the Environment for some years. It has at last been released to flutter down to the Floor of the House, but it seems to have lost many feathers on the way. I recollect that at one time it had 50 more clauses than it has now.
68 The Minister has presented it as a canary, but I am not sure that, in some parts, it is not a bit of a hawk. As a canary, we are told, it is merely pecking at a few crumbs of power incidental to the functions already carried out by local authorities. I say that it is something of a hawk because in several instances it claws into local government functions which will be expensive for the ratepayers and unfairly competitive with commercial and industrial enterprises in an authority's area. In Committee we shall have to study carefully the purport of each item, read the small print, read between the lines, explore every avenue, turn every stone and do all the other things which denote a careful examination of the Bill.
I admit that local government reorganisation laid the egg from which this bird was hatched. Section 262(9) of the Local Government Act 1972 provides that local statutory provisions should cease to have effect in metropolitan counties in 1979 and elsewhere at the end of 1984. It is quite right that the Secretary of State should try to help along this process by putting what he would call some well-precedented clauses of local Private Acts into this general statute and thereby reducing the number of provisions for which new Private Bills will require to come before the House.
However, a slight cloud of suspicion crosses my horizon. Are local councils—apart from those already lucky enough to have these sorts of powers in their own Private Acts—getting powers they might not be given if they had to come to Parliament for them individually? There is sometimes good reason for saying to an enthusiastic council that it must prove its case before Parliament and satisfy us of its need for certain powers.
I wonder why a district council in the West Midlands should have power to make byelaws in respect of bathing and boating to an area within 1,000 metres seaward of low water mark? That seems to be stretching powers unnecessarily far. Why should an urban district have power to provide places at which food, drink and tobacco may be bought as well as power to provide dance studios, riding schools or water ski-ing without running the gauntlet of objection from those who provide such facilities and services in a local authority's area?
69 Perhaps we ought to be dealing with this subject in exactly the reverse manner. Perhaps we ought to consider which Private Act powers are still necessary for the authorities which have them, rather than extending them to all local authorities. Why should the Inner London Education Authority have the power of compulsory purchase for the purpose of providing golf courses or bowling greens, or even for selling drink and tobacco? Why should so many of the functions be given in duplication to district councils and county councils, and even to parish councils? There has been complaint from time to time that in the course of local government reorganisation we gave the powers to all authorities to use as they chose and that this resulted in duplication. The Bill does not make much distinction between the powers of district councils, county councils and parish councils.
I am not unaware of Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, which gives wide powers to all local authorities. During the preparation for the reorganisation of local government there was considerable discussion upon whether local authorities should in future be given full powers of government, except for powers reserved by statute for central Government or, on the other hand, whether they should retain the traditional rôle of local authorities and have only the powers given to them by statute. The latter principle won the day and local authorities in future, as in the past, have to justify any activity, power or function by pointing to a statutory authority for it.
Forty years earlier there had been decided the case of the Attorney-General v. Smethwick Corporation. The Smeth-wick Corporation set up its own printing works and duplicating machines, rather as we have done on the Interview Floor. That was found to be within the incidental powers of local authorities. Department of the Environment Circular 121/72 explains:the Local Government Act 1972 includes a new provision which puts beyond doubt that local authorities have power to do anything which is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of their functions, even if they have no specific statutory power for that action.Section 111(3) provides: 70A local authority shall not by virtue of this section raise money, whether by means of rates, precepts or borrowing, or lend money except in accordance with the enactments relating to those matters respectivelyIn that connection we shall have to look carefully at the innovation in Clause 23 which introduces a new Section 17(3) into the Local Government Act 1972, giving local authorities the power to make a rate or issue a precept for capital funds and repairs and renewals funds. Those funds up to the present have been financed by capital borrowings and not by rate or precept.
Up to this stage I have not said anything controversial or raised any political issues between Conservatives and Socialists or between Opposition and Government. I have raised legal issues but not party political issues. When we come to the methods of exercising these powers by local government and the way the work is done, we encounter party political differences.
Where does one draw the line between carrying out these functions, on the one hand, by direct employees of the council and, on the other, by arranging for the functions to be performed by another under contract? When local government expenditure is taking more and more of our gross national product, it is essential to take a firm grip of the problem and formulate a clear policy. Should the local councils carry out by direct labour all their house building, all their road building, road maintenance, all their cultural, sporting and amenity building, all their refuse collection and refuse disposal, all their computer operations, libraries, swimming baths, parks and gardens, or could many of those items be done better under contract?
Some local authorities make a success of direct labour. The majority do not—if success is measured financially in speed of operation, or in the economic use of manpower. Even where direct labour appears to be successful, it causes such a dislocation of the local economy that it just is not worth it. It is bound to deprive rate-paying and tax-paying undertakings in commerce and industry of the earnings out of which Government revenue is derived.
Let us, for example, look at the provisions of the Bill, taking the smallest 71 function in Clause 1, the power of a local authority toerect flagpoles, pylons and other structures on any highway in its area for the purpose of displaying decorations.There are private undertakings which do that work. Yet I am sure that once we give councils the power to do this work, many will put their own roadmen, builders and carpenters on to the job, employing clerks to look at the day sheets and time sheets and to calculate wage packets, insurance, PAYE and superannuation for each workman. They will employ buyers to purchase materials for making flagpoles and pylons, accountants to account for the VAT and perhaps even a chief decorations display officer to run the demonstrations department of the council.
The same might apply to the district heating clauses—Clauses 10 and 11—and to Clause 18, which deals with the provision of places of entertainment. These are all matters in respect of which, instead of employing an operational staff both in the field and in the office, the local authority staff could be reduced to a small management team letting out the work on contract.
In this connection the last paragraph of the Explanatory Memorandum is farcical. It states:The Bill will have no direct effect on either central or local government staff.The Secretary of State must be kidding. The Bill contains provisions for licensing scaffolding, controlling mortar mixing on the highway, licensing the digging of holes and the making of mounds in the road, the removal of unauthorised graffiti, the revocation and amendment of new street orders, the enormous undertaking of direct heating taking over the powers of the CEGB and the electricity boards, new byelaws over local territorial waters, extensive powers of building and manning places of entertainment, discovering and felling dangerous trees and authorising persons to do so and fixing times and charges for local fairs and markets. In face of all that we are solemnly told that the Bill will have no direct effect on central or local government staff.
I know that many councils already have these powers and do these things, but many have not and do not. What 72 excuse has the Secretary of State for saying that the Bill will have no effect on staff? That must be his little joke. In short, he says "Never mind about these chaps who will be given their licensing empires and their consents-issuing bureaux, each with a score of temporary agency typists. We shall save the time of assistant solicitors in a few council offices who would otherwise spend a few hours each year instructing parliamentary agents to put certain clauses in a Private Bill." The Explanatory Memorandum adds:It should have indirectly a beneficial effect on local authority manpower by removing these clauses from the field of future local legislation.There will be a few hours saved each year. We shall all look forward eagerly to this important reduction in local authority staff. There will also be a reduction in expenditure, because the paragraph which appears immediately above says:An indirect financial benefit will result from the reduction in the size of local authority private Bills.I suspect that instead we shall hear the usual bleat from local authorities that they must have more money and more staff because Parliament has landed them with more and not less work. Indeed, all the paragraphs under the headings, "Financial Effects of the Bill" seem to be just a big joke. The first paragraph says:Since all the powers are discretionary the Bill will place no financial obligations on local authorities or the Secretary of State.Surely the Secretary of State realises that when a local authority is given the power to do something, there will be pressure upon it to do it. A simple example arises from Clause 5. How will a council with the power to attack the writers on the wall resist the demands of its electorate to wash off "Wogs must go", "Shoot the Shah", or some political party "Out"? Undoubtedly, in all these cases where a local authority has permissive powers it is forced to use them.
However, we are assured that expenditure will be minimal—to provide under Clause 18 sports centres; swimming pools; skating rinks; tennis, squash and badminton courts; bowling centres; dance studios; riding schools; cycle tracks; golf courses; camp sites; facilities for gliding, boating, water ski-ing and 73 fishing; premises for athletic, social and recreational clubs; facilities for parking spaces, food, drink and tobacco.
This power goes far beyond the powers given to local authorities by Section 4 of the Physical Training and Recreation Act 1937, which I gather Clause 18 is intended to replace. The only powers given previously were to provide gymnasiums, playing fields, holiday camps, camping and clubs with athletic, social, or educational objects. I grant the Minister that the Explanatory Memorandum graciously acknowledges that in the case of district heating the expenditure might not be minimal. Despite what my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) has said, I can envisage the birth of the most enormous white elephants in district heating—bigger than the ski-slope at Kirby—conceived under the permissive provisions of Clauses 10 and 11.
I am not anamoured of the monopolistic powers of the nationalised electricity industry. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East will have to work very hard on me to convince me that we shall do better by indiscriminate local take-overs by councils inexperienced in and ill-equipped for that function, unless, of course, they take on a massive staff to do it. I was impressed by my hon. Friend's observation that elsewhere in the world private enterprise is doing this very efficiently.
§ Mr. Rost
I was attempting to suggest that basically private enterprise should be involved in these schemes, but that they could be sponsored, or at least authorised, by a democratically elected local authority. That would be preferable to the present monopoly system, over which one has little control.
§ Mr. Page
I am delighted that my hon. Friend and I are thinking along the same lines and not relying on the statement in the Explanatory Memorandum thatIncome would be derived from the sale of heat".By how much a year does the taxpayer subsidise the nationalised electricity industry? If it is to be done by the ratepayer, I pity him.
I turn to Clause 26 which says:Any power to execute works which is conferred on a local authority by any enactment 74 may, unless the contrary intention appears in that or any other enactment, be exercised outside as well as inside the area of the authority.Having traced this back to its origin, which I think I am right in saying is Section 274 of Public Health Act 1936, I find that this clause is nothing like its parent. The 1936 Act certainly gave a power for one local authority to carry out public health functions in another authority's area. That power has been used for the laying of sewers and so on. However, there has been nothing as wide as the present Clause 26. Certainly in Committee we shall ask what that means and even at this stage I ask the Minister what it means.
In my view it is a recipe for civil war. Can Leeds exercise compulsory purchase powers in Bradford? Can Liverpool install district heating in Manchester? Can Newcastle build a new sports stadium in Gateshead? Can Scunthorpe build a ski-slope in Scarborough? We want to know a great deal more about the intentions of Clause 26.
I have no desire to reduce the functions common to all local authorities. However, I do not see any need at present to increase those functions and thereby to increase the level of local expenditure. We can safely increase the discretion and flexibility of local authorities within the limits of their present functions. However, rather than seeking to extend those limits, we should be defining them with more precision so that they do not bulge more and more as a result of a local council's enthusiasm for more and more power for the council or the Government's imposition of more and more functions on local authorities.
§ 5.48 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Alec Jones)
When my hon. Friend introduced the Bill, he said that it consisted entirely of well-precedented matters and non-controversial clauses When the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed) began his speech, I thought how wise and right my hon. Friend had been. However, as the debate wore on I took the view that, although we might get away with it on a non-controversial basis tonight, we should not retain that degree 75 of unanimity when we reached Committee. In fact, when the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) said he was "cooing seductively" he could have fooled me. His criticisms were quite extensive and in some instances went somewhat beyond the actual Bill. Certainly they were such as to make it inevitable that we shall have an interesting, if somewhat controversial, Committee stage.
I emphasise that in the main the clauses were included alter consultation with local authorities. I propose to take up the first matter raised by the hon. Member for Ashford, who spoke about the position of the National Association of Local Councils concerning consultation. The hon. Gentleman said that the Association was not included in the consultations with associations representing authorities with powers to promote legislation. That is true.
However, I am advised that the Association has been consulted separately about some of the provisions of the Bill. For example, the Government propose to introduce an amendment to meet a specific point which has been made on Clause 25. The Association has also been consulted about the possibility of legislation specifically tailored to the needs of parish and community councils. In other words, the Association was not included in the original consultation processes, but it has not been overlooked.
The debate has shown that local authorities, local authority associations, and hon. Members are interested in the Bill. That is inevitable as the Bill covers a wide range of local government matters. The Bill demonstrates how private legislation reaches into every nook and corner of local authority activity and hence affects the daily lives of many people.
First, I should like to take up some of the observations about the rationalisation of local law. I should emphasise that the Bill is only part of a continuing process of securing in public legislation those ancillary powers which local authorities need to enable them to work smoothly and effectively. For instance, in the last two Sessions a couple of dozen local Act provisions have been incorporated in legislation on specific functions. That process will continue. Indeed, further 76 consultations with the local authority associations are in progress.
Several hon. Members have mentioned the text of the Bill. I am sure that many of those matters will be referred to time and again in Committee.
The hon. Member for Ashford, among others, referred to Clauses 1 and 18 and, in particular, to the important general power in Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972. That is the power enabling local authorities to take incidental actions for the purposes of their main functions. That has been taken into account in the preparation of the Bill. Again, I am sure that we shall come back to that topic in Committee.
The right hon. Member for Crosby and other hon. Members referred to Clause 26. Some did so in more critical terms than others. That clause will certainly be discussed in detail in Committee. I am advised that it does not give any new powers to work for other people.
We had a useful contribution on energy and energy conservation by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost). I have no wish to be critical of anything we said about the need to conserve energy and to use energy resources wisely. The hon. Gentleman welcomed Clauses 10 and 11. Those clauses will enable local authorities to produce electricity in the course of producing heat. The main function is the production of heat, not electricity, on an economic basis. Local authorities will not set themselves up as alternative suppliers of electricity. If they generate electricity they will sell it to the Central Electricity Generating Board.
The hon. Gentleman made the interesting suggestion of extending these powers to private enterprise. I am not sure whether an amendment on those lines would be approriate. This is a local government Bill which gives powers only to local authorities.
§ Mr. Jones
I was dealing specifically with how the clauses would operate and indicating that the extension of such a power could not be included in a Bill specifically dealing with the provision of powers for local authorities.
77 I cannot challenge the hon. Gentleman's assertion about waste heat from power stations, because I am not an expert. The Bill will enable local authorities to buy as well as to produce heat. Therefore, it could be of some help. I do not put it any higher than that. I am sure that we shall explore that topic in depth in Committee.
The right hon. Member for Crosby and other hon. Members referred to Clause 18. The number of clauses referred to by hon. Members has been somewhat limited. That suggests that perhaps not all the Bill will be contentious. Most of the powers in Clause 18 could be exercised under the broader and vaguer wording of Section 4 of the Physical Training and Recreation Act 1937. We are seeking to use virtually the same powers but in a more reasonable form.
Some hon. Members suggested other matters which ought to be included in the Bill. Whereas some have said that there is too much in the Bill and that they would want to knock little pieces out, I think that the majority would like to add powers.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) and the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) suggested the inclusion of a provision giving power to deal with the law on hackney carriages. The Home Department, which has responsibility for that subject, holds the view that it is likely to prove controversial in several respects, but it intends to prepare a Bill embodying new codes of control for both hackney carriages and private hire cars. A consultative document is being prepared for circulation to the bodies representing the various trade interests, local authority associations, enforcement authorities and other Government Departments.
§ Mr. Blenkinsop
Is my hon. Friend aware that something almost precisely like that was said at least four years ago? Could he put some vigour behind the Home Department to make progress?
§ Mr. Speed
I endorse that—not only four years ago but 14 years ago. Will the Minister put a megaton stick of dynamite behind the Home Department? Everybody, except apparently the Home Department, knows the difficulties in this matter. It is about time that officials in 78 the Home Department pulled their fingers out.
§ Mr. Jones
I am glad that I do not have to defend the actions of other Departments on all occasions. I confess that I do not know with any degree of certainty what the Home Department said four years ago, and I certainly could not remember what was said 14 years ago.
It is obvious from the contributions which have been made that this kind of provision is bound to be controversial. Its controversial nature led us to exclude it. I doubt whether the kind of provision suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields would marry with that suggested by the hon. Member for Northampton, South.
§ Mr. Michael Morris
We are not arguing across the Chamber,—I think there is a fair degree of unanimity. We are arguing about the lack of industry and enthusiasm with which the Home Office is tackling a common problem throughout the country.
§ Mr. Jones
When the Bill was being drawn up, it was decided that such matters should be left to specialised legislation because of their controversial character. Far be it from me to suggest that this course be taken, but it is possible to table amendments. The hon. Gentleman knows that there are various methods of making mutual approaches.
The hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) referred to Clause 16 and the power to make byelaws covering private swimming pools to which the public are admitted and for which no charge is made. There is no precedent in existing local Acts to cover the point. As has been made clear, we are seeking to include only those powers for which there are precedents. Although I should not talk about it too much, the hon. Gentleman has a course of action open to him. The more who take that course of action, of course, the longer I am likely to be delayed in Committee.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Evans) referred to the lack of houses in the countryside. I understand the deep feelings of the hon. Gentleman and many others in this respect. It is a problem that will have to be considered within housing legislation. That sort of power is not included in the Bill, as there is no precedent provision.
79 The hon. Gentleman also mentioned vacant properties and suggested that the Bill should give local authorities power to acquire them. I understand that the local authorities already have that power. The hon. Gentleman's point would be met if they chose to exercise them. Perhaps he was suggesting that we should provide powers to compel local authorities to take such action. That would be contrary to the nature of the Bill. We are seeking to provide local authorities with powers which they may choose to operate, depending on their views.
§ Mr. Gwynfor Evans
I understand that local authorities have not been able to use the powers that they possess over the past few months. I know that in my own area the district councils have told deputations that they are not allowed to use their powers.
§ Mr. Jones
Perhaps I should explain that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the specific temporary restrictions which we applied to authorities in Wales during June and July. Those restrictions will be somewhat relaxed in the next few months.
The right hon. Member for Crosby was critical of direct labour. I believe that some of the pictures he drew were somewhat exaggerated. He spoke of all local authorities using all their powers to do everything by direct labour. Surely his own experience leads him to know that the use of the word "all" was somewhat overplaying his case. Even the authorities which have powerful direct labour organisations operate in co-operation with private contractors in most of their activities.
The Government wish to see the maximum possible expansion of direct labour organisations, subject to the constraints on local authority activities. Ministers have already said that we intend to introduce general legislation on the power of direct labour organisations as soon as possible. There is a commitment, but not a commitment within the Bill.
Some hon. Members have made suggestions which might prove to be both well precedented and unlikely to take up much parliamentary time. We shall carefully consider any such suggestions along with the items which the local authority 80 associations have already submitted. We have no wish to be restrictive, although there must be a limit to the number of items which can be added. If a great many are proposed, we shall have to consider with the associations how best to proceed.
The hon. Member for Northampton. South and others questioned whether we should be giving local authorities the powers that appear in the Bill in view of the general financial restraints on local authorities and on the country generally. I do not claim that they are absolutely essential to the operation of local government, but that is not the point. As has been said, these powers need to be conferred as part of our general strategy for rationalising local law. In fact, they are in tune with the opening words of the hon. Member for Ashford. The hon. Gentleman suggested that within the financial restraints that now apply he would like to extend freedom to local authorities.
I emphasise that the Bill is designed only to give general effect to well-precedented local Act provisions which are unlikely to consume much parliamentary time in debate. We wish the Bill to have a smooth and quick passage so that local authorities which are already-preparing next year's Private Bills will know where they stand. The Bill does not represent the extent of our efforts to give local authorities the general powers they need. The associations are well aware of our efforts in this respect, and together we shall be considering what further action if any should be taken.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill, accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).