§ House again in Committee on Schedule 1.
§ [Amendments Nos. 12 to 15 not moved.]
§ The Earl of Dundee moved Amendment No. 16:
Page 129, leave out line 39 and insert:
|("East Fife||North East Fife District Council and Fife electoral divisions 9 (Buckhaven/East Wemyss), 10 (Denbeath/Methil), 11 (Kennoway/Windygates), 14(Markinch/Pitcoudia/Cadham), 15 (Auchmuty/ Dovecot/Woodside), 16 (Stenton/Pilteuchar/ Coaltown of Balgonie), 17 (South Parks/ Rimbleton/Caskieberran South), 18 (Glenwood) and 46 (Leslie/Collydean).||West Fife||Dunfermline District Council and Fife electoral divisions 1 (Burntisland/Kinghorn), 2 (Raith and Auchtertool), 3 (Duneam/Torbain), 4 (Dunnikier and Fair Isle), 5 (Valley/Bennochy), 6 (Hayfield and Patthead), 7 (Smeaton and Sinclairtown), 8 (Dysart and Thornton), and 19 (Kinglassie/ Cardenden).").|
§ The noble Earl said: To date the Government plan within the Bill is to form a unitary authority for the whole of Fife. But the amendment I propose recommends two unitary authorities—an East Fife council and West Fife council.
§ We should first examine the reasons why the Government have suggested an all-Fife boundary and then look at the case for revising that proposition. Over the past 20 years two-tier local government has worked fairly well in Fife. However, as elsewhere in Scotland, the change to a single-tier structure will improve accountability and services provided that boundaries are fixed in a sensible way. The current proposal for Fife may not have been worked out very carefully. It sets out to replace four existing entities of local government (one region and three districts) with a single council serving a population of over 345,000. That area is far too large a constituency for a single council.
§ Why, then, has such a boundary been suggested? Partly, it has arisen through rather muddled thinking. That stems from the false premise that since Fife Regional Council has provided regional statutory services efficiently on a Fife-wide basis within the two-tier structure, it follows that a unitary all-Fife council will also prove the best mechanism for providing local government services, both regional and district. First, that is a faulty argument and disregards much previous wisdom on the need for certain services such as housing to be linked directly into local communities. It also disregards the Government's own 729 principles of accountability and responsiveness to local needs. Common sense tells us that a large single-tier Fife authority, far from benefiting from economies of scale, will suffer from over-centralisation and increased bureaucracy.
§ Secondly, the all-Fife boundary, as it appears in the Bill, reflects a parallel incorrectly drawn with the Fight for Fife campaign at the time of the last reorganisation. Lord Wheatley's recommendation had been to split Fife between Lothian and Tayside at a regional level of service. Everyone remembers the successful campaign which caused local government control to be retained within Fife.
§ This time the context is completely different. Nevertheless, the two situations have been mistakenly connected in such a way as to influence the current boundary decision. If the Government had already proposed more than one authority in Fife, as put forward in this amendment, that would not have threatened to remove responsibility for services outwith Fife. There are, after all, four councils in Fife at present. The existence of the four has not diluted a sense of identity as a Fifer, which is a further and related allegation. Nor would the existence of two councils. There is no real conflict between historic boundaries which stay permanently in the heart and mind and artificial ones which come and go for practical purposes. During the progress of the Bill this point has already been addressed in Ayrshire and elsewhere and sensible boundary changes have been conceded. Certainly, Fifers are far too canny in the first place to confuse a proud sense of identity with the kingdom of Fife with the changing necessities of local government, whatever those may entail.
§ Another reason why the Government have drawn the Fife boundary as it is results from a case put to them by Fife Region. It is a body that is keen to keep things at regional level as they are, not least the boundaries. That is a healthy response. Fife region's administration has been good and is much respected. Not surprisingly, I have in the past few weeks received many letters which confirm that verdict and express much appreciation for the work which Fife region has done.
§ Fife region has therefore argued that the boundaries should stay the same even though we move from two-tier to unitary authorities. The logic is faulty, as we have seen. Nevertheless, the region, together with other bodies whose present job and experience is to work within the large boundary of Fife, has put that case to the Government, who, in the absence of clear alternatives, have tended to accept it.
§ What then are the merits of the different boundary here recommended? The first is the size of the electorate. Two councils would give a population of 198,000 in West Fife and of 147,000 in East Fife. Those numbers are consistent with those now planned for unitary authorities elsewhere and, coming to two separate unitary authorities as proposed, Fife is then spared the huge constituency of 345,000 people, which would make it the largest non-urban electorate in Scotland.
§ Secondly, there is the role of councillors. With the all-Fife boundary which the Government advocate, 730 either there would be far too many councillors—about 92, I think —where each councillor could be given a manageable level of representation, or else a reasonable number of councillors—let us say 46—with far too many people for each councillor to represent. Two unitary authorities avoids that anomaly.
§ Then there is the question of the need to encourage quality of service provision and, within the boundary, to maintain the right balance between urban and rural communities. When we come to consider essential services, such as, for example, education and social work, why should it be believed that those would be catered for any better through two authorities rather than one? Certainly, Lord Wheatley's commission advised us to deal with this service provision through large authorities rather than small ones—not least when the commission proposed that those services be made the responsibility of regional rather than district councils.
§ That might therefore suggest that a single Fife council now would provide such essential services more efficiently and thus better ensure continuity and quality. In addition to that, we have the evidence that Fife region is doing just that at the moment. However, as is well known, at the time of the Wheatley Commission services were mainly provided directly by the councils themselves to the public. Now their role is more an enabling one, although they will still be responsible for policy making. Many social work services which were formerly provided directly by council staff will now be made available in partnership with other public sector and voluntary organisations. Responsibility for school management has already been devolved down to schools themselves. Smaller councils are just as well placed to guarantee high quality services to the public —indeed, that theme is central to this Bill—and smaller councils will be better at making policy as they will be closer to the communities they serve.
§ Regarding the task of looking after different needs over a wide area of countryside and towns, within the two-tier structure Fife region has performed admirably, and since it has done so again we might well infer that an all-Fife unitary authority would be able to do the same. Moreover, in order to protect local interests, provision has been made in the Bill for the decentralisation of services within the new authorities. However, it is important to realise that this measure provides for a decentralisation of services and not a decentralisation of power and decision-making. In the interest of cost control, it is not in the least likely that it would include the latter. If it did, there would have to be autonomous area committees with fully delegated powers for policy making within communities and with budgets giving the ability to spend.
§ Turning to the financial case and comparison between the options, it has been said that a single Fife council would prove better value for money owing to its size and that it would thus achieve a satisfactory level of economies of scale. It is also said that the administration costs of central services would be less with one council rather than two, and that having just one council avoids wasteful duplication of services. Yet it does not follow that simply because an organisation is large it is efficient and cheaper to run. On the contrary, large organisations 731 tend to become top-heavy bureaucracies. The ongoing savings predicted for an all-Fife council are only marginal. The figures are approximately £7.1 million to £6.6 million in favour of having one authority rather than two.
§ Another argument in support of larger councils and an all-Fife authority points out the avoidance of joint boards and committees that may be achieved by a single council. Conversely, two smaller and adjacent councils would need to co-operate over services such as roads and transport. The joint boards and committees duly formed across local government boundaries might appear to run the risk of diluting accountability and confusing the public. Certainly, transport and roads would give rise to joint plans, yet the two councils proposed have large enough populations and economic bases to support road maintenance without much trouble. There would be no difficulty in an East Fife and West Fife council co-operating on larger projects.
§ Another fear expressed has been that two Fife councils would not be as well placed as a single council to win funding for economic development projects and to co-operate fully as partners with enterprise companies. However, there is no reason to suppose that two councils in Fife would suffer compared with one council either in negotiating funding from the EC or in dealing with enterprise companies which, in any case, already have local offshoots. One reason for that is that we already have an east of Scotland consortium through which funds are negotiated from Europe. Thus it does not matter very much whether this east coast consortium acts on behalf of one authority or two authorities in Fife. Of course, a great many applications are individual projects anyway. Conversely, all over the country as a result It of local government changes arising from the Bill, the EC and other funding bodies will have to become used to different structures and local government bodies of varying size as applicants for and recipients of money. Indeed, local government units in France are already smaller than ours—and I do not think that any of us would suggest that the French cannot look after themselves in the EC. We would not suffer in similar circumstances, in spite of the fact that in the past day or so our relationship with the EC may have become temporarily complicated by a few little local difficulties.
§ Finally, we come to the nature of evidence, such as it is, in support of having either one council or two councils in Fife. In regard to the two-council option that is put forward in this amendment, it has been alleged that no consultation was carried out with the other councils in Fife before the submission of the proposal for a West Fife and an East Fife. It is accordingly assumed that the proposal does not have the support of people in Fife outside North East Fife, and that it is simply a last ditch attempt on the part of the Liberal Democrat administration to preserve its own interest in the east of Fife. However, I understand that both North East Fife District Council and Dunfermline District Council have thoroughly consulted their electorate on local government reform and have found strong cross-party resistance to the proposal for an all-Fife council.732
§ On the other hand, no consultation was done by the: regional council; nor was any objective testing of public opinion carried out before putting its proposal for the all-Fife council to the Secretary of State. That is perfectly proper. The region's submission to the Scottish Office did not claim any measure of objective backing which it did not have; and, as the main council in Fife, the region's opinion at an early stage is obviously very useful. No less helpful is the substance of that opinion just because the background to it may appear contradictory. Indeed, the regional council's position, as is the position of Kirkcaldy District Council, is that there has been no case made for local government reorganisation and therefore it should not go ahead. Thus, to lobby actively for an all-Fife council might appear to be a contradiction of a stated formal position. On the other hand, it is a solution in which the region sincerely believes. It should therefore be put forward as it has been, in the same way as a number of your Lordships who did not feel able to approve the principle of the Bill on Second Reading are participating constructively in Committee in order to improve it.
§ On the subject of this amendment, and from the letters that I have recently received, two particular themes reflecting people's views should be mentioned in this debate. First, there is the solid level of support for the work which Fife Region has done within the two-tier system. This work is perceived by all those who have had dealings with Fife Region to have been carried out efficiently, with integrity and without prejudice of a party political kind or from any other biased standpoint.
§ The second theme that has emerged is one of deep concern that the constituency of 345,000 people in Fife is too big for any unitary authority to take on, however competent a predecessor body for that area may have shown itself to be.
§ The inference I believe we should draw from these two themes, and which I would ask my noble and learned friend to draw from them today, is that we need two authorities in Fife each of the calibre and integrity of the present Fife Region. That would satisfy people's concerns about size and about local democracy. It would be consistent with the Government's plans for local democracy; and with the sizes of East and West Fife of 147,000 and 198,000 respectively, each authority would be quite large enough to adopt the methods and practices of the present region.
§ Two authorities can give the balance which individual people and their communities deserve. Two authorities can bring about local government of quality and integrity closer to the people. They can better achieve decision-making at a local level and thus better fulfil the criteria of the central principles of this Bill for local government. For all these reasons, I urge my noble friend to re-assess the question of the boundary in Fife. I beg to move.
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Lord Taylor of Gryfe
I wanted first to defer to my noble friend Lord Ewing because he has intimate knowledge of the Fife area. However, he is too subtle a politician to fall for that. I am invariably courteous to my noble friend and to the Front Bench speakers. This 733 is not a party issue nor is it whipped. The appearance of my name on the amendment together with those of the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, indicates that this is a non-party issue.
I look at the reform of local government not only in Fife but in areas dealt with in other amendments on a strictly non-party basis. I apply the simple tests, which are: will it be efficient; will it provide good services; will it be responsive to the needs of the people; and will the people exercise influence on their elected representatives?
I have spent a little time considering this issue. I live in Fife and I am a relatively recent convert to the area, having come from the west of Scotland. I am able to compare the services which it provides with those provided by other areas of Scotland where I have been involved in local government.
I must say that I am full of admiration for Fife region and the services that it presently provides in its areas of responsibility. Similarly, I am equally impressed by the North East Fife District Council in the limited area of its responsibilities. I have reached the conclusion that the division of Fife into those separate areas of responsibility is sensible and it matches the tests that I have outlined.
The major issue that has been emphasised by the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, is the size of the new area. The new authority will be responsible for 345,000 people in that area and in addition it will inherit the new-town responsibilities of Glenrothes next year. That places a great burden of responsibility on the new authority.
What will be lost in the process? The intimate connections that have been established over the years with the North East Fife District Council will be lost. Therefore, I have had to conclude that it is wise to pursue this proposed option.
I took the opportunity to visit the Fife region at Glenrothes last Friday. I was well received. I told them that I was not convinced with regard to the case for one authority but in spite of that I was offered the usual hospitality and courtesy which we expect from the Fife Regional Council. What I am saying now is no criticism at all of the existing services that the council provides.
But size is an important factor. I think too that the areas over which the local authority presides must have a certain homogeneity. There is a vast difference between the Cowdenbeath/Lochgelly area of Fife and the delightful town of St. Andrews. They are miles apart. That is not a snobbish comment; it is a matter of fact. They are miles apart in industrial background, culture, history and so on. I do not believe that it would be wise for us to insist on having one unit containing those diverse elements.
I must say that North East Fife has not presented its case very professionally. Despite the fact that it has an MP who is steeped in the law, it was foolish enough to seek advice as to whether or not it was legal for the authority to lobby on this matter; and it was told that it was not legal to do so. As a result, its case has been presented perhaps inadequately compared with the extremely powerful public relations campaign that has 734 been waged by the Fife region. However, we have an opportunity in this Committee to consider the matter while excluding the PR material which we have all received. I hope that the Committee will accept the implied invitation given by the Secretary of State for Scotland when it was felt in the other place that the Highland area discussions had been curtailed. He said that in the House of Lords, Members would have an opportunity to discuss these matters at greater length and to table appropriate amendments. That is exactly what we are doing this evening in relation to Fife.
It is not a party issue. In addition to visiting Fife county council last Friday, I also visited Dunfermline, which is an important area in Fife. I am authorised to say that Dunfermline District Council is opposed to the one-Fife solution. The Labour leader of the council authorised me to report his views.
Therefore, it is not entirely a Labour and Liberal Democrat battle. It is a question of looking at the matter sensibly, quietly and asking whether the area is too big or whether it would benefit in democratic terms from a division such as that suggested in the amendment moved by the noble Earl, Lord Dundee.
§ Lord Hughes
After what I said about the Central Region, no one would expect me to take a different view on Fife just because the Government do not happen to be of that view. I do not mind agreeing with the Government when I can persuade myself that they are right. In this case, that gives me no difficulty. I have had connections one way or another with Fife over many years. For the greater part of my life I lived in Dundee. As a child, one of the great attractions was to cross the Tay into Fife for a picnic and go to what people in Dundee called Balmerino, which the locals pronounced "Bomarney", and which the father of the noble Earl always pronounced as "Bolmerrino". I have never been able to work out whether all three are right or whether only one of the three is correct. Whatever the pronunciation, it was a delightful place to visit.
Many years later, I had more direct connections with Fife. For nine years I served on the court of St. Andrews University. During that time—the time of the Fife County Council—relations between the university and the county council could not have been better. Then, some years later, I became chairman of the Glenrothes development corporation. I remained there for four years, but my stay was interrupted by Harold Wilson who asked me to be one of his Ministers. I then had to give up all the nice things that one enjoys outside of office.
When I was at Glenrothes, I could never have imagined that the day would come when someone would suggest that there was a community interest between East Fife and Glenrothes. It is a new town with its own fishing communities. I should also say that all the people on my wife's side of the family come from that area; namely, from Anstruther, Pittenweem and so on. They are totally different. I could understand if it was East Fife district council suggesting setting itself up as a separate community. I say that because that part of Fife is so totally different from the rest. However, the people accept the realities of the situation and the fact 735 that East Fife district council, as it was, really had only one thing in its favour to justify standing on its own. It happened to be a Liberal enclave in that part of Scotland. It was recognised that East Fife on its own was not sufficient. Therefore, we have the unlikely marriage of moving across Fife as far as Glenrothes.
It is only comparatively recently that the capital of Fife moved from Cupar to Glenrothes. Glenrothes is very like Kirkcaldy except that it is a new town and Kirkcaldy is an old one. The sort of work that is provided and the kind of people who live there means that there is much going and coming of work from Kirkcaldy to Glenrothes and vice versa. However, so far as I know, there is no coming and going of work from Glenrothes to Pittenweem or from Anstruther to St. Andrews except for those who may be teachers at the university and who find living in St. Andrews too expensive.
Another thing I learned while serving on the court of St. Andrews University was how different life was there. I was told on one occasion about something that was said at university court. One of the professors said to me, "You know, St. Andrews is a peculiar place. I could come out of my house at one end of South Street with socks of a different colour and by the time I got to the university people at the other end who did not even have a telephone knew that I had socks of different colours. That news could travel in the time that I walked along the street". That could not possibly happen in Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy or Glenrothes. The com-munities are totally different. However, it was interesting that when there was one authority that worked well.
I go back to the days when Fife County Council had the most extraordinary man as its clerk. His name was Mitchell. He was an autocrat of the first order. When the council discussed a subject, if the county clerk ventured an opinion that was what the county council decided. In those, days NALGO, as it then was, used to hold a summer conference in St. Andrews University. On one occasion the secretary of NALGO mentioned what he had learnt about what took place in Fife. He said that the county clerk had had a running battle with the Scottish Office, claiming that it was interfering with the way in which the county should be doing its job. He complained regularly on that basis. This rhyme was the result:Hark, hark, the county clerk Complains of central control. But the boroughs of Fife Have to fight like dear life To keep any powers at all".Therefore, even in those days, long before regional government, one man in the county council had much more power than any of the provosts of the boroughs in Fife. The council worked very much as a unit.
At the time of Wheatley it was natural that the Fife County Council, by and large, should become the Fife Regional Council. Now the Government have decided that that is the best way to proceed. I hope that nothing that is said tonight makes them change their mind.
§ Lord Cochrane of Cults
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Dundee for moving this much-needed 736 amendment. As the Long Title of the Bill is so long it is very difficult to escape from essentially giving a Second Reading speech today. At Second Reading I said that Wheatley believed that big was better, as for example with Strathclyde. It seems that in the event he has been proved wrong. At Second Reading I also welcomed the Bill as a much needed attempt to try to redress some of the manifest errors that were committed when the previous reorganisation of local government was attempted.
One has to admit that local government is a tricky subject. At this hour of the night I shall merely say that it is rather like the mating of elephants: the results, if any, take a long time to become apparent.
When it comes to the details of the Bill, there are enormous inconsistencies in the size of the proposed authorities. We heard earlier today about Clackmannan, which was an old county and is now, and is proposed to be, a district of 48,000 people. I am sure that we shall hear a great deal about Highland Region, which is almost the size of Belgium. It is larger than Wales, as I believe my noble kinsman will in due course explain to the Committee. It has a population of 202,000. For some strange reason the franchise for councillors there is to be on a regional basis, with a perfectly manageable number of 46 councillors. That is quite a good size for a council. However, they will each have to represent colossal areas because all the district councillors have been declared redundant. Perhaps I may say to my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench that that looks to me like a grave mistake. I hope that farther and tetter thoughts will occur in due course.
Fife is now a region. In the last reorganisation a well-justified and well-fought campaign was mounted by the late Willie Hamilton, MP—a man with whom I generally had little in common but I agreed with him on that occasion most heartily and am glad to pay this tribute to his expertise in lobbying.
§ Lord Fraser of Carmyllie
Perhaps I may say to my noble friend that, while I am sure that he wants to pay a compliment to Mr. Willie Hamilton for his expertise, I should point out that he is still on this planet.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ Lord Cochrane of Cults
I am most grateful to my noble and learned friend. I must have misheard an earlier remark, possibly from another Bench. I am glad that he is still living. He deserves whatever I say tonight, with the greatest gratitude of all of us in Fife.
Fife is now a region. It is the only region made from a single county. The original intention was to include part of Fife in part of Tayside. At that time there were certain mutterings about gerrymandering and that we would all have to pay whatever the toll was to join the other end of the region to which we would have teen attached. Similarly, in West Fife we would have had to go over the Forth Bridge to hold a party with the Lothians. Quite rightly, Mr. Hamilton, and Sir John Gilmour, the then Lord Lieutenant, said, "No, that is simply not a goer".
Fife county, the landward area which also included small boroughs, as has been referred to earlier, included 737 police boroughs. Until comparatively recently—about 40 years ago—Fife had three police forces. Within historic times, Fife has never been a unitary authority. There have always been the boroughs, with the council covering the landward area and the small boroughs. After Wheatley there was another arrangement. It is that arrangement that is now being altered.
The proposal in the Bill is that Fife becomes one large authority for the first time. As my noble friends have said, it is a very large authority, and probably an impossibly large one in relation to the diversity of interests and occupations within the area. If it remains as one authority, it will be the largest rural area (or non-urban area), and larger than the cities of Aberdeen and Dundee.
At Second Reading I stated that local government is all about power and people. Fife Region has done good jobs in the main; it has also done some not so good jobs. I fear that the answer which the noble Lord, Lord Ewing of Kirkford, gave me at Second Reading was not altogether correct, but perhaps we can talk about that on another occasion.
Yesterday I had valuable discussions over a considerable period with the convenor and others of Fife Regional Council. I had thought in one rash moment of describing it as a champagne-powered brainwash, but perhaps that is not appropriate. It was an enjoyable discussion, and I fought my corner. One of the points repeated frequently to me on that occasion was that Fife Regional Council is so good that no possible improvement could be imagined. I do not believe that.
There seems to be among many local authorities a great fear of joint boards. We have heard much of that today. There is still the aspect of DIY—which in local government circles does not refer to sticking up shelves in the kitchen. It means that every service provided by a council has to be produced, organised, paid for and in every sense created by the council. If you or I find a nasty leak in the plumbing, we send for a plumber. We pay him. We do not want to have a plumber ourselves just in case something leaks. I accept that many aspects are ongoing, but there is no need for many council functions to be in-house. That has to some extent been recognised. But consideration will have to go far wider in future, in particular as local authorities become smaller. In our private lives and in business we all have to buy specialist services. I can imagine no reason why smaller authorities should be unable to buy specialist services from their neighbours or from public companies, co-operatives or whatever, which are set up to organise such services. In that context, I stress the point about trading standards.
I talked to a member of the Fife police who is in a well-placed position. He says that the force is the ideal size and that that need not change with a joint board. Like many people who are involved in local government, he is concerned about joint boards. At Second Reading I emphasised the need for the joint boards to have two requirements. First, the clerk should not be drawn from any constituents of that board. The reason for that is that I fear many clerks of boards come from chief executives or assistant chief executives and 738 regard it as a handy perk for increasing their pay. We must get away from that. I am not criticising them, I am sorry for them. I would do the same myself if I were in that position.
The noble Lord, Lord Hughes, referring to J.M. Mitchell, said that he was preceded by an even more formidable character, Matthew Fyffe. We want people of that character, but we must detach joint boards from active politics.
§ Lord Hughes
Perhaps I may intervene to say that I would believe the noble Lord if we could obtain people of that character. I must say that Mitchell was a one-off.
§ Lord Cochrane of Cults
I am sure that the noble Lord is right, but flukes occur. I will cut matters short but I also mentioned at Second Reading the quality of councillors and the difficulty of filling the job. It must be made more attractive and accessible to a wider range of people. I am glad to see that at least tentative and possibly excellent steps are now being taken to ease that situation by the use of more sensible allowances for councillors.
Fife Region is like the curate's egg. We all know what that means: parts of it are good, others less good. There is no point in going into that in detail at this time of night.
I remain convinced that my noble friend's amendment, with the cross-party support it has gained in the Committee, is the right and best way to give all Fife the finest chance of sensible, non-dogmatic yet progressive local government. In conclusion, perhaps I may take what is sometimes thought to be a voice from the grave, going back long before the memory of anyone in this Chamber. I quote:Can it not be seen that the modern political problem is that people have too little control over the political and economic process which envelops them? It was, after all, Aristotle who declared, 'To the size of estate there is a limit, as there is to plants, animals and implements, for none of these retain their natural facility when they are too large'".The same will apply to Fife.
§ Lord Ewing of Kirkford
This is an opportune moment for me to intervene in the debate and declare my position and that of my noble friends on the Front Bench. As my noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe said, he comes to this debate from a non-political standpoint.
I have noticed that in the debate so far it has been customary to present to the Committee one's credentials for speaking. Apart from my noble friend Lord Hughes, who does not live in Fife but has extensive Fife connections, all those who have contributed to the debate so far have their homes in Fife. I am no exception, I have lived all my life there. I contested the oldest Fife constituency after the late John Smith contested it and I have to say in all honesty that the people there were not particularly keen on me during that general election. That still has not put me off the people of St. Andrews and Cupar and the east coast towns. My late father was a member of the old Fife County Council in the days when the county council comprised elected members and delegates from the town councils. For 40 years my father was a member of the old Cowdenbeath Town Council.
739 My other claim for speaking in the debate is that during my courting days some years ago the ferry used to sail between North Queensferry and South Queensferry and between Granton and Burntisland. My wife and I—and I have had the same wife for 40 years now: a different dog and a different budgie but the same wife—used to take the bus down to North Queensferry and go across to South Queensferry. Strange as it may seem, we would get the tramcar from South Queensferry up to Edinburgh, then the tramcar down to Granton and the ferry at Granton in order to sail back to Burntisland. The famous saying as we got on the ferry at Granton was: "Cheerio, Scotland, I'm away to Fife now". That typifies the unity of Fife.
It is worth recording that during the whole history of local government in Scotland, Fife is the one area that has always had a Fife-wide authority, whether it was Fife County Council or the now Fife Region. I have to say—
§ Lord Cochrane of Cults
I am sorry to disagree with the noble Lord but Fife County Council dealt only with the landward area. As I understand it, it took certain responsibilities within the small boroughs and it had few, if any responsibilities within the two major boroughs, Dunfermline and Kirkcaldy.
§ Lord Ewing of Kirkford
I do not want to become involved in a debate at this stage about the functions of Fife County Council. The large boroughs of Dunfermline and Kirkcaldy had delegates to Fife County Council in the same way as the town councils had delegates to Fife County Council; the landward area members were the elected members of Fife County Council. Together they dispensed the services for which Fife County Council, and indeed all county councils, were responsible. So I return to what I said, namely that Fife is the one area that has always had a Fife-wide authority. I do not see now any reason for change.
I am grateful for the fact that the noble Earl, in moving his amendment, was so temperate, so moderate, in his approach. Apart from the brief moments when the noble Lord, Lord Cochrane, began to wander into criticism of Fife Region with just a little sting, all who spoke have been high in their praise of Fife Region. It seems strange therefore that Fife Region is such a good council that we want to get rid of it.
The argument is not whether Fife Region is a better council than North East Fife, or whether Fife Region is a better council than Kirkcaldy or Dunfermline. The argument is about the future of local government in Fife and what unit will be best equipped to deliver the services across Fife. As a regional council, Fife has a proud record. Some of the briefing material sent to us from Fife Regional Council amply illustrates the way in which the regional council has pulled together both parts, the industrial west Fife and the rural, agricultural and fishing areas of east Fife, in a unity which, I hasten to add, is unsurpassed throughout Scotland.
One of my favourite sayings when I was a Member of another place was, "My post-bag is full on this issue." I do not believe, in all honesty, that I have ever had more letters on a single issue than on this proposal to split Fife. With one exception, namely the letter from 740 the chairman of St. Andrews community council, who urged me to support the division of Fife, all the letters, from a wide range of people and organisations—Fife health board; the chambers of commerce; the fishermen's mutual association at Pittenweem, and a whole host of other bodies—said that it would be wrong to split Fife and that Fife is a very good local government unit.
I thought it significant—although my noble friend sought to urge us not to be too political in this debate —that on Sunday the Conservative group on North East Fife District Council, led by Councillor Andrew Gilmour, intimated to the press that it was withdrawing its support from this amendment. In Councillor Gilmour's words—not my words—he said that he had spoken to people in Glenrothes, Leslie, Markinch, Leven, Kennoway, Windygates, Buckhaven, Methil and East Wemyss and he could not find anybody who was in favour of the amendments. Those were his words not mine. That is a fairly devastating indictment of the proposal to split Fife. So there is no support in those areas. I accept that there is some support in North-East Fife. I do not say that there is no support in North-East Fife, but there certainly is no support in Glenrothes, Markinch, Leslie or the other towns that I have mentioned.
The Earl of Dundee
I thank the noble Lord for giving way. He referred to various areas of Fife and mentioned press releases that might have been issued. They can often be a little confusing. I understood that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, referred to Dunfermline District Council. I believe that there Councillor John Simpson has come out very clearly. That backs the point that we were all making earlier about how this matter has cross-party support.
§ 9.45 p.m.
§ Lord Ewing of Kirkford
I was coming to the question of Dunfermline District Council and Councillor John Simpson, whom I know well. He is from my native Cowdenbeath; I know him well. I thought that my noble friend Lord Taylor chose his words very carefully. I have known him for a number of years and always listen carefully to the words he uses when he speaks. My noble friend said that he had been given the authority by Councillor Simpson and Dunfermline District Council to say that they are not in favour of a single Fife council. We know that. That is different from saying that my noble friend has been given the authority by Councillor Simpson and Dunfermline District Council to say that they are in favour of the amendment. That is not what they said at all.
They said that they are not in favour of a single Fife authority. We know that. Kirkcaldy district is not in favour of a single Fife authority, but neither is it in favour of this amendment.
The Earl of Dundee
I apologise for interrupting the noble Lord again but it might be helpful if I say a few words. I have received today, through the administration of Councillor John Simpson, a list of community councils in Dunfermline. The noble Lord correctly 741 makes the distinction that, although an authority might say that it did not want a single Fife authority, it did not necessarily follow that it was in favour of this particular amendment.
However, I have the authority of John Simpson and his council to say that in his area there are a number of community councils which are specifically in favour of this amendment. Let me read them out. They include: Cowdenbeath, Rosyth, Touch, Pittodrie, Oakley, Lumphinnans, Torryburn, Newmills and Culross.
§ Lord Ewing of Kirkford
I could equally read out a list of community councils which are against the amendment from Kinghorn, Burntisland and Leven. But that does not serve any useful purpose in our debate. The debate is about what is the best unit to deliver services in Fife. My view is strongly that Fife Regional Council, as it is now, should be preserved as a unit. That is a view shared by my noble friend Lord Hughes. I know that other noble Lords share that view too; namely, that Fife ought to be retained.
I should like to put two other matters on the record. One is the whole question of expenditure. I am glad that no noble Lord has sought to argue that Fife Region neglects North-East Fife. On examination of the facts that simply would not stand up. The development at Pittenweem harbour with the new breakwater, the new fish market, the new ice-making plant in the building and the development of the senior citizens' club are all found in one small village at Pittenweem. That is why the fishermen wrote so strongly against the amendment. If we go along the coast to Anstruther—
§ Lord Taylor of Gryfe
I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend but is it not true to say that money spent on fishing activities at Pittenweem, the fish market and the harbour, was European money made available for that specific purpose to the Fife County Council? It did not come out of the normal budget; it was part of the funds allocated by the European Community.
§ Lord Ewing of Kirkford
That is absolutely true. The request, the campaign and the case made out to attract that money was put together by Fife region, demonstrating its concern for the preservation of the fishing industry. Because the fishing fleet moved from Anstruther to Pittenweem, where it has 24-hour a day deep water, money was spent in Anstruther to enhance its appearance in order to allow it to concentrate on tourism. Even in St. Andrews, as we bypass my noble friend's house in Kingsbarns, substantial money has been spent on the road network with the intention of ensuring that the home of golf continues to be able to stage such major tournaments as the Open Golf Championship, the Dunhill Cup and all the other tournaments for which St. Andrews is famous.
We can go down to Cupar, to the Bell Baxter High School, where 25 per cent. of Fife region's education budget was spent on one school. I take exception to that. I live in an area where money needs to be spent on schools as well. But my strongest exception is that that is the school which the Government Minister, Mr. Allan Stewart, attended. If ever a school had a lot to answer for 742 it is the Bell Baxter High school, and for the life of me I cannot understand why all that money is spent on the one school. I jest in that regard but it is a serious point. The way in which Fife region has brought together the diverse interests of the region is something that cannot be seen throughout the length and breadth of Scotland.
My final point is this, and again I am grateful for the moderate way in which the noble Earl moved the amendment. But in all honesty the proposals were put together not to create councils or communities of common interest. St. Andrews has nothing in common with Glenrothes, Buckhaven or Methil. The proposals were put together to produce councils of equal number and that is vastly different from saying that communities of common interest are being produced.
Fife's record on the care of the elderly is well known. No other region in the country has a free travel scheme to equal Fife's. The elderly people not only travel free within the region, but are allowed also to travel free to Perth, Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Those services could not otherwise be sustained. All I say in conclusion is that I hope the noble Earl, having discussed the matter —it is important that we discuss the issue and clear the air—will see fit to withdraw the amendment. If he chooses to test the will of the Committee, I urge Members to reject the amendment.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
I listened with great interest to the arguments put forward. I have never lived in Fife. I was born in Aberdeenshire and lived for 50 years in Angus. But I like Fife and I like the Fifers. I like to hear the arguments put on both sides. However, I have heard a certain amount of prejudice.
The noble Lord, Lord Ewing, is a man of great skill and considerable charm. He puts forward his arguments extraordinarily well. But to say that Fife has always been a single entity is perhaps not entirely true. Of course, it is an entity and people will still speak of the "Kingdom of Fife". But, as has been said before, in the days of the Fife County Council a local democracy existed among the borough councils, large and small, which has not been equalled under the present regime and probably will not be equalled under the next one. That is greatly different from having a single authority with no real local expression. To get a Kingdom of Fife Regional Council was a great victory, but it was on top of three district councils. They were the bodies closest to the people of Fife. It is all very well to say that the larger authorities will dispense the money better and more economically. That has not always been the case. There are plenty of examples of small authorities that dispense money extraordinarily well.
I hope that the Government will be logical. They support, rightly, a small community like Clackmannan, which has indicated strongly that it is prepared to put up with the inconvenience and joint boards in order to express its democratic right, as the noble Lord, Lord Hughes—another man of immense skill—has expressed it. There are great differences in Fife. There are differences between the north and the south. Both have great virtues, but differences there are. I was in Fife long ago at a by-election in which John Smith first stood. Our candidate there was a great disappointment and did not 743 do as well as we expected. However, I still have a high regard for Fife. A single authority in Fife would have a democratic deficit. (I wanted to get that phrase in!) It is absolutely true that it is too big and will result in a remoteness that is not desirable. In all logic, there is no question but that the splitting of Fife will leave Fife as a kingdom but will give the people proper democratic representation and will work well.
§ Lord Fraser of Carmyllie
Lest the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, accuses me, as he did before the dinner hour, of neglecting to respond to his argument, perhaps I may say immediately that I am happy to adopt the force of much of what he has to say.
§ Lord Hughes
I told the Minister earlier that I would apologise for my rudeness. Whether or not he was talking to somebody else, I had no business to say what I said. I now say publicly that I was rude to him, and I hope that Central Region does not suffer because of it.
§ Lord Fraser of Carmyllie
I am grateful to the noble Lord. But I believe that the more serious point about this is that it clearly demonstrates, as in the course of a long afternoon and evening we have gone through the map of Scotland, that there are differing views on the appropriate division into local government authority areas. In this particular case I understand to a considerable degree the force of what he has to say. Like the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Dundee for both the eloquence and persuasiveness of the case that he has advanced. I do not believe that it could have been more fully stated.
I also share with the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, his appreciation of the temperate way in which the argument has been addressed both by the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe. I have listened with great interest to the arguments that have been presented in favour of the division of Fife into two for local government purposes. I confess that at the time when the last set of local government reforms went forward I was somewhat sceptical about the truly separate identity of Fife. However, considering subsequently that wonderful set of essays by the distinguished journalist Mr. Ian Jack, or Or. Ann Smith's great novel about growing up in Fife, I believe that anyone would be persuaded that within Scotland there is a clear sense of identity within the kingdom. I believe that in that sense one has to have a clear regard for it.
I have to say immediately that the Government are not minded to accept the case for a two-way split of the region. Perhaps I may leave to one side the technical flaws in the amendments, which omit the Leven, Methil and Mountfleurie areas. I have to say that we have serious reservations about the proposal. Here, as elsewhere, I recognise that there are genuinely conflicting views about the new structure. Other alternatives to a single Fife authority have been advanced. First, there has been the proposal to combine Kirkcaldy and North East Fife, with Dunfermline on its own. A second proposal has been to combine 744 Dunfermline and Kirkcaldy, leaving North East Fife on its own. This one is something of an amalgam of the two.
What concerns me about the proposal is that it threatens what can only be described as an artificial division of Fife as a whole and of Kirkcaldy district. It would create two halves with no particular sense of community identity. It is difficult here, as elsewhere in Scotland, always to be sure just exactly what is that particular sense of local identity, but it seems to serve no one's purpose if we set about a split which does not reflect local loyalties. At North Fife level, through to town, village or even street level, there is clearly a sense of identity.
Various surveys have been carried out which serve to illustrate, as elsewhere in Scotland, that mere are conflicting views. I acknowledge immediately that the results of such surveys must necessarily be treated with a degree of caution. The most recent expression of public opinion in Fife has come from a Systems 3 Scotland survey commissioned by Fife Regional Council which sought views on whether there should be one Fife council or two. The obvious interpretation of the results is that 60 per cent. expressed a clear preference for one council. Less than 30 per cent. favoured a two-way split. It is interesting to note that a majority in each of the three existing council areas favoured the one council solution.
I emphasise again, as I have done earlier in the course of this afternoon and this evening, that I would not wish at any time to make too much of any poll. However, what concerns me is that we should not achieve an artificiality of identity. One is confronted with that artificiality when looking at the Kirkcaldy district and finding that Kirkcaldy is to fall within one part of Fife and Glenrothes is to fall within another. I know Edinburgh, Angus and Dundee well, and I know Fife less well, but it surprises me that there is any serious belief that such a division will command popular support or a popular appreciation among people who commute and have contact between Glenrothes and Fife and Glenrothes and Kirkcaldy.
It is not a particularly helpful part of the discussion, as we go through the map of Scotland, to indicate approval for one local authority administration and its colour and its efficiency as opposed to another I am bound to say that of local authorities in Scotland I do not suppose that Fife Regional Council is one that I should by political instinct wish to applaud. Indeed, a few years ago I would have had some grave reservations about some of its approaches. However, I am bound to say now that I have more than a sneaking admiration for the way it has grasped the changing role of a local authority. Clackmannan may be an extremely small authority and Fife may be a larger one, but—and this is a point to which we shall return—both have grasped the importance of not simply being an authority that seeks to be effective and efficient but also understands a proper enabling role.
With the proposals we have in the Bill to set about extensive decentralising structures, our proposal to make the existing Fife Region a single-tier authority should be the better of the two alternatives that have 745 been advanced this evening. I hope that my noble friend will reflect on what has been said and consider all the arguments advanced. I am grateful to him for the temperate way in which he has advanced the arguments, but I hope that on that basis he can withdraw his amendment.
The Earl of Dundee
We have had a wide-ranging and interesting debate which has touched on Aristotle and democratic deficits. I thank all Members of the Committee who have taken part. One of the themes which has emerged is the need to judge the question of what is the best boundary for Fife by the principles of this Bill. If the Bill seeks to bring about local government which is closer to the people, then the respective sizes of the electorates which are not too numerous is an obvious consideration.
Another theme has been the good example which the present Fife Region within its two-tier structure gives. The correct inference here is surely not so much to keep the region as it is and to make it work twice as hard as it is doing. That is what happens if we have an all-Fife authority. Surely the right idea is to preserve instead the qualities of the region's administration, its efficiency and integrity, and to form two councils in that mould.
Where I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, and I share common ground with the rest of the Members of the Committee is that we want the same type of local government in the important sense. We want it free from party political considerations and other forms of bias. The noble Lord, Lord Ewing, would agree that the Fife Region is a good example of that. Where he and I differ is about the principle of this Bill which I strongly support, but I equally understand and respect his own position if he is not able to accept that principle.
My noble and learned friend is able to bring these two themes together through boundary planning in general and the Fife boundary plan in particular and to seek to establish local government which is efficient and unbiased yet which properly fits in with more local decision-making. I believe that my noble and learned friend referred to a survey which has recently been carried out and which claims to show support for the present proposal. My understanding is that that survey was conducted by asking questions of only about 550 people which I believe is not a number considered to be a scientific minimum. So perhaps we might not attach too much importance to that.
I believe that my noble and learned friend also indicated that this is a matter which we still need to hear more about. Perhaps we have not heard as much as we would like. As we go through this Bill, if Members of the Committee on all sides feel that the central theme is to bring local government much closer to people, then the whole question is one which we want to keep open and examine more thoroughly. If I am right in interpreting that my noble and learned friend will be happy to proceed along those lines, I now beg leave to withdraw the amendment on the understanding that I may return to it at Report stage.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 17 not moved.]746
§ Viscount Thurso moved Amendment No. 18:
Page 129, leave out line 46 and insert:
|("North Highland||Caithness and Sutherland, and Ross and Cromarty District Councils.||South Highland||Badenoch and Strathspey. Inverness, Lochaber, Nairn, and Skye and Lochalsh District Councils.")|
§ The noble Viscount said: In rising to move this amendment, I shall follow the precedent set by others by giving my credentials. By an accident of birth, I was born in England. My father had just come down to take his seat in the other place and I had come down with him with my mother, whom I could not leave at that stage. I spent the greater part of my childhood in Caithness, and the whole of my adult life since leaving the Royal Air Force at the end of the war has been spent there. In 1949 I became a county councillor for the village of Halkirk and in 1961 I became a member of Thurso Town Council and was for a number of years a Thurso town councillor, holding the offices of both Junior and Senior Baillie, Dean of Guild and Police Judge.
§ I am particularly proud of my time on Thurso Town Council because it was a very small council with a very small base, producing the most excellent service for the people of Thurso. It handled sensitively and magnificently the trebling of the size of the town with the establishment of the Dounreay atomic power station. It won no fewer than three Civic Trust awards for the development of the town during that period. It did it all without a planning department—simply by the expedient of using a local architect's firm for local work and one of the most eminent planning consultants for main planning works, Sir Frank Mears and Partners from Edinburgh.
§ As a result, when local government reorganisation came along, Thurso was the cheapest in cost to the voters of all the councils in the North yet it was delivering as good a service as any other council in the whole of the north of Scotland. That shows that size is not necessarily a criterion and that excellence is a completely different thing.
§ Today we have heard an eloquent description of the sad insensitivity of the Government to local wishes given by the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas. Against that, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, has told us that the Government have split up the Central Region because of local opinion. I wonder which is true. We must find out whether the noble and learned Lord will, as it were, put his money where his assertions are.
§ The fact is that a reputable poll that was run in the Highland area showed that over 80 per cent. of people were in favour of splitting the proposed Highland council into two. I have made an estimate of the number of district councillors within the area who support splitting the region into two, and I can tell your Lordships that at least 75 per cent. of all district 747 councillors favour that. They are elected represen-tatives. They are people who know that they will be elected only if they manage to please the electorate with their programmes and so forth.
§ The position of the regional councillors is not 100 per cent. in favour of leaving the council area as one—and nor for that matter is it strengthening. I believe that, taking the region and the district together, the mood in favour of splitting the Highlands in two—that is, North Highland and South Highland—is increasing. Among community councils the position may be stronger than that. I believe that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser, should look carefully at the strength of opinion in the Highland area as to whether there should be one or two councils.
§ The noble Lords, Lord Gray and Lord Renton, praised the virtue of a referendum. But are reputable opinion polls lightly to be thrown aside? Is the total number of district councils in support of the two-Highland-council option lightly to be thrown aside? I hope not.
§ The noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser, spoke of the wide range of services which must be delivered. In defending the small council of Clackmannan, he also spoke of the wide range of options and the way in which they could be delivered. There is no doubt that among the people who will deliver the range of services there are those who could easily deliver all those services which are currently being delivered, and deliver a better quality that is nearer to the people and more in touch with them.
§ In choosing boundaries, we must be reasonably practical. At dinner tonight I was told a lovely story by a Member of the Committee who is not at present in his place. The story was that the southern boundary of the Highland Region was established when Atholl and Lochiel met to discuss where the boundary was to be and they both threw their swords into the loch. That is now the boundary of Highland Region. It is the southernmost point where all the council areas meet. That is a very capricious way of doing it, but I am not suggesting that we should go around chucking swords into the sea or into the loch.
§ I believe that we should look at the areas to see where there is a genuine community of interest. I can tell the Committee that there is a genuine community of interest in Caithness and Sutherland, and to a lesser extent perhaps in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross-shire. That is due in no small part to the effect of distance.
§ We were told by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser, that it is not difficult to see community of interests stretched down from Banff and Buchan to Kincardine and Deeside. That is a distance of 40 miles. To stretch community of interest from Caithness to Inverness is to stretch it three times as far. Like a piece of elastic, there is a limit to the distance that one can stretch community of interest. When elastic snaps one gets a nasty slap on the fingers. If one were to try to stretch community of interest from Caithness right down to the southern edge of the North Highland area and into the South Highland area one would be covering a distance of approximately 220 miles. That really is too big. We were told that Central Region was big at 60 748 miles long. Sixty miles will take you from Thurso to Golspie. At that stage you would be only half way through Sutherland. You would have another 60 miles to go before you reached Inverness. It is a further 106 miles to the Southern border of the region. That is much too big an area to administer as one.
§ We are then told that in order to do that we must decentralise: we should have a wide range of options by means of which to do it—"decentralised management" was the term used. It is far easier to do that by building up than by breaking down. It is much easier to build up based upon existing district councils. Indeed at present, the district councils are delivering to the people of the North the services which they want delivered. The most personal services are delivered by district councils. Regional councils have no experience of delivering the kind of services which district councils deliver. Therefore, it is better to build up on the basis of district than of regional councils.
§ I mean no disrespect to the Highland Regional Council. It is made up of very nice people. In fact, the Chief Executive used to be the County Clerk of Caithness, so he cannot be too bad. The council has done a good job, so far as I can assess, in all the areas in which it has been asked to work. But it is not experienced in dealing with district council work.
§ I feel that it would be far better to rely upon two new Highland areas. In view of the size, the ability to deliver services and the fact that the majority of people in the Highlands area are in favour of the proposed division, I ask the Committee to accept the amendment so that the Highland Region is divided into North Highland and South Highland. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Strange
In supporting this amendment, I shall produce my rather meagre credentials later. But I should like first to point out that the creation of two Highland councils rather than one huge amorphous pan-Highland council with a land area bigger than the Principality of Wales is merely in line with the principles that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has all along considered in preparing this Bill —the wish to abolish a whole tier of government by making unitary authorities and to move local democracy back to the people on the ground by creating new councils of a manageable size. I am sure that my noble friends from Wales, who are not present at the moment, I believe, would not support the idea of a single local authority for the whole Principality with some of the Marches thrown in.
Among the eight existing district councils, there is an overwhelming majority in favour of two Highland councils. Caithness and Sutherland, Ross and Cromarty, Inverness, Lochaber and Badenoch and Strathspey are all in favour. Only Skye and Lochalsh and more possibly Nairn are in favour of one.
The Association of Highland District Councils commissioned Scotland Market Research to run an independent survey in each of the eight districts. I know that my noble friend Lady Sakoun says that she has little confidence in surveys but I should still like to point out the results of this survey to the Committee.
749 In each sample 1,006 people were asked and the overall average for wanting more than one council was over 83 per cent. Badenoch and Strathspey, Caithness and Sutherland all had over 90 per cent. in favour of two, with 97.7 per cent. in Caithness. Interestingly, in the two districts where the district council was in favour of a single authority, 86.9 per cent. in Nairn were in favour of two and 78.5 per cent. in Skye. Moreover, 14.2 per cent. in Nairn were in favour of one council and 6.7 per cent. in Skye and Lochalsh. The other 15 per cent. did not know. Those figures seem to suggest that the two district councils which want only one authority are not in as close touch with their local electorate as are the other six.
So much for the people on the ground and what they want, which is, I think, clear and gives a green light for the amendment, as the whole ethos of this new Bill is to get local government back into the hands of the people. Government spokesmen have pointed out that the district councils are not united in their views. Unanimity has not been imposed as a requirement for the rest of Scotland. There is a clear majority in favour of two, both among the district councils and among the population.
I have had the good fortune to stay with my noble kinsman Lord Burton at Dochfour near Inverness, and also with the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, at Dalnawillan in Caithness, so I have some conception of how huge an area we are considering. The whole area would be nearly as large as Belgium and many Members of the Committee will be aware of how much local government is devolved there.
My husband used to rent a fish netting station at Kinlochbervie, just below Cape Wrath. He kept a caravan up there to sleep in while he worked the nets during the week. It took him over six hours to drive up there from our home near Perth. Four of those hours were spent driving across what is now proposed to be one Highlands region. It is the vastness of the area which makes it so important to divide it administratively into two. One old fisherman told my husband that he was thinking of going south for his holiday. So my husband, thinking perhaps of the South of France or Spain, asked him how far south he was thinking of going. He replied, "Well, not as far south as Inverness".
There is also the question of population. With one authority there would be 203,000. Even split into two, with 105,000 in the South Highlands and 89,000 in the North Highlands, they would each have a bigger population than Clackmannan, Stirling, Moray or East Renfrew. The population of the South Highlands would also be greater than that of Argyll and Bute, Inverclyde, Angus, Dumbarton and Clydebank or the Borders. The question of population, when seen in comparison with other areas, demolishes entirely the argument that councils of fewer than 100,000 people would not be economically viable.
The other chief argument is that the Highlands area has a strong single identity which must be protected. About this there is some doubt. There has always been argument as to where the Highlands actually is—can you draw a line along Antonine's Wall between Forth and Clyde and say that everything north of that is 750 Highland? Alternatively, should the line be between the Tay and the Clyde, with Perth being the gateway of the Highlands; or should it be between the Moray Firth and the Firth of Lome? Should the Highlands comprise only those who are crofters, which would bring the area into parts of Perthshire as well as the Western Isles? Should it be for the chiefly Gaelic speakers, who are in the North and the West, whereas the native tongue of the East and the South has always been Scots or Lallans, with occasional French loan words like ashet or Scandinavian words like kirk?
Many of the clans in the North Highlands are descended from Norse or Scandinavian blood, including the Clans of Sinclair, Sutherland and Gunn. The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, is himself descended from the Norse goddess, Freya, while many of those in the South Highlands are a mixture of Scots and Norman—like the Baillies of Dochfour who descend from the Normans —whereas my noble and learned friend the Minister descends from a knightly family in Anjou called Frezel who also came over in the 11th century.
There may be some confusion on the part of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott as to where their hearts actually are, where the Highlands begin or end, but I think there can be no uncertainty at all in our hearts that to create two authorities—Norm and South Highlands —is right, proper and a reasonable way forward.
§ 10.30 p.m.
§ Lord Burton
I too should like to support the amendment. It is rather unreasonable that we should have to have the debate on one-third of the whole of the land area of Scotland at this hour of the night. That reflects the degree of interest that the Government showed in the other place, where this matter was hardly debated at all. I hope that my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench will take up this matter with his colleagues in the Scottish Office to see whether that cannot be improved, at least at Report stage.
This is not a party political matter—at least I cannot see how any political party can gain political advantage from the fact that the northern Highlands has one or two authorities. However, it is vital to local democracy that there shall be more than one authority to administer this vast area covering one-third of the whole of Scotland.
I can cut down my speech tonight, which will please the Committee, not only because much of what I have to say has already been said, but because some of what I want to say will already be in Hansard, since my noble and learned friend, in replying to an amendment relating to Clackmannan, advanced nearly all the arguments which can be put forward in favour of two councils in the Highlands. These are: first, what the people want; secondly, a district rather than a regional base; thirdly, smaller councils can be viable because of equalisation grants; fourthly, if local districts want to be unitary authorities he wants them to be given the opportunity to try. I am afraid that after those points I ran out of steam and could not keep up writing down what my noble and learned friend said. However, no doubt Members of the Committee will be able to read his arguments in 751 Hansard tomorrow. What we want for the Highlands has already been advanced by the Government for Clackmannan.
I have no axe to grind because I have retired from local government. I could not find time to do the job properly, having many other commitments. However, I have witnessed amazing infighting over this matter. People are fighting for their jobs and looking to personal interest rather than the welfare of the North of Scotland. I do not like the fact that there has been much misleading propaganda and distortion of the facts. After the last local government elections any Highland regional councillor who was not in favour of a pan-Highland authority was put out of the chairmanship and usually put off most of the sub-committees on which he served. That is not the way to conduct local government. I sense a nasty smell of subterfuge. Why insist on one vast authority when two or more would so clearly be sensible? Who is getting what out of having only a single authority?
If one drives north from Edinburgh, one reaches after about 100 miles the proposed boundary of what has been called the pan-Highland authority. The proposed administrative centre, Inverness, is another 50 miles' drive. From there, it would take one as long to drive to many parts of the proposed authority as it had already taken to drive from Edinburgh. That is no way to administer that huge area. I cannot conceive why the Government insist on doing this.
With headquarters in Inverness, many of the few councillors for the vast area—who will grossly under-represent the people in the area—will have to spend two-and-a-half to three hours driving to council meetings. That would be the equivalent of councillors from Inverness driving to Dundee for their meetings. I cannot believe that that is right. How can the convenor or committee chairman, with constant business at headquarters, live in Caithness or Sutherland, or even Fort William or Skye?
We are told that delegation is the answer. But who will sit on these delegated committees? There are very few councillors to cover the area. Already there has been seen to be too few councillors available under the so-called delegation that Highland Region has sought to propagate. People have had to be drafted on to some of the committees. It would presumably mean setting up little quangos. But who would sit on those quangos? To whom would they be responsible?—certainly not the electorate.
If the Highland Region councillors really believe in decentralisation, why have they recently taken away the collection of community charges and rates from the district councils? That has caused chaos with those collections. I shall not trouble the Committee with the details tonight, but to try to make decentralisation work they have bribed away district council staff and it would be most interesting to know whether or not there has been any genuine saving. I very much doubt that there has. We really must get down to local government.
The proposal in the amendment is not only sensible but simple. The old counties, and now the districts of Caithness, Sutherland, and Ross and Cromarty, would largely form the northern half. The southern half would 752 be mainly the old Inverness county with Nairn added —in fact, the current districts of Lochaber, Skye and Lochalsh, Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. Therefore, we already have the boundaries of not only the old county councils but the recent district councils largely forming the proposed two new authorities. That would leave a northern authority with a population of almost 100,000 and a southern authority with a population of 103,000. According to the provisions for the remainder of Scotland, that seems about right. There would be no grounds for complaint through changes of loyalties, boundaries or traditions.
The regional council's assertion that it would make no difference to distances as Inverness and Dingwall are only a few miles apart is a deliberate distortion. The northern counties feel that their headquarters could well be based in Dornoch where there are already the old Sutherland County Council chambers. Anyway, Stirling, Falkirk and Alloa—the three proposed new headquarters for the central belt regional councils—are all closer together than Dingwall and Inverness.
It is asserted that one unitary authority would have more chances of getting European "goodies" than two authorities. That is again wrong. Currently there is a partnership of 13 public authorities fighting for the Objective 1 status from Europe to gain moneys to help develop regions which require them. Those authorities cover Argyll, Western Isles, Orkney, Zetland, parts of Moray and the current Highland Region. On reorganisation, as at present proposed, the 13 authorities will be reduced to six or, as we hope, seven authorities. The only difference between a pan-Highland authority and two authorities would be that the one authority would be a massive body with four small authorities. The total amount of Euro-money would not be changed.
If the Highlands would be better under one authority, why have Argyll and the Isles been left out? They are as much part of the Highlands as anywhere in the north. Those areas have, quite rightly, been set up on their own. They form a reasonably sized authority, with a population and area of the right size. Yet it is proposed that the north should have only one authority to cover an area twice the size of Argyll and the Isles. Why were the Borders and East Lothian divided? I am told much work went into trying to persuade the Government to divide them, but they are now quite happy as two sensibly sized councils: the Borders with a population of 103,000 and East Lothian with 85,000. The pan-Highlands are scheduled for 203,000, covering a vastly greater land mass.
The Government's proposals are incomprehensible, so I strongly urge them to think again. There are other anomalies or disagreements with the existing proposals for Scotland, but none so nonsensical and objectionable as those proposed for the Highlands.
§ Lord Macaulay of Bragar
It is not often that I follow the noble Lord, Lord Burton, and agree with much of what he has said, having been a political adversary many years ago in the Inverness constituency. The amendment on the Highlands is probably one of the most important in the Bill. I agree with what the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, said in opening the debate 753 on the Highlands—that we are looking here at what I consider to be the great divide. There is either a great divide by splitting the Highlands into two or there is no divide at all and, as the noble Lord, Lord Burton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, said, we are left with an area the size of Wales. It does not matter what we compare it with. It is a massive area for any administration to cope with on its own.
We are not looking at population as the test but at efficiency and what will bring the best service to the people of the Highlands. Until now that vast area has probably been ignored by successive governments and it is only just being brought into the reality of life in the Scottish community.
One of the arguments presented is: "Well, if you're going to have a divide, you will have one lot in Inverness and another in Dingwall, separated by not many miles". Or perhaps it may be in Dornoch and we will have to build a new city hall in Dornoch. I remind the Committee that if we come down to the centre of Scotland, Glasgow is separated from Falkirk by 22 miles, give or take a couple of miles; Falkirk is separated from Edinburgh by 22 miles; Edinburgh is separated from Glasgow by 44 miles. No one says: "Let's have one authority for Edinburgh, Glasgow and Falkirk". We have this written into the Bill. It is there for everyone to see, and the Government say: "This is what we want". It is based to some extent on population, not on service. What the people of the Highlands are looking for is service on a real community basis.
Although I am speaking from the Dispatch Box in this Committee, I am waiting to hear what the Government have to say about this before I make up my mind and the collective mind of the party on this side of the Committee. What is the Government's justification in asking for an area of that size to cope for itself throughout the year? Let us take a simple example of a council meeting in mid-December. The snow gates are closed. What happens? Do you cancel the meeting and send a chap back to where he came from? Does nothing happen? We have probably the worst weather conditions in the winter, short of Kent—
§ Lord Fraser of Carmyllie
I ask the noble Lord to explain his argument a little. If he posits an argument on a division into two areas, could we at least understand, if the Government's proposal is not to be advanced, where he envisages councillors from all over the Highlands might go?
§ Lord Macaulay of Bragar
With respect, I am not positing any argument, and I made that clear. I want to know where the Government stand. It is not for this side of the Committee to justify the rearrangement of local government and it must be clear to the Minister that we were against it in the first place. It is for the Government to justify it.
§ 10.45 p.m.
§ Lord Macaulay of Bragar
Yes. We are in favour of a Scottish Parliament with a single-tier authority. That has always been Labour Party policy. If it is different from that, then no doubt someone behind me will tell me that I am wrong. We are presenting this argument within the context of amendments which we have argued outwith the context of a Scottish Parliament. We have made our position clear. The first amendment before the Committee today was to introduce a limited Scottish Assembly to deal with the question of local government. But, as I said when I spoke earlier, that was only a minute amendment. What we are looking for is a Scottish Parliament.
I am asking the Government: can you give the Committee a guarantee that there will be effective government in an area the size of Wales from a single-tier authority, or can you not? I am asking: is it not better to divide into two, as the amendment suggests, so that one gets a workable arrangement between two areas? We have already dealt with the geographical aspect.
There is one other argument that I have canvassed with people who are involved. I have said to them: if that happens and you divide the Highlands and Islands into two areas as envisaged by this amendment, you will theoretically have two directors of education, two directors of social work, two of this and two of that. The answer is that the two areas will have to work that matter out between them. I am anxious to hear from the Government that if their present proposals go ahead in the face of the amendment now presented to them they will guarantee to the Highland community the services which people presently enjoy and that they will provide a better service than they have at the moment.
I do not take the argument any further. I speak only in support of the amendment proposed by the noble Lords and the noble Baroness whose names are attached to it. I await with interest what the Minister has to say in response to the forceful arguments presented against the Government's stance in relation to the Highlands.
§ Lord Gray of Contin
I wonder if we might think a little about the future instead of the past. There have been three very interesting speeches from those proposing the amendment. But I cannot say that much was said in those speeches with which I agree. If ever there was an example of people trying to turn the clock back, we have it here.
Like other Members of the Committee, I shall declare my credentials. I was bom in the Highlands; I ran businesses in the Highlands; I served in local government in the Highlands; I represented a Highlands seat in Parliament; and I still live in the Highlands. The area is very dear to my heart.
I agree that there is nothing political involved here. Even if there were it would not really matter because friendships in the Highlands are much more important than political allegiances. I have been briefed by people of all parties. I am happy to represent their view this evening. But I have to say that I have seldom listened to so much confused thinking as we have heard in the debate.
755 I received a letter from the chairman of the Skye and Lochalsh District Council, which is arguably the most remote district council in the Highland Region. The letter states:Skye and Lochalsh District Council supports the boundary proposals for the area as contained in the Bill and strongly opposes any plans to divide the Highlands into two".
§ Lord Burton
Will the noble Lord give way for a moment? Has he not seen the results of the census, and has he not listened to the speeches tonight? Has he not heard that Skye and Lochalsh and Nairn had as many supporters for two councils as any of the rest of the Highlands? Because one person in a constituency thinks he knows better than most of his constituents is not a reason for an argument in this Chamber.
§ Lord Gray of Contin
I listened very patiently to the noble Lord as he delivered his speech. I should be obliged if he would do me the same courtesy.
The Skye and Lochalsh District Council is the only council which is wholly unanimous in its view as to the future shape of local government. I shall finish what I intended to say before the noble Lord interrupted me. The chairman of that council went on to say:We believe that, whatever model might be appropriate for other parts of Scotland, a strong single Council for the existing Highland Region, with effective decentralisation to local areas, will provide the best solution for this area".That is the view of someone who is vastly experienced and has the counsel of councillors who are also very experienced. It is outrageous for the noble Lord, Lord Burton, to try to tell those people how they should think simply because they do not agree with his view. I oppose the amendment for a number of reasons. I believe that it is impractical, lacks credibility and is seriously flawed. It is likely to deprive those whom it seeks to advantage and it will duplicate rather than rationalise. It is the product of a process of elimination and arrives at the solution that is least wanted.
The original proposal of the district councils was for eight all-purpose authorities. That was soon argued out of court even by themselves. The number then changed to three or four. Finally it came down to two. The proposal seeks to dismantle the regional structure which presently exists and which has provided a viable and generally accepted form of local government that is responsible for 85 per cent. of all local government current net revenue expenditure. It will dilute the strong Highland voice and replace it with two less influential replacements.
Many comparisons have been made tonight. Comparisons have been made between the area of the Highland Region and Wales. There have been comparisons made of the distances between Glasgow and Edinburgh and Dingwall and Inverness. But it has not been pointed out to us that the population of the proposed Highland Region is 204,000, whereas the population of Wales is 2.9 million. We must compare like with like if we are to use comparisons.
So far as concerns the suggestion in the amendment for a Northern Region and a Southern Region and where the headquarters might be, Tain and Dornoch have been mentioned. However charming and delightful those two towns might be, we must appreciate that the movement 756 of people from there and from north of those points is invariably a southern movement. So the only realistic solution to a headquarters for the Northern Region or northern area as suggested in this amendment is Dingwall.
Dingwall is the only place which has ready-made facilities that could cope with the requirements of an all-purpose authority. And in my view, even Dingwall would require a certain amount of addition to its present facilities. It is cuckoo-land to suggest Domoch or anywhere else in the north without realising that it would involve massive capital expenditure. Dingwall is only 12 minutes from Inverness.
§ Lord Macaulay of Bragar
I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord but I am in a state of confusion. It is probably my own fault. He made a proposition that we should compare like with like. Can he explain which like he is comparing with like so that we can understand what he is talking about?
§ Lord Gray of Contin
Certainly. The places I heard mentioned as a possible headquarters in the northern half of the split were Dornoch, Tain and Dingwall. I am trying to highlight the difficulties which would arise in capital expenditure if the headquarters went to either of the first two as opposed to Dingwall, which has relatively new county buildings, council chamber and civil offices. But even those would probably need to be extended to cope with the requirements of an all-purpose authority.
It is impractical because it must surely be wrong to create two authorities side by side where one will be much more influential than the other. There is no doubt in my mind that, because of the growth of Inverness, Inverness will dominate the southern of the two. The northern of the two would unquestionably be dominated by the Black Isle and Easter Ross. Would it not be better, therefore, to do as the Bill suggests and have the one authority where the domination of the large Inverness area would be diluted?
I cannot see the argument for the two-authority way forward. At present, under the one-authority proposal, the relatively high tax base of Inverness compared with other parts of the Highland Region provides the opportunity to transfer resources to the more peripheral areas. The northern of the two councils would be excluded and therefore would not have that benefit. The two-council option would still need substantial decentralisation, but resources to achieve that would be much scarcer. Furthermore, Inverness, as the capital of the Highlands and regional centre, provides a range of facilities which are used by people from all over the North.
I understand that there has been discussion as to whether or not the whole concept of the two authorities would be acceptable to people locally. A number of surveys were conducted. Frankly, I do not attach a great deal of importance to the results of surveys, any more than I do to polls, for the simple reason that by carefully selecting the question asked, one can usually obtain the answer one requires.
Thurso is 111 miles from Inverness. I agree that it is a long drive. But if the regional centre of the northern 757 authority was to be in Dingwall, those travelling from Thurso, from Wick, from Kinlochbervie or from Durness would save themselves very little in travelling time, considering that Inverness and Dingwall are only 12 minutes apart. The existing Highland Region allows a reasonable representational balance between different areas. With two councils, Inverness will be the dominant factor in the southern part and Easter Ross in the northern part, and therefore decentralisation will be more important than ever.
The Highland Regional Council is fully aware of it. That is why it has produced a consultation document that is presently being considered by a great many bodies, including the two district councils who agree with Highland Region: Skye and Lochalsh District Council and Nairn District Council. But there are a great many other bodies apart from local government who are considering these documents at the same time.
I believe that the general public are much more concerned about the quality of the services that they get from local government than where the actual decisions are taken. I do not think that the man in the street really cares all that much where the decisions are taken provided the services are good.
More than 20 years ago when I represented Ross and Cromarty in another place I held a surgery in a small village on the west coast called Kinlochewe. A lady came to my surgery with an armful of papers, maps and sketches. She explained to me that she had a great planning problem. I should say that that took place before the last reorganisation. We discussed the problem. I realised that there was very little that I could do as a Member of Parliament. I asked why she did not take the matter to the planning office in Dingwall because I was sure that they would be able to help her. The lady replied, "Mr. Gray, what do you think they know about Kinlochewe in Dingwall?" I feel that that is fairly typical of the attitude of the public. The public are interested in local government when they have a problem. They want to know who their councillor is and how they can contact him. Whether or not he takes their complaint or grievance at a local surgery or on a phone-in telephone line 100 miles away makes very little difference, provided he is able to do something about it.
The hour is late. Like others, I could go on for a long time arguing the case for one major council for the Highlands. I can remember when there were many authorities in the Highlands and a great deal of time was spent by one trying to outwit the other. It was only when the Highland Regional Council was created after the last reorganisation that the Highlands was able to speak with one voice. I spent three years in the Scottish Office and knew that that Highland voice was listened to. I suggest to my noble friend that he certainly should not accept the amendment.
§ The Earl of Minto
I do not wish to comment on the specific local issues concerning the Highlands. Other noble Lords who are much better qualified have already done so. Others may wish to continue it later. However, I make no bones about the fact that I am concerned 758 about the suggestion to split the Highlands in two. As a convenor of a rural region in Scotland, I am accustomed to hearing comments about distance. It is a normal word to use. Sometimes I am asked by people, principally outwith local government, how somebody in, say, Alnmouth can reasonably make judgments on issues concerning Newcastleton or Peebles many miles away. Within the Borders there used to be people—and perhaps there are still a few—who said that nobody in Hawick could know what was going on in Galashiels because it was 18 miles away. That was a long time ago, and they and we have learned. What long experience tells me is that in rural areas distance is an inevitable feature of life. Strangely, it is one of the things that binds us together, just as do our common interests in our needs, our traditions, our sport, our tourism, our farming, our forestry and our industrial base. That is the situation in the Borders. I imagine that in the Highlands it is such matters as crofting, fishing, fish farming, Gaelic, forestry and tourism which contribute to giving the Highlands its common heritage and identity, north and south. Above all, experience teaches one that what people want to share in rural areas is a high quality of service provision, as other noble Lords have mentioned.
I was surprised when the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, referred to the services provided by the district as opposed to the services provided by the region and to the importance attached to the district services rather than the regional services. I should have thought that while it is terribly important to have environmental health and housing, it is surely more important to have roads that one can pass along —and therefore a roads and transportation system—a winter maintenance system, social services, education and planning and development. Those services are rather more prominent than some of the district services that are provided.
People want high quality education, social work and road services wherever they are. Those and others are the very services which the rural regions of the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, and Highland have done so much to improve over the past 20 years. They have been able to do that only because of their numerical and therefore their financial base. It is that above all else which has made them viable. Therefore I am concerned by any suggestion which threatens the viability of rural councils to deliver the high quality services which the people rightly demand.
It is in rural areas that the challenges of delivering modern services are at their most extreme. Distances and sparsity of population require innovation; they require sufficient strength to develop and deliver those services. If Highland were to be split in two it would be necessary to re-create it the following day in order to deliver modern services. That would require the establishment of joint arrangements of various kinds. That in itself clearly indicates that the two new councils would not be viable. It would undermine local accountability and pride and it would lead to expensive local administration and not to local democracy.
In other local authorities in Scotland such a split would lead to the small having to purchase services from the larger neighbours. Such an option would not even exist in Highland since each authority would be 759 hopelessly remote from any large neighbour. Indeed, at present, I know that Highland offers many services in computing and specialist social work to the island councils of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles. So any threat to the viability of Highland has the potential to affect Scotland's island dwellers.
I believe that the Government are right to retain the boundaries of Highland as the appropriate unit of government for this rural and remote area. The rural regions have brought efficiency and enormous benefits by way of improved and more professional and specialist services to Scotland's rural populations. They have done so at reasonable cost. From my experience it is right that the Government seek to maintain these units for the future. I believe that we should do nothing to impair the prospects of that most sparsely populated part of Scotland, which is greatly loved by all of us, by seeking to artificially divide the Highlands.
§ Lord Burton
Before the noble Lord sits down, can he say how he thinks that Argyl and the Isles will be viable if two councils were not viable in the Highlands?
§ The Earl of Minto
I was speaking specifically of the Highlands. You only heard me speaking on Argyl today. I believe that the viability of the Highlands rests in a single council. I do not wish to be diverted on that.
§ Lord Sanderson of Bowden
I must declare an interest as a director of a company which may have advised some of the local authorities, but I hasten to add that the views which I am about to express are very definitely my own. I feel very strongly about the welfare of the Highlands. I take it amiss when I hear from the noble Lord, Lord Macaulay of Bragar, that successive governments have ignored the Highlands—I believe that those were his words—and I certainly do not believe that to be true.
Having had some experience of the Highlands as a mere Borderer, I believe that I can intrude on this particular debate. As Minister responsible for the Highlands for three-and-a-half years I came to know the area. I came to know its strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps I may put a slightly different slant on this debate than has happened until now. I believe that the Highlands is a very special area not only as far as Scotland is concerned but as regards the United Kingdom. After all, successive governments have no doubt tried to get the very best deal from the European Community for the Highlands and only recently has Objective 1 been achieved.
I believe that that has partly been achieved by the Labour Government's introduction of the Highlands and Islands Development Board and the strength of that unit in promoting the Highlands. But also I believe it has been partly achieved by the strength of the Highland Regional Council, warts and all, because no local authority or government can be perfect. It is a huge area to deal with.
My experience was quite clearly that the most fragile part of the whole of Scotland was the north-west seaboard down the west coast to Lochaber. It needs special consideration. That is why I was very interested to hear what my noble friend Lord Gray of Contin said 760 about the Skye & Lochalsh District Council. I too received the briefing from that council and the letter from its chairman. I was particularly interested in one sentence in the briefing which says:'The single Highland Council will provide an opportunity to retain decentralised decision making at a truly local level, while giving the economies of scale and the resources and power of a large organisation".Before this Bill leaves this House my noble friend the Minister might like to tell us how we can put flesh on the bones of that particular statement. It is absolutely crucial that real power is decentralised from Inverness. It must not be a lot of councillors in one single authority paying lip service to devolving power. It has to be there, and seen to be there, otherwise this particular reorganisation will not work.
I come back to the point that I made at the beginning. When there are a lot of peat-based roads, with difficult bridges to be constructed and the whole area and infrastructure to be changed, with tremendous investment, we need to have a concerted approach to get all the assistance that we can for this fragile area, particularly for the west coast of this vast land mass. I believe that one council, for all its faults, is the answer. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Macaulay, said earlier, this is probably the most important part of the map to be settled.
There are points on both sides of the argument. Although I have come down in favour of one side and I respect very much the views of those who present contrary arguments, at the end of the day this is a very special area which may need a special solution. I believe that the Government have got it right.
§ 11.15 p.m.
§ Lord Elphinstone
Having heard the arguments both inside and outside the Committee, I should like to support the amendment. Sheer geographical size is not the only difficulty. There is a very considerable dichotomy of general social characteristics and economic needs between the North and South Highland areas as they are proposed. I believe that those differing needs would be best served by two separate authorities.
To take up one matter raised by my noble friend Lord Gray of Contin, there seems to have been some scaremongering about the prospect of a large and possibly rival administrative headquarters based in Dingwall which is, as has been said, only 12 minutes from Inverness. As I understand it, those who hope to replace the present councillors in the northern area have a scheme to spread the higher paid jobs throughout the area and to avoid the need for one large administrative headquarters which would effectively rival that of Inverness.
Most of the other cogent points have been covered, so I simply urge my noble and learned friend to reconsider the matter on behalf of the Government.
§ Lady Saltoun of Abernethy
I had not intended to intervene in the debate on this amendment, but while I have been listening something has occurred to me. We have heard a lot about the distances which councillors will have to travel to attend council meetings if the Highland Region remains as it is. We are always hearing 761 that in the future people will be able to work at home and participate in meetings and conferences by television and video links. Might not that very soon apply to local government?
§ Lord Hughes
I had intended to say that I was in favour of the two Highland areas structure that was put forward. I shall probably remain of that opinion.
The noble Lord, Lord Burton, does not need to worry unduly about the late hour at which this is being discussed. He can rest assured that next time round there will be an even longer discussion, whatever the hour. Incidentally, this is probably the first time that the noble Lord, Lord Burton, and I have been on the same side. One or other of us must be moderating our views. I do not suggest which one it is.
I do not want to make the arguments that I should otherwise have made in favour of the two councils because this matter will come up again. However, I should like to reflect on two speeches that were made the other way. I refer to the speeches made by the noble Earl, Lord Minto, and by the noble Lord, Lord Sanderson of Bowden. Both put forward views that I should like to read tomorrow in Hansard and to reflect on in the intervening months. If I remain of the opinion that there should be two councils, it will be in spite of what they said, not because of it.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
I have listened with immense interest to what has been said, particularly to the CVs which have been laid before the Committee, so I had better start by saying that I, too, have a connection with the Highlands in that I fought the constituency of Caithness and Sutherland for nearly four years before winning it with help from my noble friend and, happily, many others. I was a little political in those days and after the 1964 election I somewhat rudely exulted that there were no Tories left between Muckle Flugga and Ballachulish. Some of them crept back but have since been removed.
Of course, to a degree the issue is political but the arguments have somewhat annoyed me. The question of distance has been raised. The noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin, is an experienced man and somewhat prejudiced in favour of the area around Inverness. He said that one can only have Dingwall and Inverness and that they are close together. The argument is not about where the councillors have to go; the argument is about where the constituents can find their councillor. That is the argument that we should pursue.
The noble Lord, Lord Gray, also said that we must compare like with like. I was going to interrupt him but after his treatment of the noble Lord, Lord Burton, I was frightened. Never mind the population the size of Wales, which happens to be true, there is no other area of Great Britain like the Highlands. It is unique. The Borders are not the same at all. The Borders are much more favourably situated and there is not the atmosphere of despair that there has been in many parts of the Highlands. The area is completely unique and it has immense problems.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Gray, I had many experiences with far away places. During one election I 762 travelled to Cape Wrath to canvass the lighthouse keepers. I found that not a single one of them was a voter. That is a funny story—or it is meant to be funny —and it is typical of the enormous variety. In one constituency there were the Free Presbyterians in the west. In Inverness-shire there were the pre-Reformation Catholic communities. There is the Norse-based or influenced mixture in Caithness, and then there are Sutherland and Ross and Cromarty.
The fact is that throughout the Highlands the people harbour a suspicion about what goes on. One of the main problems that the Highland Board has had to overcome has been the fact that if one starts something the local people wait for it to fail. If it succeeds they are surprised. That is true in particular in the real Highland areas if not nearly so true in Caithness.
All that variety is enormously difficult to fit together. I believe that the large area makes it impossible. The argument is similar to that in Fife, only infinitely more so. There is an enormous area of very different types of people. In my view, one needs more councillors. I do not believe that the numbers on a single regional council would cover the area and be able to assess the feeling in all the disparate areas with their disparate people. That is why we need two unitary authorities.
I admire the competence of the regional authorities. My noble friend Lord Thurso gave examples of the competence of a small authority where one could have a genuine democracy. I could say a great deal more but the hour is late. I might illustrate the different views by saying that we have different views in the Liberal Democrat party. Sir Russell Johnston is of the regional authority. It is not often I hear the noble Lord, Lord Gray, saying that he agrees with Sir Russell but this is a natural regional tendency. Charles Kennedy and all the other Members from the North are in favour of the two authorities.
When one thinks of how well the Highland authorities have worked, I do not think that one can escape the conclusion that a genuine democracy—and I say this to the noble Lord, Lord Sanderson, who did a lot of good work as Minister responsible for food—allied to the efforts of the Government will result in the kind of improvement which these derelict areas need.
I am absolutely convinced that two unitary authorities are necessary. I hope and pray that the Government will consider this point and will not go by the principle that a large authority must be more efficient. We all know that that is not true.
§ Lord Macpherson of Drumochter
The last time that I addressed this Chamber was 25 years ago. I had not really intended to speak this evening. But the noble Lord, Lord Gray, has stung me into rising to support my noble friend Lord Burton. I thought that he was very rude to him and I do not like that.
I must declare my hand. I am fully in favour of two authorities. Noble Lords may not know, but the Lord Provost of Inverness has listened to the debates throughout the afternoon. Noble Lords should ask him what he thinks about it. Like all the other councillors in 763 the north, he is fully in favour of two authorities. I am sorry to delay the debate but I have been stung into standing up after all these years.
§ Lord Hughes
I did not wish to interrupt the noble Lord but the head of the Inverness council is not a Lord Provost.
§ Lord Fraser of Carmyllie
Whether or not I am stung into rising, I think it is time to respond on behalf of the Government. From the outset of the reform exercise the new structure for the Highlands has, as this debate has indicated, been a sharp focus for discussion. Prior to this debate we have had the benefit of a wide range of information in the form of consultation responses, surveys and opinion polls. I have no doubt that it has been useful to have the debate further informed by the contributions which we have had this evening.
We acknowledge that there are sharp divergences of view, but our analysis of the information that we have received has led us firmly to the conclusion that there should be a single Highland authority. The proposal before us is that there should be two Highland authorities—essentially a north/south divide.
I believe that the case is flawed in a number of ways. For example, as far as I can see, there is no north or south Highland identity. I am concerned that that division would be a purely artificial creation. All the evidence points rather to a strong sense of Highland identity.
It is certainly a very large area; no one would deny that. But Members of the Committee who have attended the debate throughout this long afternoon and evening will appreciate that we have not sought to adopt for Scotland any fixed or rigid template. We have sought to respond to the needs of the various areas according to a number of considerations; for example, viability and sense of local community. What came through in the recent debate on Fife is that we are exceedingly anxious to avoid the creation of what we would perceive to be artificial identities.
Underneath that broad Highland umbrella we have a wide range of other loyalties and identities. They manifest themselves very clearly at district or county level in some areas. Loyalties are also evident at town or even village level. That is only to be expected in an area which comprises a large number of small communities over a very large area.
Against that background, it is perhaps not surprising that the responses to our public consultation on the new structure favoured either a large number of very small authorities—which, I take it from the contributions that have been advanced this evening, is widely accepted as being neither feasible nor practical—or a single Highland authority. Support for a two-way split was not in evidence. Caithness District Council even comment-ed at the time of our consultation that a North Highland authority was no better than an all-Highland authority. The council also pointed to an absence of community of interest between Caithness and Ross and Cromarty.
My noble friend Lord Burton referred to a recent set of opinion polls and surveys which appeared to indicate support for the two-way split. Like my noble friend 764 Lord Gray, I take the view that those figures should be regarded with considerable caution. I say that because a comparable survey was carried out earlier by Ross and Cromarty. It took place during the last week in December and the first week in January of last year and involved 1,000 people. When people were asked whether they identified strongly with their district or with the Highlands, the results in favour of Ross and Cromarty were 76 per cent. and in favour of the Highlands the figure was 82 per cent.
When people were asked, "Which option do you think is best for this area—a single council covering the whole of the Highland region?" only 14 per cent. appeared to approve. They were then asked whether they would prefer, "Two councils in the Highland region, with Ross and Cromarty and Sutherland and Caithness forming one of those councils" and approval for such a solution rose massively to 15 per cent. On the other hand, if asked the question, "Would you like four councils in Highland Region with Ross and Cromarty forming one single-tier council on its own?", the view was 67 per cent.
The further question was put as to what would be best for their area (Ross and Cromarty, Caithness and Sutherland) if it were to be between Ross and Cromarty, Caithness and Sutherland or the Highland Region—that is, the Northern proposal at present—and there was less than 6 per cent. support for that option
There is a wide range of identity with smaller communities. That fact evidences itself once one starts asking the question in a more detailed way. I did not think that my noble friend Lord Gray was in any sense intending to be offensive to my noble friend Lord Burton. I should have thought that it is clear that the way in which we have arrived at a two-council solution is indeed by a process of elimination. Even today, there is no consensus among the eight district councils. Nairn and Skye and Lochalsh are both firmly behind a single Highland authority.
I commend the constructive discussions that are already under way between the regional council and Skye and Lochalsh district council with a view to considering what forms of decentralisation might be appropriate given the unique characteristics of the area. I would have hoped that the immediate and constructive approach being taken by those two local authorities would meet with the approval not only of my noble friend Lord Sanderson of Bowden, but I believe that my noble friend Lady Saltoun will also appreciate the value of such an approach, given the remoteness of a number of the communities. Of course, it will ultimately be for the new council itself to determine such matters. Sensible and constructive discussion now can only help through the process of change.
It is important for us to look to Skye and Lochalsh. I have advanced the argument that there appears to me to be a contrivance and an artificiality in the nature of the north-south split. It is worth remarking that in the case for two councils set out in the original document, Skye and Lochalsh was originally to form part of the North Highland proposal. Now, in the face of the fact that it liked neither, it has been sneaked into the South Highland area. The short answer is that it feels 765 comfortable with neither a North nor a South Highland identity but it certainly feels comfortable with a Highland identity.
One of the issues—and in this context it is not a purely technical issue—is that of the headquarters for the new council. There is no doubt that a single Highland council will be able to utilise the existing Highland Region headquarters in Inverness. If, however, there is a two-way split there is no obvious location for the main offices of a North Highland Council. That is why I asked the noble Lord, Lord Macaulay, to indicate to me, if he supported such a split, where he thought the headquarters might be. If the headquarters were located in Dingwall, as I would envisage would be most likely, if there is snow on the road from Wick those coming from the north will find it quite as difficult to get to Dingwall as they would to get to Inverness. As a number of Members of the Committee have observed, there is only a distance of 12 miles between the two, and little would be gained in terms of reducing any sense of remoteness which it is claimed an Inverness headquarters would cultivate among those in the more far-flung areas of the Highlands. It is worth observing that something like 85 per cent. of the services delivered in the Highlands at present are delivered by Highland Region.
To counter that argument, I understand that a variation has been introduced into the proposal. That is that a new headquarters might instead be based at Dornoch. I can think of a large number of reasons, including a golf course, why anybody would want to locate headquarters for a local authority there, but I am far from persuaded that that would help to resolve the remoteness argument. Indeed, if one looks at the roads of the Highlands, it would be more difficult for those councillors and members of the council from, say, Wester Ross, to travel to Dornoch than it presently is for them to travel to Inverness.
It would also be more than likely that new headquarters buildings would be necessary in Dornoch. I take the point that there is indeed a council chamber there, but more than a council chamber is now required to support a local authority. All of those arguments would apply equally to other suggested locations for a North Highland council headquarters, such as Wick or Golspie.
It is also clear that there is no natural boundary between Inverness and Ross and Cromarty, where it is proposed that the dividing line should be drawn. The Kessock Bridge has linked those areas irrevocably, and the link north has been further cemented by the bridges over the Cromarty and Dornoch Firths. If the Kessock Bridge were to be lost or removed I could understand more clearly the argument for the two-council proposal, but given its presence it seems to me that the links are so good that the argument is weakened.
In addition—and I believe this to be an extremely important argument for the well-being of the Highlands and I hope that my noble friend Lord Sanderson, given his previous experience as Minister for the Highlands, and my noble friend Lord Gray will agree with me—the Inner Moray Firth area now operates as a single 766 economic unit and is of crucial importance to the Highlands as a whole. There is strong opposition to any split through that area which provides the Highlands with much of its economic strength.
I understand the anxiety that has also been expressed that any reduction in the number of councillors in a single Highland authority would result in, as the noble Lord Mackie said earlier, a democratic deficit which would lead to a reduction in the quality of representation.
I do not believe that those arguments stand up to scrutiny. The burden on individual councillors will turn on a range of issues, such as the number of area committees, the extent of delegation they choose to exercise and the frequency of meetings. These are, of course, issues which would need to be addressed in the Highland area, regardless of whether there were one or two councils serving the Highlands.
Our firm view therefore is that all the key evidence points to a single Highland authority representing the best way forward for the area. It will be able to maximise economies of scale in its operations and will have the economic strength to target resources to meet the requirements of all sectors of the community regardless of their location.
Effective decentralisation will ensure that service delivery is organised and decisions taken at the lowest practical level. People throughout the Highlands will be able to reap the many benefits of one council and at the same time be served by an authority which has a known identity and which is responsive to their needs.
It has been indicated to me that we may return to the issue at a later stage. However, I trust that by spelling out in some detail what we consider to be the important considerations making up that argument it will be properly considered before we return to the issue, if we do, at a later stage. I hope on that basis the amendment will be withdrawn.
§ Viscount Thurso
I am grateful to the Minister for giving an exposition of what he had in mind in suggesting that we have the one council. However, perhaps I may reply to other noble Lords.
First, I was astounded by the dismissive and patronising description by the noble Earl, Lord Minto, of the Highlands north of Inverness. Only five days ago, I was in Castletown presenting a Queen's Award for export achievement to a factory which now produces thousands of freezers. It exports about 20,000 freezers per year to Iceland, Japan, Australia and all over the world. It has a contract for Coca-Cola freezers. That is what can be and is being achieved by local enterprises in the North. The description of a few fish farmers and crofters running a tourist industry is not the description I like to hear about the Highlands north of Inverness.
North of Inverness, one first passes the oil rigs being serviced in the deep water harbour at Invergordon. One then comes up through Sutherland, passing distilleries, and tweedmills which export all over the world. In Caithness one finds Caithness Glass, Stephens (Plastics) Ltd., and the remains of one of the world's most advanced research establishments at Dounreay, still 767 with about 1,000 people working for it. There is a large, thriving industrial base in the North Highland area. It should not be dismissed lightly.
§ Lord Sanderson of Bowden
It should perhaps be noted that but for the strong support of the Highland Regional Council and the Highlands and Islands Development Board, there would not be a tweedmill in Brora now.
Viscount Thurso: A tweedmill which existed previously was saved. There is another tweedmill further along the road. To say simply that it was a good business rescued by the Highlands and Islands Development Board is not to answer the question.
Caithness Glass was started before the Highlands board existed. Norfrost was started without any help from the Highlands board. It was refused help in the first instance until it began to make some money. So it can be done.
§ The Earl of Minto
I had no intention of being rude about North Highlands. That was a most extraordinary remark to make. I was drawing a parallel between the region in which I live and that in which the noble Viscount lives. I drew the parallel on the basis that distance applied to both of us, although distance is relative.
§ Viscount Thurso
I thank the noble Earl for his modification of what I took to be what he said. I shall read Hansard with care, but I felt that the remark was slightly dismissive and I had to answer it.
We have been asked yet again to look at the beautiful blandishments of economies of scale. We were promised economies of scale in the last local government reorganisation. Let us take one example: education. In Wick, where Caithness education authority had its headquarters, the number of staff employed in Rhind House, looking after the schools and the education of Caithness was not reduced by the creation of the Highland Region. But six further people were employed in Inverness to supervise them. We fear that if that happens again we shall be offered the same kind of economies of scale, and they are illusory.
We have been told to be wary of boards, yet even the new single-tier pan-Highland authority is not big enough to cover the area already covered by the Highlands and Islands Development Board. That board stretches to Shetland and the outer isles and other areas around that region. It will still operate over a wider scale and to threaten us with the thought that we might not get our Objective 1 status because we did not have a single-tier authority is nonsense. Yet that has been suggested.
We have been told to posit an argument about how regionalisation could take place in a two-Highland authority. Much has been made of the proximity of Dingwall to Inverness, but the Association of Highland District Councils has worked out quite a good and workable scheme which would use, shall we say, Dornoch as the main headquarters where there is not only a council chamber but other buildings which are surplus to requirements. They could be used for offices and one 768 would use other existing council buildings as well, such as those in Dingwall and Wick for part of the services which have to be delivered. One might have the headquarters for roads in Wick, or some other head-quarters in Dingwall. There is a scheme to do that, so the council would not be just in one place with one headquarters to which people would have to go to obtain the answer to everything. There would be different council officials and different councillors in different parts of the region.
We must get down to the quality of the services, the quality of the councillors and the quality of the democracy to be enjoyed by the voters and people who will be served by the councils. There is no doubt that we will get a better choice of councillors if we can bring the council nearer to the people than if you take it a very long way. Nowadays there is difficulty in finding enough good people to stand for the regional council because of the enormous burdens placed upon them in having to travel to and from meetings, having to be away from home for many nights, and so on. If we could bring things only a little closer it would make an enormous difference. In any journey, as I well know from travelling up and down to this House, it is not only the getting there but the getting back that takes time out of one's life. An enormous difference could be made by that.
A difference could also be made by moving council meetings around the area. That would be part of the solution that the Association of Highland District Councils would posit. If one could do that, one would get a great improvement in the number and quality of people who were willing to come forward and offer themselves for election. The quality of services resulting therefrom would improve. Certainly, the quality of democracy would improve. We have to make sure that we overcome the problems of the lady in Kinlochewe who said, "What do they know in Dingwall about my affairs?". We could overcome that difficulty if we moved the councillors round and got them to know about the region of the single-tier council which they would then serve.
The hour is late and we have talked long on this subject. I agree that, if not the most important, it. is probably among the most important of the matters that we have been able to discuss today. We have given it good value in our consideration in terms of time. But I fear that, as has been suggested by the noble and learned Lord, there are a number of matters that need to be discussed, probably with the Scottish Office and certainly among ourselves, between now and the next time we come to consider the Bill in this Chamber. In order to allow that to happen, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, and possibly to return to it at Report stage.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 19 to 22 not moved.]
§ House resumed.
§ House adjourned at seven minutes before midnight.