LOCAL GOVERNMENT (WEST MIDLANDS ORDER)
The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Richard Crossman)
I beg to move.
That the West Midlands Order 1965, dated 3rd November 1965, a copy of which was laid before this House on 9th November, be approved.
Mr. Robert Edwards (Bilston)
On a point of order. Before my right hon. Friend begins his speech, would you, Mr. Speaker give a Ruling as to whether or not this subject is sub judice? Today, in another place, the Special Orders Committee received a petition from the local authorities involved in this Order. Standing Order No. 216 of another place states that no discussion can take place until the recommendation of the Special Orders Committee has been submitted to another place. Does not this mean that this debate should be postponed as the subject is now sub judice?
I am advised that the sub judice rule of another place does not apply to legislation of this House.
I know that a great many right hon. and hon. Gentlemen wish to express their views on what is a contentious matter, so I think I should confine myself at the beginning to the briefest resumé of the facts as they are known, if not too well-known, to all of us who have been watching this dispute going on for six years or so. This will give plenty of time for those who want to express their disagreement. Having listened to the debate I will, by leave of the House, be able to reply. It would be easier then to meet the points raised. [column 1794]
I will briefly summarise what I think to be the essential facts as objectively as I can. This Order results from the proposals of the Local Government Commission for the West Midlands Special Review Area. I think that I am right in saying that this is the first time we have discussed in this House the full products of a special review area report.
The purpose of this Order is to establish a pattern of five county boroughs in the area north-west of Birmingham. The Order creates this pattern of county boroughs by extending four existing county boroughs—Dudley, Walsall, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton—to take in the surrounding and intermingling boroughs and urban districts now in Staffordshire. It also creates the new County Borough of Warley. By this means, the present mixed system of counties, county boroughs, boroughs, and urban districts—19 authorities in all—will be replaced by five all-purpose authorities.
The Order creates a big new urban district of Aldridge-Brownhills in Staffordshire, and enlarges the borough of Stourbridge, in Worcestershire, by merging it with the small urban district of Amblecote, now in Staffordshire. These also are agreed amalgamations.
A number of boundary changes are introduced, not only between authorities within the conurbation but also on the external fringes with the counties. The major principle laid down by the Commission was that the green belt should be left to the administration of the county planning authorities. Subject to that, it recommended various changes which have been incorporated in the Order.
Finally, the Order establishes two new drainage authorities—the Upper Tame Main Drainage Authority and the Upper Stour Main Drainage Authority—which are joint boards set up to deal with the main sewerage and sewage treatment for the two parts of the conurbation which drain respectively into the Trent and Severn River basins.
I do not think that I need to state that, as a result of the history of the Black Country, the structure of local government in the area is of undeniable complexity. There are five all-purpose county boroughs mixed in with 13 county districts, under two administrative counties. I think it will be agreed by everyone concerned that this is an urgent [column 1795]problem. Planning, housing, slum clearance and redevelopment have had to be tackled—and tackled not very effectively—by a variety of authorities with different powers.
I think that there has been wide agreement that reorganisation was necessary. The disagreement has not been on the principle but on exactly how it should take place. I think that it has also been agreed that many local authorities are in any case too small, especially for a conurbation. Three of the present county boroughs have populations of less than 100,000, which is far below what we regard as the minimum for efficient all-purpose authorities, and some of the county districts are weak in resources. On the other hand, I think that it will also be agreed that the counties are prevented by their much wider responsibilities from giving to the area the singleminded attention which its problems deserve.
I do not think that it will be denied in the House that the Local Government Commission put forward a scheme of reorganisation for the Black Country in an attempt to unify it, without creating a single unitary authority, by having five strong county boroughs centred on existing county boroughs. Of course, it is true that the proposals were strongly objected to at the local inquiry, held by my predecessor in Wolverhampton between October, 1961, and February, 1962—and I would like the House to mark the date of the inquiry. After considering the proposals and the objections, the previous Government decided to accept the proposals with certain modifications, and that decision was announced in July, 1962. Again it is interesting to observe the speed with which we can achieve decisions in our revision of local government boundaries. Rather more than three years later, I found myself considering these solutions all over again.
It seemed to me that the merits of the Commission's proposed county boroughs could be summed up in five points. First, the Black Country has grouped itself to a considerable extent around the five existing county boroughs. They are generally the main shopping and social centres and the primary focus for sport, entertainment and higher education. Secondly, these five will not be so big that their councillors will become [column 1796]remote from their constituents, as they would if we tried to create one single all-purpose authority in the area, or their centres of administration rendered inaccessible to the public.
The third advantage is that they will be strong enough for an all-out attack on urban and industrial obsolescence and squalor and decay, which present the most complex and difficult problems in the Black Country. Fourthly, they will have the financial resources to expand education and health and welfare services. Fifthly, each will be based on an existing all-purpose authority with experience of running all these major services.
Sixthly—and in my view the most important of all—these stronger authorities will be capable of attracting enough of the best men into their service, whether as members or as officers, through their great range of functions and the undoubted scope those will offer for imaginative local government. I ask those who criticise the creation of these authorities whether they are satisfied that the present existing structure is able to attract the quality of people who are required for modern government.
Having said that as uncontentiously as I can, I want briefly to refer to what is in the Order itself. Article 5 is the key to the whole Order. It is this article which actually changes the local authority areas. Articles 8 to 10 make the electoral arrangements. New wards for the extended county boroughs and the Borough of Stourbridge were approved by the previous Home Secretary, and I have arranged for elections to be held on the basis of those wards in March of next year—on the new register—so that there are newly elected councils representing the enlarged areas immediately after the appointed day of 1st April.
As for the two new authorities; I am sorry about this, but we have had to arrange for the County Borough of Warley and the Urban District of Aldridge—Brownhills to have their elections early in February so that the new councils can come into being and work side by side with the old in preparation for the takeover on 1st April. This will enable them to appoint their officers and make other decisions before that date. [column 1797]
Then we come to a whole series of Articles, 13 to 20, which make the consequential changes in the administration of justice to bring the arrangements into line with the revised local government areas.
The next Articles deal with provisions for facilitating the transfer of functions—education, health, welfare, town and country planning and housing—and then we come to Article 44 which establishes two new main drainage authorities which will provide the trunk sewers and sewage treatment for the areas of the conurbation.
The Order contains no provision for the setting up by agreement of the new joint police force for the Black Country. The Home Secretary proposes to make the necessary Order shortly, so that it also takes effect on 1st April. The transfer of staff under Article 82 protects the terms and conditions of service of those who are transferred to the county councils from the authorities which are dissolved.
I have tried to be short and non-contentious, and that seems to be the essence of what we are thinking on this Order. I would only add one other factual comment to the House before the serious debate, and that is to remind the House of the history of this Order. I think that it is a lesson in the way in which we are now conducting our procedures for the reconstruction of local government.
The Commission began its review at the beginning of 1959 and it published its first draft proposals in 1960. Its report was made in May, 1961 and the then Minister held local inquiries, of which the most important was the one held in Wolverhampton which lasted from October 1961 to February 1962. The previous Government announced their decision to accept the proposals in July, 1962 and issued a Decision Memorandum in November, 1962, announcing the making of an Order to implement the changes on 1st April, 1964. This decision was announced three years ago. Early in 1963 notice was given by five county district councils that they were bringing an action against the Ministry in the High Court. This action took some time to come to trial. Judgment was given in the High Court at the end of May, 1965, in favour of the Ministry. It was upheld [column 1798]by the Court of Appeal in July of this year and leave to appeal to the House of Lords was refused.
The answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston (Mr. Robert Edwards), is that the Special Orders Committee of another place heard the petitioners today and decided not to refer the Order to a Select Committee for further inquiry. This makes six years and I would have hoped that we could come to a decision tonight, because, whatever are the rights and wrongs, I cannot believe that it is good for local government to be kept in suspense for six years. Local government has waited six years without being able to recruit adequate officers. If we do not want to bring democracy into contempt the prolongation of endless disputes is something which we should seek to avoid.
Mr. Peter Griffiths (Smethwick)
I rise to express what I believe are the views of a great many people within the conurbation, when I say that I view the proposals with very little enthusiasm. Most of us who were concerned with local government in the area agree that some kind of reorganisation was necessary, though perhaps, I would not accept the comment of the right hon. Gentleman that we had not been very effective in tackling our social problems. I think that was an unfortunate phrase to use.
The position is that, while some six years ago, there was a certain feeling of enthusiasm for the new structure and for new ideas, in the period that has elapsed the positive support has tended to dwindle. The active opposition has tended to grow but the main feeling is one of resignation. Certainly I would agree with the final comments of the right hon. Gentleman that whatever we do tonight, we must make a decision. We cannot hang on any longer, because it has been to the disadvantage of all the local authorities within the area. I feel that many of the authorities and many members of the local authorities within the area, are suspicious of this programme, particularly because they are not convinced that larger units will necessarily be more economic or more efficient. We are prepared to give this plan a fair trial, and those who have been in the working party for the new county [column 1799]boroughs of Warley have given up the opposition they had to the proposals and are now working to see that this county borough is made a success.
The principle, certainly, is no longer opposed, but I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that it is smaller matters, matters of detail, which can cause heartburning. I gave him notice that I wished to raise one matter which my own County Borough of Smethwick has raised on a number of occasions. Now I am raising it on behalf of the working party which represents not only Smethwick but Rowley Regis and Oldbury, which together form the new County Borough of Warley.
The are extremely concerned about one aspect of the proposals which they find almost completely unacceptable. It is the proposal to transfer one of the two major pre-war housing estates in Smethwick to the County Borough of West Bromwich. This estate consists of 230 houses which were built in 1928 at a cost then of some £426 a house, a total of only some £98,000, but that estate today is estimated to have a value of something like £500,000. It is one of the only two estates of houses within the County Borough of Smethwick, because all modern building has had to be multistorey. The revenue from this estate is some £7,000 per annum. It is proposed that these houses should be handed to West Bromwich. It would mean a great loss in housing, a great loss in revenue, but also it would seem to me to be entirely unfair that West Bromwich should only be asked to meet an outstanding debt of some £42,000 while receiving from the County Borough of Smethwick and the new county Borough of Warley an asset valued at £500,000. I would suggest that this is certainly inequitable.
However, it is not just the fact that West Bromwich would be receiving as asset of that value with a debt which would be paid off by six years revenue from the rents. It is a great loss of the social capital of the new county borough about which I am appealing. We have to build nowadays, as I have said, in multistorey blocks. The number of houses within the County Borough of Smethwick and within the new County Borough of Warley will be strictly limited. It is a town with a dreadful housing pro[column 1800]blem. The housing demand within the County Borough of Warley will be severe. Certainly, houses will be at a premium. In the county borough, in the situation in which we find ourselves, the speed at which housing programmes can be increased is limited by the speed at which we can rehouse people. It is not a matter of the pace of the building industry, but of existing houses, and if we lose 230 houses, that will slow down our redevelopment programme.
It is suggested in defence of the scheme which will take away this estate that it lies beyond the newly established boundary. The newly established boundary is a railway line. The more natural boundary lies a few hundred yards away, the main Birmingham to West Bromwich road. Already this boundary has been breached as the schools lie on the other side. It seems a strange thing to say, “All right, the schools can be in the one county borough, but the houses from which the children come to go to school must be across the boundary.” It does not make sense at all.
Local opinion in the area is strongly in favour of its remaining in the County Borough of Warley. Local councillors who have sounded opinion are unanimous on this. The working party, which represents the three authorities and all political parties, is also strongly in favour of retaining this area within the new county borough, and I would ask that the right hon. Gentleman should give an assurance, even at this late stage, that this small, minor boundary change can be made, because of the great economic and social advantages which it would bring to one of the county boroughs within the conurbation.
Mr. Julian Snow (Lichfield and Tamworth)
I sincerely hope that this Order will not go through tonight. I shall attempt to portray the attitude and sentiment of the Staffordshire County Council enlarged, if I may use the phrase, by my own observations as to the broader issues. What I feel so distressed about is that if the Order goes through, an honourable and historic county will be little more than a rump, its revenue and population will have been seriously reduced and a county which has done extremely good work over many decades [column 1801]will find itself in a position of being virtually powerless to control its own destinies.
My right hon. Friend the Minister has made great play of the long-drawn-out procedures which have preceded the tabling of the Order. It seems to me that my right hon. Friend has been completely consistent in all his Parliamentary career in the establishment of county boroughs. I have been reading some of his speeches over the years. I was reading with great interest tonight—this is not a criticism of my right hon. Friend; he has been wholly consistent—his speech in the debate some years ago upon the Luton Corporation Bill. On that occasion, he made an impassioned plea for the establishment of a county borough.
By his reasoning then, as now, my right hon. Friend is lending himself to a polarisation of town and country. There are many better informed people who feel that this polarisation is undesirable. It stems from the 1958 Act, since the passing of which there have been considerable changes, both in regard to general attitudes towards local government and substantial changes in population.
I understand that my right hon. Friend has suggested to the County Councils Association that it should set up a committee to examine the future structure of local government. At this point, I remind some of my hon. Friends who come from other parts of the country, such as South-East Lancashire and Tyneside, that we of the West Midlands are the guinea pigs in this exercise. It is we who will suffer as a county council, and they in those other areas are the next people for the political high jump.
I do not for one moment apologise for reminding the House that what is at present a Labour-controlled county council will, if the Order is passed, become a strong Conservative-controlled county council. It does not in the least surprise me, therefore, that one hears polite noises of approval for this Measure coming from those on the other side.
The Committee of the County Councils Association which the Minister has suggested should be established to investigate the reorganisation of local government has received some support—in fact, total support—from the County [column 1802]Councils Association in a resolution recently passed by that Association concerning my right hon. Friend's suggestion. I will take the liberty of quoting two paragraphs of that resolution. First:
“That the Minister's suggestion be welcomed in principle, and the setting up … of a committee to carry out the proposed analysis be supported.”
“That the Association reiterate their view, now reinforced by the Minister's suggestion, that there is a need for a standstill in connection with the creation of new authorities and the large-scale transfer of populations from one authority to another, either of which would prejudice the future position.”
It seems to me that there are two main aspects on which one should object to the Order. First, as to the timing of the Order, the statistical data upon which it is based is data which was available to the Commission in 1960 and which, certainly in my part of Staffordshire is now substantially outdated. The Minister himself must have great anxieties about it. With his usual fluency and objectivity, he presented the case tonight for a change in order to improve the quality of local government in the Black Country. But is the Minister quite sure that he is going to continue with the Commission, with its present procedures, or is he going, to use his own words, to “do a Bevan” and hoist the Local Government Commission on a Ministerial petard? If he has these misgivings, why is he putting through this Order now?
I think there is some misunderstanding. The Local Government Commission completed its work on this particular area many years ago. Its job is over. What we are concerned about now is the Local Government Commission's work in three areas—the North-West, the South and the South-East—and it is only in regard to those three areas that I could hoist it on a petard, if I wanted to. It was someone long before me who took over from them. It was in 1952 that they received their commission. It is not a question of doing “a Bevan” in respect of the West Midlands.
I must correct my right hon. Friend. There is no misunderstanding. He has at his disposal the opportunity to take a Ministerial decision and, in my judgment, he has taken the wrong [column 1803]one. He could not have followed the recommendations of the Commission. Furthermore, if he is dissatisfied with the Commission, surely he should take into account what is going to happen in these other areas. Why is he going through with an Order when he knows and has known for many years, judging by the speech that I mentioned just now on the Luton Corporation Bill, that one should not make substantial changes unless and until there has been complete reorganisation of local government? He said so in 1951.
As I was about to say, apart from the Minister's own apparent dissatisfaction with the Local Government Commission as it is, there are other considerations which I do not think are of a particularly minor character. My right hon. Friend the First Secretary has established the regional economic councils which are now doing that work based on the existing local government structure in Staffordshire, and the West Midlands Study Group is working on the same basis.
It seems to me, therefore, that this is a very bad moment, unless there is lack of collaboration with those other Ministries, for him to table the Order. Even the new proposals are going to whittle away the traditional powers of county boroughs. He himself mentioned just now that there is going to be an alteration in the normal powers of county boroughs in the organisation of police, which is not going to be on a conurbation basis. What about the fire service? What about the probation service?
My right hon. Friend should listen to some of my hon. Friends who represent London constituencies talking about what is happening in London now because of the mix up of services which should be based on some more sensitive form of local government. I suggest that the Minister has taken the action that he has because he is exacerbated by the long delay, as was his predecessor. But it is a bad controlling factor for a Minister to use in making up his mind. If there is uncertainty locally, that could be removed by rejecting the Order. In 1950, one of my right hon. Friend's predecessors in this Ministry advised the House to reject county borough status Bills which had been proposed by up and coming towns. Why? Because reorganisation [column 1804]of local government was being discussed at the time by the local authority associations. If it was right then, why is it wrong now?
I should like to turn to another aspect of the Order to which I object strongly—the proposals for services. My right hon. Friend mentioned that a substantial number of county districts would be dissolved. All those county districts, with one exception, object to the Order. We are dealing here with a total population of 120,000 people. Is their record so bad? I know that there is a feeling in my right hon. Friend's Ministry that there has been inefficiency in local government in the Black Country. That is not what is accepted. After the Commission had prepared its final Report, as the Minister mentioned, there was a statutory public inquiry and he sent down two most distinguished civil servants as his inspectors to investigate the objections of the county council and the district councils.
I ask the patience of the House if read out some of the objections and some of the matters which the county council and the district councils asked the inspectors to investigate and find upon. They contended that, first,
“The various areas administered by the district councils form distinct groups with strong local traditions;”
second—I am quoting from his own Inspectors' Report:
“The local government services in the Black Country at the present time are of a high standard. There is no evidence that the services in the districts, including the county services, are less well administered or of lower standard than in the county boroughs;”
“There is no general feeling of confusion among the ratepayers or in the districts or sense of frustration in the district councils or their staffs from the present local government pattern;”
“There is no significant difference in the quality of the local government services provided at the present time by the various county boroughs;”
“The new and enlarged county boroughs will not have substantially greater resources than the present county borough of Wolverhampton;”
“The future problems facing the county districts in the Black Country are similar to those with which they have been successfully dealt since the war;”
“No claim was established” ——
What is my hon. Friend quoting from?
This is from page 19 of the Report.
“No claim was established that any particular local government government service would be improved or made cheaper under the Commissioner's proposals in any particular area or in the Black Country as a whole.”
What did my right hon. Friend's inspectors say about those contentions? They said:
“We agree that on the evidence produced at this Inquiry all these contentions except” ——
the last but one—
“were established or might be inferred. We do not think that enough evidence as to future tasks was available for us to come to any conclusion on contention (f)” ——
the last but one——
Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)
I expected that question, because I now come to the extraordinary argument put forward by those who support the Commission's proposals, and which I find quite incredible. Their main argument to rebut these contentions was—I ask the House to take particular notice of this extraordinarily arrogant attitude—that the wishes of the inhabitants were, in an overall programme of local government in a conurbation, of little or no importance in arriving at a good solution. What are we doing here as Members of the House of Commons if we do not represent the interests and desires of our constituents? The Minister might say that Members of Parliament should rise above parochial attitudes. I do not know whether he will say that, but I suspect that he might, judging by some of the arguments he adduced tonight. We, as Members of Parliament, must be sensitive to what people think. In another part of the report of the inspectors it was agreed, in the words of the Deputy-Chairman of the Commission, that
“If you see definite and decided advantages one way or another you may have to override the wishes of the inhabitants, but if you are left in some doubt about the advantages then those wishes may be decisive.”
that was the Deputy-Chairman of the [column 1806]Commission. I submit that in view of what the inspectors said and of the observation by the Deputy-Chairman that there is no case for this Order.
I therefore repeat that there is no evidence that the record of local government in this area is very bad. Of course there are difficulties and complications which arise from the historical and industrial development of the Black Country, but I would have thought that Scheme B, which was put forward by the Staffordshire County Council after the original proposals of the Commission—since it took into account enlarged county districts, which were reduced in number—was a basis upon which one might have retained the existence of Staffordshire as a whole.
Consider the hardship to the ratepayers. We have been concerned about the increasing burden on the ratepayers all over the country. What will be the effect of this Order? I do not claim to be an authority on local taxation, but as I read the figures the first result will be that all ratepayers in the county will have to pay another 6d. on the rates. That will not be the end of it, because other increased expenditure will have to be met by the adjacent boroughs—and they love that idea! So there is a financial reason why the Order is weak and against the interests of the people.
Are the new county boroughs really enthusiastic about this Order? Let us consider the attitude of Walsall. [Interruption.] If hon. Members opposite think that Walsall is very enthusiastic, I invite them to read the evidence. Is Walsall so enthusiastic about the addition of Darlaston and Willenhall? From all that I have read of these reports I should have thought that Walsall was showing a marked disinclination to have these additions. Let us consider the case of Tettenhall.
Mr. William Wells (Walsall, North)
Surely the objection on the part of Walsall was not to the scheme as a whole but that it would have preferred another area to be added to it?
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for making my point. Of course it would. It wants the best of both worlds. It has been reading “Candide” , or something. [column 1807]
What about the Darlaston proposal? The report says:
“The outstanding feature of this proposal was its unpopularity. Staffordshire, Wednesbury, Willenhall and Darlaston condemned it outright … Walsall (without even a spark of enthusiasm, I thought) were prepared to accept it, if heavily pruned: but the pruning they wanted (the lopping off of the greater part of Darlaston) was, above all else, unacceptable to Darlaston.”
So here we see Walsall in an advanced state of disillusionment about the proposals.
Let us take the case of Tettenhall. I ask hon. Members to be patient with me, because I am trying to bring to the attention of the House what my right hon. Friends' own inspectors have said. I am quoting from that part of the report which deals with the proposal that Tettenhall should be included in the county borough of Wolverhampton. It says:
“All these facts, coupled with the fact that Tettenhall had nothing to gain from a change and that the proposed County Borough could well function without this addition, it might be thought that the wishes of the inhabitants should prevail and Tettenhall left as it is.”
I also call in aid of my argument the fact that there have been precedents for rejecting Orders of this type. The Nottingham Order was rejected in its time. With a great sense of delicacy I will not make too much of the Northampton Order. The Burton Order was rejected or withdrawn. There are plenty of good precedents for not going ahead with this Order.
I might, perhaps, mention in passing a small point of detail. In page 80——
Why not mention the Northampton Order? I do not think that it was even challenged in the House on the question of local government boundaries.
My right hon. Friend is taking advantage of my delicacy in the matter. I should have thought that the Northampton Order was not one that would have commended itself to everyone on this side—but perhaps my right hon. Friend and I view things differently.
I was about to mention one small point of detail which perhaps my right hon. Friend would look at. He will think it strange that I should mention it, but it so happens that I am a paid-up member [column 1808]of the Society for the Protection of Birds, and in page 80 the inspector refers to the Bullfinches Order of 1955. This does not apply to Staffordshire anyhow, but I mention it because I am in favour of the proper enforcement of the law in these cases.
What I have said is intended to convey that, despite the Commission's findings, the best of the evidence from Staffordshire's point of view seems to produce a very strong case for acceptance of my right hon. Friend's own inspector's points. My right hon. Friend again looks surprised. I thought I had given enough quotations to show that his own inspector did not feel wholeheartedly in favour of the eventual opinion of the Commission. But be that as it may, we in Staffordshire feel that this Order—which emasculates Staffordshire, and puts in a series of county boroughs which, with a little thought, could be avoided—is a bad Order. For that reason, I do not feel that I can support it.
Mr. Hugh Fraser (Stafford and Stone)
I do not want to delay the House for very long, but I must say that I appreciate all the delicacy of a pachyderm with which the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) has evaded the political issue. When this Order is passed, there will neither be dancing in the streets nor will Staffordshire cease as a county to exist. I think that we should moderate our language when talking about the realities of local government and how to make it effective. Staffordshire existed long before the Act of 1881, and will go on long after the right hon. Gentleman and myself have been eventually passed to the grave or rejected by our electorates.
The fact that Staffordshire, at the moment, is quite clearly in a situation where the present organisation can no longer effectively continue to exist. That was not due to the inefficiency of any part of the local administration. It was simply that a multiplicity of authorities that had grown up which were no longer competent to deal with the great growth in local government. Any hon. Member who denies this has merely to look at the maps issued by the Commission showing how the various functions of planning, housing, health and education were split and divided so that, in the Black Country, [column 1809]there was a multiplicity of authorities which simply could not, however willing and good the individuals were, prove effective.
Therefore, when the hon. Gentleman says that this Order brings about the division of the north of Staffordshire from the south, I reply that whatever plan was adopted, this would be inevitable. It is inevitable, whether we adopt the plan of a continuous county based on the Black Country or the plan of a large continuous county based on the Birmingham area. The plan involving the extended county districts is the most inefficient form of administration conceivable.
To those who say that this is a challenge to the smaller unit, I say that the greatest challenge to the smaller unit was the enlarged county district. Not only has there grown up a sense of uncertainty, but all the inevitable struggles between various local authorities have been exacerbated. The important thing is to bring this debate to an end tonight and get on with the essential job of making these local authorities fully effective.
I have a final point to make, which is parochial, and affects the northern part of the county. I beg the Minister for a better transitional arrangement in connection with the finances. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, an application was put forward by the county council, or by parts of it, in the hope that the transitional sluice point would be 5d. rather than 6d. and the transitional period eight rather than four years. Judging from the experience of London, I believe that this is a reasonable proposition. I also hope that the right hon. Gentleman will look seriously at the question of the allocation of funds as between the various authorities and will see that this is done in a reasonable way to meet the desires of those of my constituents who live in the northern part of the county.
I am sure that the time has come, after six years of debate, for this Order to go through. It is one of the most complicated patterns of local government which exist in the Black Country. Of all the possible solutions, of the continuous county, of the various propositions put forward by the Staffordshire County Council, the most effective—given the circumstances, given the fact of the enormous size and power of Birmingham [column 1810]lying to the south and the quite different character of the rest of the county to the north—these large county borough councils must be the easiest and best solution, based as they are on the traditional seats of power, influence and prosperity in the Black Country. This is a difficult question, I know, but, looking at all the alternatives, I am convinced that this is the best possible solution
Mr. Robert Edwards (Bilston)
We are discussing at this late hour an issue of tremendous importance. It involves a million people in the Black Country, the whole future of local government covering a million people.
I do not think that the fact that it has taken six years for this Order to be debated in this House is any discredit to our democratic practices. It seems rather strange that we are debating for the first time this issue, these revolutionary changes in local government, affecting the whole of the Black Country. If people are proud of their local government, if they have a strong sense of civic pride and if the local authorities are to disappear as if they never existed, people are entitled to use all the machinery that our democracy allows them to ventilate their grievances. I do not think any evil consequences arise for British democracy by delaying wrong decisions for such a long period.
I know that the Minister has a very difficult task. I have read the speech he made on 22nd September of this year at the Local Government Annual Conference at Torquay. I learn on studying his speech that he has not made up his mind about the future structure of local government. He is still thinking aloud. Indeed, he remarks on the fact that even before the decision was established for the reform of local government in the West Midlands the Home Secretary had indicated that this form of local government structure would not serve the police force and that larger units had to be established. In the very same speech the Minister indicated that what we were doing now was only the beginning of vast changes which he envisaged in local government.
It is fantastic that the House should be discussing an Order that establishes in a very permanent way indeed five county boroughs for the West Midlands [column 1811]area when the Minister himself told a vast conference at Torquay only a few weeks ago that this is not the last word but that the Government had other ideas about the future of local government.
Local government is in the melting pot. We have to decide new forms of local government finance. We are experimenting in regionalisation. We have the experiment here in Greater London, with the Greater London Authority acting as a kind of large area authority and with boroughs operating within the Greater London Authority. We have a two-tier system here in Greater London. We have it because it was considered, advisedly or otherwise, that the two-tier system was the best because there were all kinds of functions in a great congested area that no single borough or county borough could possibly operate. Yet, in spite of what we are doing here in Greater London, the Order proposes an entirely different structure for the Black Country.
What will be the effect of the order on local government in the Black Country? Five borough councils and seven district councils will disappear. Some of these borough and district councils have a much better record of social advance than the larger county boroughs which will absorb them. My Borough Council of Bilston, for example, since 1945 has built almost twice as many houses per thousand of its population as the County Borough of Wolverhampton has. One of my urban councils—Coseley—has built almost twice as many houses per thousand of its population as the County Borough of Dudley has.
The small, effectively organised borough and urban councils of the Black Country are very efficient. The area has a special peculiarity. It is not like an area in Surrey, Sussex or Yorkshire. This is the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. This is where men blasted ironstone and brought it together with coal to make iron and steel. Towns and villages grew up around the factories. It was all unorganised and unplanned and the old maxim, “Where there's muck, there's money” dominated the whole area.
Since the end of the war new councils with new ideas have cleared away the rubble and slag heaps. They have beautified and nurtured and have great pride in their work. One of the local [column 1812]councils, that of Coseley, which is to disappear has the motto “Fellowship is life, lack of fellowship is death” . That is the spirit of that community. What is to happen to that fine community in this reorganisation? It is to be divided into three parts. One goes into Wolverhampton, another into Dudley, and another into West Bromwich.
Another district council in my constituency, that of Sedgley, has a fine record of social advance and has built houses right into what countryside there is in the area. It has planted trees and created green grass where none existed before. It is a great struggle to get trees and grass to grow in the Black Country. It is a different world from Surrey and Sussex. The Commission went up to the Black Country and thought that by applying itself to a ruler and a map it could create new communities. There was complete lack of understanding of the way in which the Black Country had developed historically and of the community spirit to be found there.
Another area in my constituency, where 850 houses were built by the Borough of Bilston is to disappear into the County Borough of Walsall. The playing fields of Bilston are in that little corner. They are to go right out of the community into the county borough. There has been no serious understanding of the community in the drafting of these proposals. We are all agreed that the existing forms of local government are inadequate for the times and no local authority, no councillor and no chairman of a borough in the Black Country would suggest that the existing structure should remain as it. But we are interested in a structure which represents the Black Country as a whole. Once, under this Order, we establish five county boroughs there, we shall have five concentrated local government vested interests which will make improvement or new structures for the future quite impossible. There will be such power of resistance that the new ideas the Minister has for regionalisation and larger authorities will not be possible.
This is not to say that I am arguing the case for bigness. In my view, there is far too much bigness in the world, as there is far too much industrial concentration in fewer and fewer hands, far [column 1813]too much concentration on mass propaganda, and far too much government by television. We are becoming ants in an anthill. It is no bad thing to have smallness, neatness and efficiency. It is not progress to aim at getting 100 per cent. efficiency out of bigness if, at the same time, all the humanity of a community is lost. In my view, therefore, the whole idea of centralisation leading to the managerial revolution rather than the social revolution of ideas needs far more criticism than it is receiving today. There is a danger in too much tidiness, too much pressure for efficiency, too much remote control and planning from the centre, and too little decentralisation, too little consideration for the community.
We must think and think again before making decisions of this kind which will cause revolutionary changes in the community of the Black Country and create new forms of local government which none of us believes will last very long. For these reasons, I oppose the Order.
Mr. John E. Talbot (Brierley Hill)
I shall not find it easy to express the bitterness and dislike with which the threatened local government areas in the West Midlands view the Order. When I became the Member for Brierley Hill in 1959 I hoped that I might be here to see that large urban district, with a population of over 58,000, attain borough status, for many smaller places had done so. Instead, it seems that, if the House approves this Order, I shall have the melancholy duty of watching its dissolution.
Is it realised how deep is the feeling in the Black Country for one's own place? It will not be a satisfactory solution for Brierley Hill's economic future to have it administered from Dudley, some distance away. In the last few years, with the sanction of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessors, a large new council house, with an assembly hall and offices, has been built, at great cost, in Brierley Hill. Now, it will look like a royal palace in a republican country, useless for the purpose for which it was designed. It will probably end up as one of the proliferating offices for the vastly increasing Government departments which are being fastened upon us by the Government's general policy.
According to Parliamentary convention, opposing the Order as I do, I should [column 1814]attack the Minister. But I do not feel that I can properly do so, except in a small degree. The right hon. Gentleman's responsibility for the Order is minimal. When the right hon. Gentleman obtained his office just over a year ago he found the gun ready loaded and pointing at the target. All he had to do was pull the trigger. I believe there is very much more to explain in this matter than is within his Ministerial experience. There has been a long-prepared and deep-seated intention, with the answer already known and justified in advance. A well-organised and expensive charade has been staged to justify a decision already made.
The members of the Commission were well-intentioned and able, but many knew only a small amount about local government and it had a strong Southern and pro-Establishment membership. I do not believe that anyone on the Commission came north of a line drawn on the map from the Severn to the Wash. They came to the country, took one look and found it something that, to a smooth Southerner, was appalling. One can see that attitude from the Report's very first page. Tucked away in a footnote are these words:
“… we have used the term ‘Black Country, except where the text otherwise requires, as a convenient shorthand term for the special review area other than Birmingham, Solihull, Sutton Coldfield and Meriden parishes, although we appreciate that the outer districts differ in many respects from those at the core of the Black Country.”
Those words are on page 1. By the time the Commission got to page 10 it had completely forgotten all about that.
The Urban District of Tettenhall, part of the area I represent, has no industry. It is purely residential and is entirely different from Wolverhampton and will be ruined if it is put into Wolverhampton because it will be administered by people with no respect for its traditions. It is not in the Black Country and should not have been treated in an Order or inquiry which dealt with the Black Country.
I admit that it is a small place. It has a population of 15,000. But it should have been joined with the Rural District of Seisdon, to which it belongs, thereby forming an authority which would have a population of about 55,000 or 60,000 and still be capable of growth. I put that solution not just to one Minister but [column 1815]several. It would have entirely satisfied the district and yet produced an efficient and convenient authority which could have been under Staffordshire County Council as a second-tier authority. It would have satisfied the local government aspirations of its residents.
But up the Commission came and took one look at the Black Country. It saw small houses, pit mounds, semi-derelict canals, factories whose external appearance belies the value of the work done inside. It saw hardy, forthright people, often speaking with a strong dialect defeating the understanding of Southerners, and strong in their loyalties. We seem to be divided into two parts. “We” are the ordinary people; “they” are the Government officials and inspectors. And it is “they” who have chosen. But the distinction is not appreciated in my area.
However, “they” have won. The Commission completely misunderstood the loyalties to church, chapel and town hall. Our towns and urban districts have grown up from village life and have always looked inwards to the village for everything they have sought. They are strong communities, as the inspectors found. They can find people of adequate calibre to administer them from their own people and they do not need to send to country boroughs for experts to do it for them. They have the resources to pay officials adequate to the tasks they undertake to carry out.
Mr. R. W. Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)
I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument very closely, but I draw his attention to the fact that his is precisely the argument of the great majority of London boroughs at the time of the setting up of the Greater London Council. I cannot recall how the hon. Gentleman voted at that time. Although those were the arguments, the House forced the proposals through.
I am interested in that interjection and I shall have something to say about the London Government Act a little later.
These loyalties are local. There will never be loyalty from Brierley Hill for the County Borough of Dudley. There will never be a loyalty from Tettenhall for the vast County Borough of Wolverhampton. We believe that what we have [column 1816]created and worked for is worth preserving. By the words of the Minister's inspector, as the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) has said—and I do not want to repeat them—it is plainly proven, if it were possible to create judicial proof, that the Black Country authorities are both efficient and convenient. They are efficient and they have been found so. They are convenient because the people who live there want them.
It might be thought—wrongly, of course—that in terms of British government, when absolute power is given to a Minister, that a report of this nature would cause a Minister to think again. I do not mean only the right hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman). I am now talking about the Conservative Minister and my accusations and complaints are as much against the Minister of my own party as against the present Minister. It might have been thought that, with all the factual evidence created and assembled by the Minister's inspector, the Minister would think that there was something in this evidence. But, no! There was a scheme and the scheme had to go through and it would not have mattered if the inspector had actively reported that the county boroughs were incapable of doing the job, for a scheme on the lines of the Order would still have gone through.
I detected in the Minister's speech a feeling that it was improper to delay the course of Ministerial action by going to the High Court, as though delaying the Order by two years was some form of anti-social conduct. I completely refute that view. Anybody who is sentenced to death is entitled to fight as much as he can. The Conservative Minister concerned was not entitled to claim privilege for information which should have been before the court. If it had been before the court, the judgment of the court might well have been different. The High Court action of the various urban districts was defeated by a trick, but to win by a trick is not really to be successful.
I do not regard this as a political matter. There is remarkable unanimity between the previous and the present Minister, and the Conservative Minister probably has greater responsibility in this matter than the right hon. Gentleman opposite. For two years my right [column 1817]hon. Friend would not see me about this issue and it was not until I went to see my Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Sir M. Redmayne), to say that I was going into rebellion against the party on the London Government Bill that I got an interview, and I got it within 48 hours. But it was no good. The Minister merely told me that the matter had been decided—and I ask hon. Members to note that it had been decided—and, although he was very sorry, there was nothing he could do about it. That just shows what has happened. Protestations of any kind have been useless. Again and again Ministers have refused to see both deputations from my constituency and other local authorities. They have been determined to force this thing through, and it had been like that from the beginning.
This Order has been in active preparation for some months. The Minister takes it for granted that the House will pass it—we are just rubber stamps and stooges. With the support of the Government Whips I suppose that it can be taken for granted. Any sort of democratic expression of opinion is something which the Minister and his advisers regard as an unimportant matter. We are told that speed is of the essence, that we must get this Order through, for heaven's sake do something, it does not matter how wrong, but do it. I do not think that this is the way in which to treat the inhabitants of a substantial part of the Midlands.
I know that the Minister is a man who has not taken this scheme or anything else, for granted. He has applied a formidable intellectual apparatus to the question. If we can judge by his speeches, which have been quoted by other hon. Gentlemen and from what we know of the right hon. Gentleman's character, he is really thinking about local government reorganisation. Surely it is a mistake to anticipate one's future thoughts by tying oneself, even in one part of England, to a preconceived scheme, which was conceived six years ago. A lot has happened in six years, a lot has happened since the idea of forming not a continuous county but a continuous county borough apparatus was mooted. [column 1818]
I reinforce what the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) has said, that it would be an entire mistake for the House to pass this Order merely because the Minister wants to get something done. The Act, which no doubt has been referred to, often talks about efficient and convenient use. They are platitudes. We all want to be efficient, and we all like local government to be efficient, in the same way that we want a bus service past our house, but the stop must not be outside it. This is not efficient, because it is not going to solve any of the problems of the Black Country, it is merely going to aggravate them, by making them larger. It is not convenient, because the people who are the victims of it do not want it and have nothing to do with it, and are satisfied with their present system of local government, improved as it might be by suitable amalgamations. It acts as a block on the future consideration of local government functions. It is unpopular and the only people to speak for are those in the Ministerial dictatorship itself.
Wales has escaped, and so has Rutland. I wonder how that was done. The Minister means to have the head of the Black Country on a charger, as some evidence that something has been done. Minister after Minister, one promoted, one knifed, one time-expired and the present Minister, have danced to the tune of a powerful influence; they have listened to no one but their own Department. They have been deaf to representations from back benchers on both sides of the House; they have ignored the representations of their own inspectors. If the Minister succeeds, and I hope that he will not, in carrying this Order through the House tonight, he will add one more title of fame to the reputation he already possesses— “he wrecked the Midlands” .
Mr. John Horner (Oldbury and Halesowen)
None of the hon. Members who have spoken in opposition to the recommendations of the Commission have asserted that nothing should be done in the Black Country. I would ask the House to consider the future problems of this area. There is an enormous job to be done in urban development and renewal and one of the specific references made by the inspector at the inquiry was [column 1819]directed towards the future tasks facing the local authorities.
I am informed that one-tenth of the whole of the derelict industrial land in this country is concentrated in the Black Country. There are, in this area, hundreds of acres of derelict land to be reclaimed. The problem of reclamation, of renewal, of making good the scars, the blemishes, which the Industrial Revolution left so deeply on this area to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston (Mr. Robert Edwards) referred, is one which, in my view, cannot adequately be undertaken by local authorities as they at present exist.
It is perfectly true that there is in this area a very deep-rooted feeling of local attachment. It is quite astonishing that within, perhaps, a few hundred yards of one another, there can still be found people with quite different phraseologies and different dialects, developed over the hundreds of years in which separate settlements have existed. However, I believe that those who fear that this reorganisation of local government structure will remove these qualities of strong local life are hardly justified by the experience in other parts of the country. Consider Stoke-on-Trent, for instance. Who could argue that the strong local feelings of Hanley or Longton or Burslem have been destroyed by the imposition upon them of one single county borough, which has done so much, and is continuing to do so much, to relieve some of the problems left by the Industrial Revolution in that part of the Midlands?
While saying that, I must confess that I have seldom seen a report presented with so little enthusiasm even by its authors. The Report of the Commission makes the point that
“There can be no ideal solution to this problem.”
It says that
“Any proposals for change must therefore be looked at to see what are the probable gains and losses and to decide where the balance of advantage lies.”
I am obliged, I feel, to refer again to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Stone.
Lichfield and Tam[column 1820]worth. Lichfield produced Dr. Johnson. Tam[column 1820]worth produced Robert Peel. It has nothing at all to do with Stone.
I beg my hon. Friend pardon. I apologise.
My hon. Friend pointed out the positive aspects of the arguments presented to the inspector who heard the appeal, and he gave the House the comments the inspector made on those points. I am sure he will not be surprised if I refer to the other aspects to which the inspector referred, such as
“The multiplicity of authorities had led to confusion, delay and a feeling of frustration … and the division of the area between counties and county boroughs has forced the local authorities to plan on a basis which does not correspond to the fundamental planning needs … Our many discussions … left us in no doubt that the local administration of county services … has often resulted in confusion to the ordinary ratepayer and a sense of frustration in the district councils and their staffs.
… the administrative arrangements forced on Staffordshire have produced delays, duplication of effort and a feeling of frustration.
That was referring to urban renewal.Not all the local authorities … have fully realised the true nature of this problem and the scale on which it must be tackled.”
“We met a number of able men among the members of the Black Country district councils but there are not enough of them.”
I must say how pleased I am that my right hon. Friend the Minister is to wind up this debate, because the House is entitled to ask him to deal at a little length with the statement, to which other hon. Members on this side have referred, in which, a few weeks ago, in dealing with the West Midlands Commission Report, he linked the scheme with the foreshadowing of further developments in local government reconstruction. Local authority representatives who have spoken to me have emphasised their desire to find out what the Minister has in mind. Have they to go through this agonising process of reconstructing their own authorities, shortly to find themselves plunged again into a large-scale and widespread review? I should like my right hon. Friend, when he winds up the debate, to tell us what he had in mind when speaking to the Association of Municipal Corporations Conference a few weeks ago.
There are two specific aspects to which I have particular attachment. I must confess that I am wholly out of agreement with the suggestion that the county [column 1821]boroughs should be obliged to assist the Staffordshire County Council in the transitional period, in which they will of necessity suffer a quite substantial diminution of their rate value, with corresponding loss of their annual revenue.
I have particularly in mind the Borough of Oldbury, which I have the honour to represent. Oldbury is not in Staffordshire—it never has been; it is part of Worcestershire. The Oldbury Borough Council, Smethwick Borough Council and the Borough Council of Rowley Regis came together in the early days of the discussion and agreed on the formation of the County Borough of Warley. Incidentally, so that the record should be accurate, let me say that as a result of this inordinate delay, such support and enthusiasm as might have existed in the early days for the County Borough of Warley has sadly diminished and the local authority representatives of Rowley Regis—as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. A. Henderson) would say if he were present—are no longer in support of it. In my Borough of Oldbury there is no support for it. Nevertheless, originally that proposition for a new County Borough emerged from the local authorities themselves.
The local authorities to be created are to be obliged to make a contribution to the Staffordshire County Council for some years. In these circumstances, if it can be established that aid should be forthcoming—and I agree that it should be forthcoming—to the Staffordshire County Council, truncated as it must be, my feeling is that aid should come, not from the local authorities who will be faced in any event with new rate burdens, but from the Treasury and my right hon. Friend's Department.
I know that the House will forgive me for making this next point. There has been reference to the police. It has been put to us that even before the Order came before the House, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary was insisting that the newly-created local authorities should not be police authorities but that there should be a combination. There is much merit in this.
If I may speak on behalf of my old service, the fire service, I think that in this situation we have reached an [column 1822]absurdity. At present, five fire authorities are involved in the conurbation. On 1st April there will be six fire authorities. How on earth anyone could argue that as a result of the reconstruction of local government we should add to the proliferation of fire authorities and that that is efficient, I cannot see.
I must say to my right hon. Friend that there is the strong feeling in the fire service that we are taking a backward step and that this is one of the resultant effects of the reorganisation scheme which ought to be stopped. We think that it can be stopped, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will look at the problem of the fire service with his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary as they have looked at the Police forces.
There is profound disagreement in the Black Country. There are strong protagonists of the scheme, and there are many people who feel that it will be a sad day when they see their own localities merged into larger authorities. It is causing much heart searching and bitter misgivings. I would say to my right hon. and hon. Friends and to hon. Gentlemen opposite who may share those misgivings that, for the benefit of the people of the Black Country, for the benefit of the local authority administrators, and for the benefit of the new local authority representatives who will be coming into positions of authority and responsibility to launch these schemes next year, we ought to get on with the job. We ought not to delay it further.
I trust that the points which have been made will be considered by my right hon. Friend. There are answers which are called for to quite serious questions. But I earnestly hope that many of the great tasks which are still waiting to be done in the Black Country will be done more speedily, more efficiently and more democratically as a result of the steps that are now to be taken.
Mr. James Dance (Bromsgrove)
I am quite certain that there is a great deal to be said about the Order which the Minister is putting forward tonight. However, there are objections, and my objection is entirely a local one inasmuch as it affects all the people who are living in Hollywood, part of whose land is proposed to be taken over and put into Birmingham. [column 1823]
I know that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister has already got a petition which has been delivered to him, signed by 90 per cent. of the people affected. That is a very high percentage, and it means that there is no question of it being a party matter. It is a completely general one, and the signatories of it take very great exception to the proposal.
I would like to remind the Minister very briefly what they say:
“We, the householders and electors of the area affected, hereby state our strongest objection to the proposed county revision, the effect of which would be to transfer the administration of the area from the Rural District Council of Bromsgrove to the Council of the City of Birmingham. The objection is made on the following grounds:—1. The present boundary would become illogically distorted and follow no natural line. 2. We are content with the present administration. 3. We consider ourselves to be homogeneous with the Parish of Wythall, and wish to retain this identity. 4. We see no improved benefits to the ratepayers which are likely to result from the proposed change. 5. There is no possibility of extensive development in the area.”
I have before me a map, and on it hon. Members will see a green line which represents the present boundary. It will be seen that it is not exactly an obvious line to take and to form a tongue of land running into Worcestershire. I cannot see how it can be said to tidy things up in any way, because, as I have said, it will merely produce a tongue of land extending into Worcestershire. Hollywood does not want it, and I am informed that Birmingham itself does not want it. After all, there is no possibility of development in the area, because there is no room for housing.
Over many years there has been a series of public inquiries, some into proposals to take away much larger areas of land from Worcestershire into Birmingham. Each time the Minister has turned down the proposals. In other words, he has upheld the objections.
I wish to refer to the new town of Redditch which, as the Minister no doubt knows, is in course of preparation by the New Towns Commission Development Corporation. There has been much heart-searching over the desirability of the new town, but we felt that something must be done to help the people of Birmingham with their overspill. We decided almost unanimously that it was [column 1824]right to approve the new town. However, we did so with certain reservations.
I should like to quote from a submission I made to the public inquiry which was held on 8th to 10th January, 1964, about the whole question of the new town. This statement was made after due consultation with many people in practically the whole area concerned. I said:
“And now, Mr. Lightfoot” ——
he was the inspector from the Ministry—
“I will come to my reservations. While I have already said that I support these proposals,” ——
for the new town—
“unless these reservations are, anyhow, accepted in principle, my support would turn to bitter opposition—possibly more bitter than some of the opposition you have already heard.
—the representative of the Ministry—First of all, it is quite essential that the Green Belt to the north of Redditch shall be sacrosanct. I refer to the area on the boundaries of Birmingham, Wythall and Hollywood. On more than one occasion the City of Birmingham have tried to take over large areas of land in this district for building. We have resisted this and I still maintain that this land is quite vital to the amenities of both Redditch and Birmingham itself. What we must avoid is falling into the trap which our ancestors did of straggling villages and towns, ending up in a vast conurbation such as Birmingham. Therefore, it is quite essential that the land I refer to must remain under the Bromsgrove Rural District Council's jurisdiction. At this moment I would like to ask Mr. Beddowe”
“whether he can give us some assurance that if, and when, the plans for the new Redditch are agreed upon, his Ministry will be able to finalise and make definite the demarcations of the Green Belt on the borders of Birmingham.”
There was no exact assurance, but it was generally gathered that that would be agreed to: we went forward and did all we could to assist in the formation of the new town corporation and gave our blessing to the new town.
But Redditch is very close to Birmingham, and if this town suddenly juts out into Worcestershire, where will the matter end? Is this just the start? Will it lead to a little more and a little more? Will the result be what I am so frightened of, the creeping away into the countryside of the city of Birmingham? Like my hon. Friend the Member for Smethwick (Mr. Peter Griffiths) I ask the Minister to consider what may be only a detail of the whole scheme to see whether he could exclude this part of Worcestershire. [column 1825]
I think that I have proved, by means of the map which I showed the House, that this is not a tidy line to absorb into Birmingham, but an extremely untidy one. If the right hon. Gentleman accedes to this non-party request—we did not know the politics of the people we canvassed, but they all felt very strongly about this—if the Minister can in some way amend this proposal or modify it, I know that he will give satisfaction to a great many British people.
Mrs. Renée Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)
At the beginning of his speech tonight my right hon. Friend outlined the time table of the proposals that were started off in 1958, when the local government commission was set up. I have here a letter from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government dated 26th November, 1962, which says that the then Minister—my right hon. Friend's predecessor—hoped that the new proposals would start on 1st April, 1964. That would be the appointed day. We now find that there has been a two-year delay, and that it will not be until April, 1966 that, provided we do the right thing tonight, the new county boroughs and new local authorities will take over.
My feeling is that this delay has been intolerable for local government, and for officers and members of local authorities in the West Midlands area. I am not here referring to my own authority. Even those who have opposed the proposals put forward are saying that they must now have a decision, and that the delay has damaged local government; that it has caused uncertainty and difficulty for local authorities, and for the officers of local authorities, and that it is unfair for the delay to continue any longer.
What the people of the West Midlands want is good, efficient, honest local government. My right hon. Friend's decision to go forward with the proposals is the only decision that could have been taken in the circumstances. I do not believe that, in all honesty and sincerity, he could have said that he will throw out these proposals and start the whole round all over again, with the delay and uncertainty that this would cause.
My hon. Friend the Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Horner) dealt with some of the problems facing the [column 1826]West Midlands area. We have awful problems concerning urban renewal, the development of the central areas of towns, slum clearance, the resiting of industry and doing away with what is old and worn out in an antiquated, creaking local government machine that is not adequate for the industrialised area—the go-ahead, modern area—that exists in the West Midlands. We need a new look, and my right hon. Friend's proposals for the five large county boroughs will enable us to make progress with these problems. In spite of what my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston (Mr. Robert Edwards) says, these problems exist.
I want to take point made by the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Talbot), who said that there is a tremendous community spirit. Of course there is a tremendous community spirit. This exists all over the country, in every area. Whenever there is a suggestion that local government boundaries should be altered we get this hoary old argument about community spirit, just as we get it from the protagonists of the county councils. All these arguments are always put forward.
The county districts as they exist today were themselves formed from smaller county districts in the past in which there was a strong local community spirit, and that spirit still exists. There are many thriving independent local communities in the areas within the West Midlands district—the Special Review Area—and I have no doubt that that strong local community spirit will continue to exist even when the five large authorities are formed. I do not feel that we need pay too much attention to the fear that this local community spirit will disappear.
Has the hon. Lady made any investigation into the possibility of community spirit between Tettenhall and Wolverhampton? I can assure her that it is entirely non-existent.
I had intended to refer to the hon. Gentleman's remark that there would never be loyalty for the new county borough from the people from Tettenhall to Wolverhampton. That was rather a shocking thing to say, because I think that there would be loyalty and community spirit between all the areas that are to be put into the new country [column 1827]boroughs, and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Horner) very eloquently said, we shall work together and create a viable, worth-while local government set-up.
With the large authorities proposed by my right hon. Friend we will be able to take a proper look at the problems of planning, education and local authority health services—to mention only a few. As one who has served on a district council and a county council at the same time, I cannot understand, and I speak from my own experience, why there is so much opposition by these small district and urban district authorities; why they should oppose being promoted up the local government ladder.
That is why my right hon. Friend proposes—that they shall become part of the county borough, where they will be able to control their own affairs without having “big brother” , the county council, breathing down their necks. They are now their own housing authorities, but they will be their own planning authorities, education authorities and local authority health authorities, and will be able to look after their own young children and old people. Ambitious local authorities, and ambitious people on local authorities will be given a much more worth-while job to do in local government——
Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)
Is it not true that these smaller local authorities at one time objected to the larger authorities that are proposed under the Order but later altered their case and now say that many of the functions which the hon. Lady mentions, such as planning, would be better carried out over the review area as a whole rather than by these separate county boroughs? I understand that is what the county districts now say.
The hon. Member has made one of the points I had intended to deal with; that one of the interesting things about the whole history from 1959 has been the number of times some authorities have swopped horses in mid-stream. It is a little difficult to keep track of what proposals the different authorities have supported during the years. My hon. Friend the Member for Bilston (Mr. Robert Edwards) said, if I understood him aright, that he would [column 1828]like my right hon. Friend to look at the whole of the scheme again and get a wide view over the whole area, implying that he was in favour of a large regional authority. I, too, would like to see that development in local government. It is the logical conclusion, and something to which we shall be working.
But my hon. Friend's evidence at the time was in favour of Bilston being kept out of this large area. Bilson wanted to remain as an authority on its own, with an increase of population up to 60,000, though I am not quite sure where it was to get that 60,000 from. My hon. Friend now puts forward a different proposal and, as the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) has said, many different views have been put forward by the different authorities involved in the whole of the review area. If, as I hope, we accept tonight the proposals for the five county boroughs, that will not preclude the setting up of a regional authority in some years' time. I think that the county boroughs that are to be set up could later on well form the lower tier of a two-tier regional authority.
I very much hope that the House will accept my right hon. Friend's proposals. They are the result of exhaustive inquiries. There were three possible choices. One was for the status quo—the kind of one-and-a-half tier system we have now. The second was for the division into five county boroughs now proposed. The third was for the continuous county with some two-tier structure within it. The Commission has accepted the second, that of the five county boroughs. My feeling is that this is the correct proposal and I hope that the acrimony, bitterness and dissidence that have been created by this long-drawn-out procedure, by litigation on many occasions on points that really had, as far as I could see, very little validity and which has wasted time and ratepayers' money, will now disappear.
I hope that we shall be able to create a good and viable system of local government in the West Midlands and that we shall be able to co-operate and work together, and settle down to take forward that kind of community spirit which I am sure exists, into the new authorities.
Sir Henry d'Avigdor-Goldsmid (Walsall, South)
I thought I detected in the speech of the hon. Lady the Member for [column 1829]Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Renée Short) some enthusiasm for further local government reform. I rather gathered that the Minister too has been interesting himself in further local government reform. If so, I should think that he has had a rather wearing evening, because it seems to me that the prevailing tone of the speeches in this debate has been that perhaps there may be something to be said for some reform in the future but that there is nothing to be said for reform tomorrow.
We have lived with the matter one way or another for many years, and I say unhesitatingly that I support this Order. It is easy for me to say this because the authorities which I represent are to continue. Therefore, I am not in the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Talbot) or the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. Robert Edwards) whose authorities will disappear. The position of the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) is slightly different. His constituency remains the same but the Staffordshire County Council of which it is part becomes smaller.
Nevertheless, it is right to issue a warning that, despite the alarmist tone of the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth who talked about the polarisation of the population of Staffordshire, it is not the intention of the Walsall Council, so far as I understand it, to destroy the village greens at Willenhall and Darlaston or to try to introduce mechanisation to Wednesbury. It is not intended to upset the way of life of those people simply to let them enjoy the benefits of a larger authority. We should be at some pains not to suggest that as a result of a change in the form of local government there will be a change for the worse in the life of the people in the areas concerned.
The debate has gone on for long enough and I do not want to discuss any more generalities. I wish to draw attention to a specific point. I refer to Article 44 under the heading “Main drainage” . The Minister skated rather quickly over the subject of main drainage. I wonder whether he has given the same attention to the drainage considerations as he has given to some of the others. I suspect that he has not, and it might be worth his while to do so. [column 1830]
It is the intention of this Order to set up two main drainage authorities, one, a very small one, called the Upper Stour Main Drainage Authority, and the other one, being an enlargement of the existing Birmingham, Tame and Rea District Drainage Board, which is to be called the Upper Tame Main Drainage Authority. Despite their romantic names, the Tame and Rea are not rivers from which anglers delight to catch fish or which add much to the amenities of the countryside. In fact, at the Wolverhampton inquiry in September, 1962, the Tame was described by a spokesman of the Birmingham, Tame and Rea District Drainage Board as
“nothing more than an open sewer, and I am sure you will hear from the River Board that for practically the whole of this area the River Tame is entirely devoid of any life whatever.”
In case it is felt that anglers will now have an interest in the future of the River Tame, I should state that I am informed that an experiment was made less than a year ago in which some especially hardy fish were put into a tank into which water from the River Tame was poured and apparently they survived for 24 hours. It is clear that it is not a question of amenity at all. It is a question simply of the efficiency of the drainage operation.
At present the Birmingham, Tame and Rea district authority is responsible for Birmingham, Sutton Coldfield, Solihull, Smethwick, part of Oldbury, Bromsgrove, parts of Bromsgrove rural district, parts of Aldridge rural district, and parts of Meriden rural district. It is now the intention to include in its responsibilities West Bromwich, Tipton, Wednesbury, Bilston, Wednesfield, Walsall, Willenhall, and Darlaston—in fact, all the enlarged boroughs of the new conurbation.
I drew attention to this because the Birmingham authority is the largest part. If Birmingham is put in with these other authorities, it will become a sort of whalesardine pie. The fact is that the sardines will have no say in the management of drainage matters, which are of considerable importance to them. As representation goes by rateable value, Birmingham will dwarf all the other authorities concerned. Dr. Jenkins of the Birmingham, Tame and Rea Board says that his Board has been forced into spending £40 million to meet the requirements of the Trent [column 1831]River authority and that this heavy expenditure is to achieve an effluent of acceptable standards and is really a measure of the Board's neglect since 1877. A very large element of that cost will fall upon the new authorities which are now being brought into the scope of the enlarged Birmingham, Tame and Rea authority.
The point I put to the Minister is that even now he should satisfy himself that the enlarged authority is the very best way of dealing with this problem. If he feels that the enlarged authority still is the best way of dealing with it, it might possibly justify differential rating for the authorities which are not concerned with repairing the damage which has already been suffered, or alternatively the formation of a separate drainage authority.
I do not suppose the Minister will want to say anything about this tonight. He has plenty of other things to answer. I should like to leave the thought with him, in the hope that in the watches of the morning inspiration will come to him.
Mr. William Wells (Walsall, North)
I do not wish to follow the honourable Baronet the Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid) too deeply in fishing, either for whale or for sardine, in the troubled waters of the Tame. The broad effect of the proposals enshrined in Article 44 of the Order is, as I understand it, that the ratepayers of the Black Country will contribute some £13 million towards rectifying the inadequacies of the Birmingham Board's administration over a number of years. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to look into this a little more closely than has happened heretofore. The proposals enshrined in Article 44 have derived a somewhat specious respectability from an inaccurate statement in the Commissioner's Report. This was to the effect that the Institute of Sewage Purification has submitted views on the reorganisation of local government in the area. In fact the Institute, when asked, said it had not been consulted and had not expressed any views. I hope that it will be possible when the Order is passed for my right hon. Friend to look into this matter a little further.
As for the Order itself, we have heard many conflicting views tonight, but [column 1832]although one has sympathy with authorities that are disappearing into oblivion and with those who served faithfully and well on those authorities for many years we are concerned tonight with the services which are to be provided for the public. The practical question which we have to answer is whether any better solution has been put forward than that which has been enshrined in the Commission's Report. I differ a little from my hon. Friend the Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Horner) in some of his criticisms of the Report. I do not look so much for enthusiasm as a quality in the Report as for information. The information is there and I believe that my right hon. Friend has drawn the right conclusions from it and I hope that they will come into effect without further delay.
Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)
on apologise for intervening at this late hour but I want to put on record that I believe that there was a better solution to this problem—not that I have any hope of influencing the Minister's mind at this stage in the progress of the Order and after the many years which have been occupied in the consideration of this matter by the Commission and by successive Ministers. I do so in the hope that the Minister will give us an undertaking that this solution in the West Midlands will not form the pattern for the rest of the country.
No solution of any kind in local government forms a pattern for any other part of the country. Obviously, the Minister takes each part on its merits, and heaven knows there are differences which make each part unique, I can give a guarantee that no deduction is to be drawn from this for any other part of the country.
I am glad to hear that. It relieves the anxiety which I felt when I heard the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) saying that the Minister had had the same kind of solutions to these problems in his mind for years and when the hon. Member quoted in support of that conclusion on speech made by the Minister in 1951.
There are services which are better carried out in wider areas than the county boroughs which are being created by this [column 1833]Order. The solution adopted Greater London. while it had many matter is not clear which were criticised when matter is not clear went through the House matter is not clear merits which——
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Samuel Storey)
Order. The hon. Member is going wide of the Order which we are discussing now.
I was only making a comparison, but of course I bow to your Ruling, Sir Samuel. I should like to refer to only one detail and that is the case of the fire service. While the police service proposals have been modified from the recommendations of the Commission I understand that the fire services will still be the responsibility of the county boroughs. I am informed by persons working in the fire service that this is detrimental to efficiency and that they would far prefer a solution whereby the fire service was integrated throughout the whole area.
The hon. Gentleman may not have been in the Chamber when I made the point that there will, in fact, be more fire services than at present. The whole process is put in reverse.
Yes, I listened most carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said, and the point is reinforced by what is said by a correspondent of mine in the fire service. He tells me—I think that he has the support of his colleagues—that the future needs of the service demand larger, not smaller, units.
I hope that the Minister will deal with this point. My correspondent says that it is regrettable that advantage is not being taken of the reorganisation of local government in the West Midlands to produce a fire service organisation suitable to the needs of the future. Perhaps it is not yet too late and the Minister will be able to assure us that he has something else in mind that will produce a solution for the fire services in the West Midlands Review Area which will be acceptable to the people working in the service and give the best possible service to the population.
Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)
I shall not detain the House very long, for matter not clear am conscious of the comments made by [column 1834]my hon. Friends the Members for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid) and for Brierley Hill (Mr. Talbot), representing as I do a constituency south of a line from the Wash to the Severn. But, of course, the decision we have to make tonight is a decision of the whole House and, although there are many hon. Members who do not know the area well, we have to come to a conclusion on the Order in general.
In spite of the many opinions and the bitterness which has been expressed, I remind the House of one paragraph in its Report in which the Commission said:
“Nothing is ever changed without regret or loss, and we have respected the district representatives from this area for their sturdy independence and determination” .
That shows that, even though the Commission decided in the end to advance proposals which it knew some of the small districts would not like, it had tremendous respect for the community spirit and for the people who served those districts.
We have to make up our minds on the broad general question before us. I am sure that Richard Crossmanthe Minister will consider the points of detail which have been raised by my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite. One general principle is clear. We cannot tonight rehear the whole case. That has already been done for us elsewhere. We have to decide whether to go ahead or, as the hon. Lady the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Renée Short) said, send the whole thing back and restart the process.
It is material to consider the process which has been gone through already. For two and a half years, the Commission sat to consider what proposal should be advanced. In arriving at its conclusion, it was meticulous to consult every authority and every interested party at every stage. It is clear from the speeches tonight that everyone has read every single word of the Report.
After the Commission, there was an inquiry, the purpose of which was not in any way an appeal but was to inquire into the objections and to report upon them faithfully to the Minister. This inquiry did its job extremely well. It had 50 hearings. Seventy witnesses were called, 73 proofs of evidence were submitted, 44 maps were produced, 12 Q.C.s [column 1835]were briefed who, together with 21 counsel and two town clerks examined, cross-examined and re-examined the witnesses. So I think that we might all agree that whatever we are quarrelling about it has been a very good thing for the lawyers.
And that is not the whole story.
As the right hon. Gentleman says, that is not the whole story. The decision then came forward to the Minister and, following his decision to come forward with the Order, there were another three years of judicial proceedings. I make no complaint about that. If any local authority is against any action proposed by a Minister it obviously should take every course available to it to express its views.
But I do not believe that the position has changed materially since the decision was taken by the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph). Against that background, it stands to reason that most of the objections and points which could possibly have been taken have been said and re-said and taken into account in the Order which the right hon. Gentleman is asking us to approve.
I have, therefore, listened very carefully to the speeches—as I always do—to see if any fresh arguments were advanced. I think that possibly there have been two. The first was that, as six years have elapsed since the beginning of the Commission's work, it is now outdated. I do not accept that. Local government changes are usually designed for a longer period than six years and if it is already outdated then it would have been outdated had the Order come into operation at the time when it should have done.
There may be something in the passage of time but only if, during the extra time which has elapsed, there have been events which materially changed the position. If there had been, I think that the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) would have adduced them to the House and advanced them in a very long list. But he did not do so and therefore I think that probably there have not been any very large material changes.[column 1836]
I would merely comment that the passage of time has had no effect at all upon the hon. Lady.
I knew that the hon. Gentleman was a member of the Society for the Protection of Birds but I assumed that he meant the feathered kind.
The second argument that has been advanced has been dealt with most effectively by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid), but it is an argument which occurs quite frequently. It is that, because we hope to do something radical we know not what, at some time in the future, that is a good reason for not doing anything now. I totally reject that argument and will therefore say nothing further about it.
To those small authorities which know are somewhat aggrieved by this Order, I would say that I come from an area which has had the experience of being absorbed into a very much larger area. One part of my constituency was an urban district of 25,000 people. It was absorbed into a borough 10 times its size. But the community spirit which was there remains, because community spirit does not necessarily go with administrative boundaries.
Yet the people who were very proud of that small area have been magnanimous enough to serve the larger borough, which has profited greatly from their work, their talents and their experience, and I feel certain that the same thing will happen in this case. We shall give our approval to the Minister—or, at any rate, I shall.
The speech of the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) was so good tempered and charming that she ought to have started the debate in that style. I want to thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for the restraint which they have exerted upon themselves, both on the length of time for which they have spoken, and on their feelings about this matter, because I am well aware that the debate could have lasted a very long time if hon. Members had taken the chance to say all that they genuinely feel about the matter. We have had a very good debate and I will try to answer briefly as many points as possible. [column 1837]
I should like to take the matter not clear precise issues first. Both hon. Members for Walsall, the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. William Wells) came here in a formidable bipartisan coalition on drainage and asked a specific question about it. I do not think that there can be any question of going back from the single board to a double board, because the matter was considered at enormous length in the reasons set out for the Minister's decision in 1963; but I am certainly prepared to consider a differential rate very carefully before making the necessary consequential Order. This is something which we shall consider and which we can take from Walsall as one of the products of the debate.
The hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Dance) seemed to be anxious about the decision to permit some kind of incursion into or invasion of the green belt. I looked at the map carefully before coming here and it seemed to me that the boundary was drawn tightly. All we have done is to draw the boundary around Birmingham including in Birmingham the area up to the green belt. I have no intention of going beyond that, because we have laid down the principle of leaving the green belt to the county. I do not think that we can cast maps across the Floor of the House, but my reading of the map does not suggest that there is any cause for alarm.
The hon. Member for Smethwick (Mr. Peter Griffiths) asked a specific question about the Albion housing estate. This is one of the 30 or 40 property cases in the Order which are disputed. Wherever possible we get agreement between the two authorities, but this is one of about a dozen where there has been disagreement and we have had to make the decision ourselves. I must say that there is only one housing estate which we have exempted.
It all depends on where the frontiers are drawn, because the estate goes to the authority on whose side of the frontier it is. There was one estate outside the frontier, the Quintin estate, which Birmingham thought should not be transferred to Halesowen, but in that case Halesowen agreed. In this instance there was a dispute between the two authorities [column 1838]and we adjudicated. I agree that the arguments were extremely finely balanced and that it was a difficult distinction to make. However, on balance I think that we made it rightly in terms of the balance of housing, but I agree that it was not one of those cases in which one knows from the start what the right decision is, and if the hon. Gentleman wants to depute to me, I am certainly prepared to hear the case for this very small area.
Those were the only three particular matters with which I wanted to deal and I will come now to the speeches of the right hon. Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Hugh Fraser) and the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Horner). They asked about the financial arrangements and asked why they were different from those for London. I want to make it quite clear that they are different from those of London. In the London example the Home Counties have had to bear the first 5d. of additional rate burden due to reorganisation. Anything extra was to be paid for entirely by the Greater London Council in the first year following reorganisation and that arrangement was to continue for eight years decreasing by ⅛ each year.
It was perfectly fair to point out that the arrangements for the Black Country and Staffordshire are different. Staffordshire has to bear the first 6d. of additional rate burden due to reorganisation, the extra to be paid by the five county boroughs and Stourbridge, who receive areas from Staffordshire. This is expected to be the equivalent of a further 6d. rate for Staffordshire. This assistance is to be paid for four years declining by ¼ each year. There is no doubt that in London the counties did rather better out of Greater London than is to be the case in the Black Country, but I must point out the difference as between places of greater wealth.
If we had levied on the gainers of the five new boroughs at the same rate at which we levied in London, instead of what London has had to pay, which is roughly 1d. rate assistance, the Black Country for what it has gained would have to pay more than the 3d. rate we are making it pay, which is already proportionately rather more than London simply because of relative poverty. The [column 1839]effect will vary year by year, but I think that in the financial arrangements we have struck a fair bargain which I am prepared to defend. May I also add to his arguments about Staffordshire, that Staffordshire will gain from the rate deficiency grant. In its new status as a county which has had a large area lopped off it, it will have its rate deficiency grant re-assessed, and I reckon that it will get something like 2 per cent. more, which is a considerable sum and which will go some way toward meeting this deficiency.
I now come to the slightly harsher speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Talbot). I thought that he was going to be nice to me but he was pretty severe by the end of his speech. I thought his speech was an almost normal development. He started by saying that if Brierley Hill could be a county borough he would have been happy, and he might have been a county borough man, but since he could not be a county borough man he was going to object to any reorganisation which made anybody else have a county borough. This is a perfectly normal situation to have in local government and it brings me to something else which was said about myself.
I was challenged on statements that I had made in 1951—I am glad that my remarks so long ago are of such importance—during a debate on Luton. It is perfectly true, and I cannot deny it for one moment. I must reveal my past. I was for eight years a councillor on a county borough. Moreover, I have sat for a great many years for a county borough and there is absolutely no concealment of the fact that I have come from the county borough side. It would be very dishonourable and stupid for people to pretend that their background does not give them prejudices, but objectivity consists in being conscious of one's prejudices and overcoming them successfully in action.
All I can say is that a Minister has one great advantage in that he visits a great number of authorities. If there is one thing that I have learned in the course of 12 months it is that there are virtues in different kinds of local government. There are very many more virtues in [column 1840]rural district council government when it is well run. One of the fascinating facts when one studies local government is to see that, whatever one studies, the county or the county borough, the small or the big, where they are good, they are very very good, and where they are bad, they are fairly horrid. There are enormous differences between good and bad. But there are virtues in all these forms and if there was not virtue there would not be that common passion and integrity in the debate that we are having. These debates are not just debates because we represent different areas; they are debates because we hold different principles on organisation, principles which are incompatible and have the defects of their virtues. This is the difficulty which we have to face.
Another thing said to me by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Brierley Hill which was a bit rough was that local opinion was ruthlessly pushed aside by the Commission and by the Ministers. He said that Ministers had refused to receive deputations. I have certainly not refused to receive Members of Parliament; indeed, I have seen several Members concerned with this. They have had access to me and I have discussed it in detail, because I thought it was right to do so. But we are in a semi-judicial capacity as Ministers and if we see one deputation, it is essential to see every deputation, because otherwise we will be, quite rightly, accused of behaving improperly by the Council on Tribunals.
There is a limit to the time which Ministers can spend, especially if a thing has been discussed so long and in such detail. So I think that my predecessors and I were right in saying that once the report was in our hands, the deputations must be over. We must make up our minds on the information we get by ourselves, without any more deputations and pressure groups. I certainly inherited that tradition from my predecessors and I believed that I was wise to maintain it. I followed that by saying that, although I would not receive formal deputations, informal talks with my colleagues in the House were something which I could not be denied as a human being and I profited a good deal by chatting with the hon. Gentleman himself. We had an interesting talk and, although I do not criticise him because of it, our talk together was [column 1841]very different from the kind of speech which he made this evening.
I think that he made a great mistake in saying what he did about local loyalties, and I am glad my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Renée Short) took him up. “Well,” he said, “it is totally impossible to think of good relationships ever occurring between anybody in Wolverhampton and Tettenhall.” I do not think he really meant it. That is the kind of rhetoric one uses, but one does not mean it, because it simply is not true. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldbury and Halesowen was quite right to remind him of Stoke-on-Trent and how in that great city and the different parts of it there can be—it is quite staggering—such preservation not merely of a few but of so many differences and local loyalties—miraculously preserved. With the greater unity of some services, such as transport, yet we think of the people of Longton and Hanley, with their distinctions, and it is possible to preserve them, and it is the essence of democracy to have unity with diversity within it, and, of course, in local government we want to achieve that.
I never said that there had never been community of interest between Tettenhall and Wolverhampton. What I said was it does not exist now. Surely, we have the authority of one of the greatest of Parliamentarians of all time for saying that “Never” is altogether too far into the future.
I am delighted to hear the hon. Member say that. I think it is a modification of what he said, but let us forget what he said and take instead what he has now said. That was what I was saying—that these “nevers” never do occur. I hope he will agree and that he is going to be a good friend after the decision upon this Order.
I turn now to the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Bilston (Mr. Robert Edwards) and Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow). We were all moved by what my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston said, and what he said needed saying here. We need to be reminded, as movingly as he reminded us, of the feelings of local loyalties, and that nowhere are they found more strongly than in the Black Country. It is perfectly true that [column 1842]there are the passionate feelings of difference there, which I hope will go on whatever local government reorganisation we have. How right he was.
But then he himself revealed in his speech, I think, the problem which we have to tackle and to solve, because he said at one time, and movingly, for he is a very moving speaker, that one must believe in one structure, one unitary structure, for the whole of the Black Country. Having said that, five minutes later he said we could not have anything which struck against the preservation of local loyalty. Of course, he is right. We want unity, preserving our local loyalties.
All I am saying to him is that he should not exclude the possibility that what has been done here is the best method—or the lesser evil, if he prefers it—which the Inspector, the Commission, everybody who has looked at it, accepted. Nobody has found a better method. During this debate no one has put forward any serious alternative to this. Anybody who has studied the reasoning for this can see that despite the powerful arguments—I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston would agree with me—for a huge, two-tier organisation of the kind mentioned by the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock), it would not be likely to be successful in the Black Country.
We are discussing the Black Country, and we do not really want to discuss the problems in general, but of this area.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth was a bit harsh. He was speaking of Staffordshire rather than of small areas, and, of course, he was embittered by the lopping off of 12 units of Staffordshire, but to describe what is left as a rump, a miserable fragment, was a bit doubtful, because the size of Staffordshire with 600,000 population and £21 million of rateable value still surviving makes it quite otherwise. Tamworth, Rugeley and Lichfield are going to grow. They are prosperous areas. No one can really tell me this is a county which cannot live and prosper, even with the loss it is to suffer. I could quote examples from other parts of the country to show how county authorities have survived which had to merge and suffer [column 1843]losses far more devastating than Staffordshire suffers in this case.
I now turn to what my hon. Friend said about my Inspector, and this was the one thing he said which made me feel a little angry with my hon. Friend. He made the implication against the Inspector that he had come out on one side of the dispute. He did it by quoting paragraph 63, in which there are listed the contentions of the opponents, but he did not mention paragraph 64, where it is said:
“We agree that on the evidence produced at this Inquiry all these contentions except (f) were established or might be inferred … We must, however, enter once again a caveat that the evidence called at the Inquiry was restricted in scope and came from those who objected to the Commission. We must also direct the Minister's attention to the comments of the supporters of the Commission on some of these matters which are reported in paragraphs 37 to 54.”
As Minister, I must say that it is very unfair to an inspector whose job is not to come down on one side but to inspect, to see objectively, to give fairly the accounts of the two sides, and to say how much he thinks that the evidence of one side is to be taken at its full value and then the same of the other side.
It is most important to see that the inspector did not give simple support to one side or the other. Indeed, he did his job, which was to leave the Minister to make up his mind having been given an absolutely impartial, detailed and fair balancing of the evidence and the arguments of both sides. His is a monumental Report precisely because it did not do what my hon. Friend imputed that it did.
I am sorry if my right hon. Friend was made angry by what I said. His anger is matched by mine, because I think that he has taken a wrong decision. He will, however, recall that when the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) asked me to read on, which was the remark for which I was waiting, I then quoted from the top of page 5 of the green Report, which quoted the Deputy Chairman as saying that if there was doubt about the advantages, the attitude of the objectors might be decisive.
I think we have got it clear that in quoting that passage, my [column 1844]hon. Friend left out the section which was a special caveat to say, “I have listed the arguments of the opposition, and I must ask you to refer on another page to the arguments of the supporters and give them also your attention.” Had my hon. Friend said that, he would have seen that the inspector did not come down on one side. He was scrupulously giving the arguments of both sides and saying, as he was right to do, “There is substance in the arguments of these sides and my Minister has to study the substance on both sides.”
I want briefly to come to the big question that was put to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldbury and Halesowen, who dealt with the fire services. I agree with my hon. Friend, who is a great expert on fire services and speaks with expert authority. He is right to say that just as it would have been insane to have five police forces—and I am delighted that the Home Office is busy organising the police forces on a semi-regional basis—so it would be insane to have five fire services.
Under the existing law, however, every county borough is entitled to have a fire service. As distinct from the position concerning police, under the existing law, we are not entitled to stop that happening. This is one of those cases in which one asks oneself whether this is something which should be reformed in local government, and it is something in which one might be able to use one's influence, but there is a limit to the Minister's influence when people have the right to do something if they are prepared to do it. That is the situation with regard to fire services.
My hon. Friend's final question was a fair one to ask, and it was touched on also by my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston. I was asked how I related my attitude to the Commission's review and my decision to recommend the Order with a speech I made the other day to the Association of Municipal Corporations at Torquay on long-term reform. Part of my answer has been given by the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley.
Yes, I am convinced that in the long term, or in the medium term over a period not so very long, we need to set up a committee to take a thorough overall look at local government completely afresh. I am, however, a realist. I also [column 1845]know that that may take some time and that the implementation may take some time. Indeed, it may never be implemented.
We have a Local Government Commission, for example. When I took over as Minister, I found that there were some 50 decisions which my predecessor prudently had not taken. They were waiting to be taken. I understand one's reluctance to take them in an election year, but I took office in the post-election year and I received the legacy of my predecessor's indecision on the subject and I had to deal with a whole mass of decisions. Any Minister would have done the same as my predecessor in the last months before an election.
As I dealt with those cases, I began to form views, going through them one after the other. I became more and more uneasy about the terms of reference within which the Commission had been working. and about the procedures laid down for the Commission. It seems to me that the amount of investigation, the amount of delay and the endless postponements put into the procedures of the Commission have really brought some disrepute on our processes of democracy. I do not think that many people would say that when we set up another commission we ought not to shorten the procedure at some point. There seems to be too much room for inquiry, delay and argument. We overdo it. One can overdo the amount of inquiry that one allows oneself before making up one's mind, and the result is that the facts are chewed over four or five times.
It is true, too, that the Commission and the Minister have had to work within strict terms of reference. The Commission had to accept, for example, the division between county and county borough and all sorts of other matters which an independent commission would have been free to look at. And I had to make all my decisions within the same terms of reference. [column 1846]
Nevertheless, I was warned by my predecessor, and I was not going to destroy the Commission before I was sure that it had finished its work. People want to know desperately if they will get a chance to reform local government in their areas, and there is still work for the Commission to do. I have a pile of jobs awaiting decision, and nothing is more demoralising than having endless discussion and no ultimate decision. It was up to a responsible Minister to do all that he could as fast as he could to end the delay and put people out of their agony by getting local government working again.
There is a virtual suspension of local government while one waits for a decision on the size of an authority, and I had to take a decision for Bath and its environs, just as I had to for the Black Country, although the latter was a big one.
I agree that in the long view we need to take a drastic look at the general terms of reform, but the fatal thing would be to stop all change while looking at a more radical level of decision. We must not make the look for a radical change the excuse for a static attitude towards local government.
I am delighted to feel that much of the bitterness has gone. There is not a great deal of enthusiasm after five years. There cannot be. There is much more acquiescence, and it may be good that people should have low expectations, because they come out better than they expect. I believe that we will get more energy released. We will get higher quality staffs, councils will have more opportunities, and we will get a better quality of councillor.
I am delighted to have had this debate, and I thank the House for it. I now ask it to approve the Order.
Question put and agreed to.
That the West Midlands Order 1965, dated 3rd November, 1965, a copy of which was laid before this House on 9th November, be approved.