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Abolition of Welsh County Councils (Creation of Unitary Local Authorities)

3.32 pm

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) : I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to abolish Welsh county councils by the creation of unitary local authorities.

Colleagues may say, "Not another local government Bill," but I make no apologies for seeking to introduce such a Bill. The time has come to debate again the structure of local government in England and Wales. That is especially appropriate in this centenary year of the county council system which was an enacted by the Local Government Act 1888.

Local government is vital and plays an important role in our national life and in helping to administer our country. However, it is top-heavy. There are three tiers of local government outside London and the metropolitan districts. They are the counties, districts and boroughs and the parish councils or, in Wales, the community councils. I want to concentrate on Wales because specific questions about that part of the United Kingdom need to be addressed. The Association of District Councils in its report "Closer to the People" said :

"Nowhere are the arguments for change put forward in the previous chapters more relevant than in Wales, highlighted by the remoteness of County government and by major difficulties in co-ordinating service provision between the County and District tiers. The 37 Welsh Districts provide a sense of identity and community which cannot be matched by the County structure. The latter, in terms of service provision, operates in the main through a system of area offices largely coterminous with existing district boundaries, and accountable to a distant County Hall. They do not provide a focus for the local community of interest."

The association's report continued :

"Welsh local government's reliance on Government funds, thereby improving the structure of local government, local responsibility and the local tax base. The distinctive character of Wales should be clearly recognised within such a review ;".

The present system was introduced in 1974 as a result of the Local Government Act 1972. It was bitterly resented in many parts of Wales. In my own county of Pembrokeshire, in Montgomeryshire and in Monmouthshire there were protests at the time. Pembrokeshire county council produced a report in 1970 entitled "A unitary authority for Pembrokeshire" which made three points. It recommended :

(i) that all authorities be unitary ;

(ii) that the size of authorities be based on population, area and sociological need ;

(iii) that existing county boundaries need not, of necessity, be the boundaries for the new authorities."

The Redcliffe-Maud report, the Royal Commission on local government in England in 1969, came out in favour of unitary authorities for England whenever "geographical and other factors allowed". In Wales, there was a reconsideration by the then Labour Government, who agreed in March 1970 in a White Paper that single unitary authorities for Glamorgan and Monmouthshire could be introduced, but it was not to be so. In 1974, we saw the creation of eight jumbo-sized local county councils in Wales.

There are four main problems with county government in Wales. First, it is too large and cumbersome. The report of the Association of District Councils in 1987 said :

"Certainly, the radical reorganisation of 1974 failed to get the system right in Wales. The big is beautiful' argument,

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popular at that time, was particularly unsuited to the four rural counties of Gwynedd, Dyfed, Powys and Clwyd which make up some 75 per cent. of the Principality in terms of area ; and bears no relationship to the ADC view that a truly effective and durable system of local government is one which binds democratic institutions and service delivery to identifiable communities'."

Secondly, the county councils are remote from the voters and, indeed, from the councillors. As the Welsh committeee of the national committe of the National Association of Local Councils said : "The Association believes that the present system has in most areas gone too far in increasing the size of authorities and that the local government system in many places now suffers so severely from the defects of remoteness that any compensating advantages of scale are lost. Particularly in the counties of Dyfed and Gwynedd, distances are so large that councillors in both counties and districts have to travel long distances to meetings and very few of them at any meeting can have a proper local knowledge of the matters under


Thirdly, the present county boundaries are not coterminous with the natural communities. Redcliffe-Maud in 1969 said :

"Local authority areas should be defined so that they enable citizens and their elected representatives to have a sense of common purpose."

That view was echoed by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executive Officers in its report last year entitled "Local Government of the Future". It argued that natural communities, rather than size, should be consideration for local authorities.

Our 1974 experience has shown that local communities hold together due to historical and other links that are particular to each area, and I believe that it would be sensible for our system of local government to be based on the social structures of communities. Fourthly, there is confusion among the general public about the roles and services of local authorities. People do not know which authority provides which service, and that is particularly true where there are overlapping responsibilities, such as on questions of social policy, roads and planning. That has been recognised in recent years. The London boroughs and metropolitan districts have become all-purpose authorities and the area health authorities have been abolished, so reducing the number of tiers in the National Health Service.

In Pembrokeshire, we were split from the Dyfed health authority to have our own health authority, and the Secretary of State for the Environment is now looking at the boundaries of Humberside county council. In Scotland, the Conservative party is considering the abolition of the regional tier of government, and in Wales the Labour party has already announced that it wishes to get rid of county councils and to have 24 or 25 all-purpose district councils, albeit with a regional assembly as well. The ADC, in its report "Closer to the People", talking about Wales and the views of the Committee on Welsh District Councils, agrees

"that the paramount goal is the creation of a single tier of most-purpose district authorities which would exercise, either directly or through joint arrangements, all the functions now exercised by district and county councils."

Somebody might say, as Mandy Rice-Davies said, "They would say that, wouldn't they?"

There is further evidence, supported by academic research commissioned by the ADC, by Murray Stewart and Frank Tolan at Bristol university. They, having

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looked at Cheshire, came to the conclusion that the transfer of functions in Cheshire was a real and viable option :

"We are convinced now--as we were not at the start of the study--that a move towards a single tier of most purpose authorities is an entirely sensible and indeed important issue for widespread public debate."

Three issues should be at the front of our minds in the reform of local government : it should be democratic and more easily understood, and decision-making should be at the level closest to the people ; it should be more cost effective in providing local services to the public and it should be financed from locally controlled sources of revenue ; and powers should be decentralised to local government and, when possible, unnecessary controls by central Government should be removed.

I therefore propose in my Bill that we abolish the eight Welsh counties and amalgamate some of the smaller district council areas to create 16 or 17-- or, if necessary more, depending on local feeling--all-purpose district councils.

Cardiff would once again become responsible for its own affairs. That would bring back a form of local government similar to the old county boroughs, but larger and without the competing counties surrounding them. For some services like the police, fire services and other emergency services and perhaps for some parts of education, joint committees would be set up composed of members of the constituent authorities. Town and community councils would remain, although I would like to see the Welsh community councils renamed parishes, and an increased role might be possible, especially for the larger parish and town councils.

The Association of District Councils in its report "Closer to the People" concluded :

"A single-tier structure of local government would facilitate accountability and realistic budgeting and eliminate waste. It would minimise bureaucratic duplications inevitably associated with a two-tiered system, thus reducing unproductive overheads. It would provide a tighter management of services and give better value for money to local people."

I believe also that is would be immensely popular with the people of Wales, as it would bring back the historic county names and communities which the Welsh people would recognise.

3.40 pm

Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore) rose--

Mr. Speaker : Is the hon. Gentleman seeking to oppose the motion?

Mr. Ray Powell : Yes, Mr. Speaker.

I am mindful of the time, effort and energy that hon. Members employ to secure a ten-minute Bill. On several occasions I have presented such Bills, all of which I had hoped would be useful to the country at large. I introduced the Grandparents (Adoption of Children) Bill, which included some measures contained in the present Children Bill. I also recall the Bill to ban opinion polls before general elections and by-elections. That Bill was opposed and was never enacted. However, it would have been useful.

I believe that the Bill presented by the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) is no more than a publicity stunt.

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Obviously he has not bothered to research the subject ; he may have something more sinister in mind, such as a running conflict with his county councillors in Dyfed.

Why should the hon. Gentleman introduce a Bill to abolish his county council, especially when county council elections are being held at the moment? That makes me wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has no confidence in his county candidates in his constituency and whether his main aim with this Bill is to abolish them. To propagate this proposal now is very suspect.

Those of us who have been here for the past 20 years since the reorganisation of local government by a Tory Government long before the hon. Member for Pembroke entered politics, who genuinely and profoundly wish to see the real devolution of power from central to regional government, feel outraged that anyone should want to attempt to waste the time of this House by tinkering with such a complex, intricate and emotive subject for whatever reasons. To confine the Bill specifically to Welsh counties complicates maters and infuriates hon. Members on both sides of the House.

From my experience at community council, borough council and county level and from my friendship with county councillors from most parts of Wales, I would respectfully suggest that it would have been far more responsible of the hon. Member for Pembroke if he had presented a Bill to establish a major programme of consultation in all parts of Wales to consider the future of local government, paying particular attention to the differing needs and problems in various areas and clearly undertaking that any change in Welsh local government should proceed only in step with the leading region or regions in England. I must add that I support my Scottish colleagues in their demands for devolution of power to Scotland.

Before the House can even consider supporting the Bill we must ask numerous detailed and probing questions. It is proposed to alter the present local authority functions, but how will they be redistributed in the new dual structure? What Welsh Office function, presently unaccountable, should be given to the unitary authority?

Are there to be further reductions in the Exchequer block grant, or can we expect substantial increases to ensure improvements in local government services to meet the urgent need for industrial modernisation, social change and distinctive cultural development? The structure of finance begs a series of questions on the right of levy taxex. Should there be an additional Welsh tax or would that be an unacceptable burden on the taxpayer? Would it prove a disincentive in attracting industry and much- needed employment? What limit, if any, should be given to revenue-raising powers, and should there be any limit to the amount or purpose of such expenditure? What machinery should be established to determine the level of rate support grant or its replacement? Should Wales have different financing methods from England?

Those of us who have been born and bred in Wales and have studied the problems of decentralising government, appreciate that we need more than a ten-minute Bill.

Other questions need to be answered. What about the Welsh Office and the Secretary of State for Wales? Only recently the Secretary of State made a statement which showed that he is not in step with the Government, but he has not subscribed to any criticism of them for the past 10 years. Should he have a seat in the Cabinet? I wonder

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whether the occupant of No. 10 is considering that today. How many tiers of Government should we have-- regional, unitary authorities, community councils? Who should serve on them? What areas are to be covered? How many Members of Parliament should there be? Do we need a parliamentary constituency reorganisation? Would they be coterminous with the unitary authorities? How would we define the

responsibilities of Members of Parliament, regional elected members, unitary authority members and councillors? Most areas of Wales have differing needs. How shall we cater for them if we reform Welsh regional, local and community representative bodies?

All those essential, pertinent, obvious, responsible questions need answers, which need to be well researched and, more importantly, well and truly discussed with our present representatives. Until that happens, and a concentrated and concerted opinion is voiced by the majority of people in Wales, the House has no alternative but to reject any ill-informed, however well-intentioned opinion. I have many other questions, but the House has a number of matters to deal with which may be more important than the Bill. I ask all hon. Members to join me in the Lobby and reject the Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and Nomination of Select Committees at Commencement of Public Business) :

The House divided : Ayes 58, Noes 148.

Division No. 156] [3.48 pm


Alexander, Richard

Alton, David

Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)

Ashby, David

Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)

Bevan, David Gilroy

Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard

Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)

Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)

Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)

Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)

Carlisle, John, (Luton N)

Carrington, Matthew

Churchill, Mr

Coombs, Simon (Swindon)

Dover, Den

Evennett, David

Fearn, Ronald

Franks, Cecil

Fry, Peter

Gill, Christopher

Glyn, Dr Alan

Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)

Hannam, John

Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)

Hayward, Robert

Howells, Geraint

Janman, Tim

Jessel, Toby

Jopling, Rt Hon Michael

Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine

Kilfedder, James

Knapman, Roger

Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)

McCrindle, Robert

Macfarlane, Sir Neil

Maclennan, Robert

Mates, Michael

Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)

Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)

Nicholson, David (Taunton)

Paice, James

Pawsey, James

Porter, David (Waveney)

Rathbone, Tim

Rost, Peter

Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')

Skeet, Sir Trevor

Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)

Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)

Stanbrook, Ivor

Steel, Rt Hon David

Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)

Taylor, Matthew (Truro)

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