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1.20 pm

Mr. Anthony Colman (Putney): Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am most grateful to you for calling me to make my maiden speech today. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on his speech, and I look forward to working with him in south-west London to resolve many of the area's problems, particularly in the health service. I also congratulate my Labour colleagues who have made their maiden speeches today--my hon. Friends the Members for Romford (Mrs. Gordon), for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore).

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I have the honour of representing a constituency that has been served in the past by distinguished right hon. Members of Parliament. Hugh Jenkins--now Lord Jenkins of Putney--served as the Member of Parliament for Putney between 1964 and 1979 and, of course, was Arts Minister in the 1970s. He continues to take an interest in the arts and theatre, as does my immediate predecessor, the right hon. and learned David Mellor--a man of many parts--who was a distinguished member of the previous Government. Both men served the people of Putney assiduously, and I hope to do so in as distinguished a way as they did. I wish my immediate predecessor a happy retirement from this House as he pursues his other main interest--which, he assures me, is football.

I would like to bring to the attention of the House four areas of concern to my constituents. Putney, which includes Southfields and Roehampton, is one of the loveliest and greenest constituencies in London. However, there are great worries on the part of my constituents. First, there is high unemployment and deprivation, particularly in the Roehampton area, where unemployment levels are 14 per cent. and higher. One third of the children of Putney live in poverty.

Secondly, many thousands of leaseholders who have bought their properties from Wandsworth council are now crippled by high bills and fearful of what will be done to them next by that council. They have properties that they cannot sell, and they are looking to a Labour Government to help them, because Wandsworth council has not done so.

Thirdly, I wish to refer to health. I remind the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton why he has vast queues at his local accident and emergency unit. On 1 April, the previous Government imposed swingeing cuts at Queen Mary's university hospital, closing acute surgery, orthopaedic, paediatric and maternity units and downgrading its accident and emergency services. The cuts were disgraceful, and were not opposed by Wandsworth council. It is important that the hon. Gentleman, the hon. Members for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) and for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) work together to ensure that Queen Mary's university hospital makes a full service available to our constituents.

The fourth matter that I want to bring to the attention of the House is pollution. Traffic pollution is appalling in Putney. Traffic comes roaring down the A3, and hon. Members may be interested to know that Putney bridge is the most used bridge in London: 70,000 vehicles cross it every day, and 10,000 more a day have been using it since the closure of Hammersmith bridge. There are appalling problems of air pollution and we suffer not only from cars but from aircraft noise. I intend to take up cudgels on behalf of my constituents to oppose a fifth terminal at Heathrow.

These issues go beyond one constituency or one borough. They need a Londonwide solution. London groans under quangos and arrangements without responsibility. It is crying out for a strategic elected authority and mayor. For the past two years, I have had the privilege of leading, on behalf of the Association of London Government, the London Agenda 21 initiative, working in partnership with the London Chamber of Commerce International, London First, Age Concern London, Southeast Region Trades Union Congress,

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National Union of Students London, Black Environmental Network, London Voluntary Services Council and other London boroughs, with the financial support of the Corporation of London.

On 18 June, in time for the United Nations special assembly, the steering group will publish proposals for plans, targets and indicators for London based on the principles of sustainable development, incorporating plans for economic development, social equity and environmental protection.

Who will carry out those plans? Of course the organisations that I have mentioned will work together, but every one of them wants an elected strategic authority. What is missing is that authority, or that mayor, to provide the muscle to put into practice the vision for a sustainable London and to deal with the problems of Putney and all the other London constituencies, on a pan-London basis. I look forward to the referendum in May 1998 and to having the authority and the mayor in place in 2000, ready to implement London's Agenda 21 for the coming century.

I started this maiden speech in time-honoured fashion by talking about my constituency. In a debate on governance it behoves me to remind the House of the Army debates of 1647--350 years ago--held in St. Mary's church, Putney, and chaired by Oliver Cromwell. I shall quote briefly from Thomas Rainborowe, whose words echo down the centuries and are relevant to our debate today.

Thomas Rainborowe, who was the leader of the levellers, said:

I believe, in the spirit of the levellers and of Thomas Rainborowe, that a new form of voting--proportional representation--should be used for the election of the mayor and the strategic authority, to ensure the support of the majority of Londoners in any election.

Let Londoners speak in the referendum; let them remove the unelected quangos and the existing fudge of Londonwide bodies; let them, by their consent, put themselves under a strategic, elected Londonwide authority and mayor; and let London be the first truly sustainable capital city in the world.

1.27 pm

Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham): I congratulate the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) on his excellent and mellifluous maiden speech. It is rumoured that he does not need to seek to match the wealth of his predecessor, but if he succeeds in matching his eloquence, he will certainly make his mark on the House. I wish him every success in doing so and look forward to hearing his--no doubt--many contributions to come.

It is sensible for the House to debate from time to time the structure of government in London. After all, London is a huge city with many millions of people and its dynamism means that there is constant change, so it is right to consider from time to time whether the structure

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of government still matches the need. What may have suited one era, or indeed one area, at one time, may no longer do so. We should proceed with considerable caution. We should adopt the famous adage, attributed both to the Duke of Wellington and to Lord Acton, that when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. That was rendered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) in the vernacular as, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

We must apply two tests to the future of local government in London. First, is there a problem in the existing structure of government that is so severe as to require a major revamp, with all the costs and confusion that that would cause, to put it right? Secondly, if it is accepted as necessary, does the detail of the proposal provide a better structure? To deal with the first question first: to criticise the existing structure is to imply a criticism of the London boroughs. That is effectively saying that the London boroughs are inadequate in handling the local government issues that need to be dealt with for the people of London.

I strongly defend the London boroughs. First, they work effectively, they generally deliver high-quality services, and they are flexible enough to match the very varying needs of different parts of London. Secondly, their size is about optimum. They are not so small as to be inefficient, and they are not so big as to lose their local purpose. A London borough can deal with problems on its patch coherently, and in a way that normally covers a geographically sensible size. They are also small enough to be close to the people whom they seek to represent and govern. They are not too remote and are therefore accountable.

The danger with larger units is that they begin to lose such accountability, locality and directness. Most councillors on London boroughs are sufficiently aware of the whole borough to understand not only the problems and needs of the ward that they represent but those of every other area in the borough. It would be an unusual councillor on a Greater London authority who would be well enough equipped to make good judgments on behalf of other parts of the metropolis.

If one accepts that a Greater London authority is needed, one must consider not only the positive contributions of the boroughs but the negative features of having an extra tier of government. That is what an authority would be, however the light the touch of the proposal. We must take into account the fact that we would immediately have more government and more politicians; more regulations and edicts would flow from the new body. There would also be more costs, which would require more taxation. We would have more bureaucrats and employees.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) said, there is also an automatic instinct for empire building. I remember the beginnings of the metropolitan county councils. I was on Tyneside when Tyne and Wear metropolitan county was set up. I was not in politics then--I was in the disreputable profession of journalism--but I had to sit in on many of the initial committee and full council meetings.

I watched the authority striving for a role. Newly elected members were determined to cut out a political purpose in life. The responsibilities then given to the metropolitan counties were not sufficient to satisfy their

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thirst. They therefore started setting up committees to deal with matters that were not part of the original purpose of county councils to justify their existence. From there they moved on to trying to take action on matters that were not part of the council's original purpose. They continually tried to expand the authority of the new county councils. They inevitably clashed with the borough and district councils in their area, so turf wars began.

One of the greatest problems that could emerge if we had a new greater London authority is the battle that would inevitably break out between the new authority, which would try to exert itself and extend its powers, and the boroughs, which would understandably want to hold on to the powers and responsibilities that they have had for many years. I do not believe the assurance that has been given that that will not happen and can be avoided. It is inevitable when two tiers represent one area.

The argument that has been advanced for a greater London authority is the so-called strategic argument: the need to have some form of strategic planning authority. That is merely a soundbite. It sounds good to say to businesses or to people on the doorstep, "Let's have a strategic authority; let's deal with the strategic problems," but the conversation usually ends there. The problem is that, like all soundbites, it lacks substance. What do we mean by "strategic"? That word has developed in the past 20 years: it is common in business and politics, but what does it mean? What will the authority deal with, because I am not convinced that "strategic" has a clear meaning. The word is thrown around in common parlance among politicians and others without most of the people who use it thinking about what it means.

I turned for inspiration to the Labour party. I got hold of a copy of its policy document, "A Voice for London", which gave me many happy hours of reading. I looked to see what was proposed for this strategic authority. It contains a number of headings. Under "Leisure", it gives a description of what leisure involves to initiate those who are not already aware of that. It refers to leisure responsibilities and says:

So we can rule that out for a start. That is half a page wasted.

Under "Housing", it says:

So housing is not included. Under "Education and training", it says:

    "Provision of schools, colleges and universities will not come under the aegis of the new Greater London Authority."

Under "Health", it says:

    "We do not propose, however, that it should control or direct the health service in London."

We are learning a great deal about exactly what it will not be doing. It is very efficient of the Labour party to spend so much time telling us that.

On the police, it refers to partnership approaches at local levels and says:

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    If the Government want a board drawn from the boroughs and other organisations, why do they need to insert another tier?

Similarly, the document refers to the fire brigade and suggests:

    "One possible way would be for the Greater London Authority to manage the fire brigade through a board on which both the authority and the boroughs are represented".

My same argument applies.

We are left with only three subjects out of all those for which the greater London authority could be responsible. So more time is spent telling us what it will not do rather than telling us what it will do. One of those subjects is pollution and related issues. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal went into some detail about pollution, and said that it does not recognise borough boundaries. It does not recognise the greater London boundary, either. The best way to deal with pollution is internationally, nationally and locally. To insert a regional tier would complicate rather than assist.

Even the document accepts that, while the Greater London authority would be able to identify problems, action would be taken by the responsible authorities. The Greater London authority would therefore presumably pontificate on matters that are already being dealt with and would not take action. The document reveals that even transport and land use will not be matters for the greater London authority, but will be delegated to others. All that leaves me puzzled about what the so-called strategic authority would be doing. Why do we need to become involved in the complexity and chaos of setting up an extra tier when the majority of the functions are being carried out well?

I am not attempting to suggest that everything in the garden is rosy. I am happy to accept that, while most functions are currently carried out effectively by the London boroughs, not all of them are. I accept that there may be a need to change some of the arrangements for the Greater London area that currently exist. I remain unconvinced that a change as major as that being proposed by the Government is necessary. Small changes in individual areas where there is a problem or insufficient overview could be achieved much more simply through sensible co-operation between the existing elected bodies--namely, the boroughs--and, where necessary, the Government.

I wish to raise a few peripheral points that spring from the general wider argument about whether or not there is a need for a second-tier authority. The first is the strange suggestion that we should have an elected mayor. It is not clear from either the Labour party's policy document or the Government's statements today whether they are keen on it or whether it was a soundbite that was thrown in for good measure and was to be disposed of quickly.

It is clear that many Labour Members do not like the idea. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) summed up their dilemma. If the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) is correct and the post could, owing to the power concentrated in one man, become dangerous, perhaps the title should be--to continue the theme of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea--proconsul. That would reflect the extent of the powers that one man or woman would have in representing an area as large as London. If we used a classical Greek term, perhaps the person should

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be dubbed the tyrant. Bearing in mind his great knowledge as a historian of the second world war, I am surprised that my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea did not say that the person could be dubbed the gauleiter. Whether or not that idea comes to fruition, it is dangerous.

I welcome the suggestion that the Government's proposals should be put to the people of London via a referendum. I do so for a number of reasons. As a matter of principle I have always been strongly attracted to referendums, both nationally and locally. I know that, in that, I differ from many of my hon. Friends and no doubt from many Labour Members who feel that referendums have no place in parliamentary democracy. But I am convinced that they have a role to play, both in theory and in practice.

I should like to see referendums more widely used, but one must be cautious about them. The nature of the question asked can determine the outcome, so a referendum must be a genuine consultation exercise, not a gesture or a plebiscite designed to try to give a Government the authority to do what they want. If a referendum is to be a genuine consultation exercise, it must be approached with an open mind, the questions must be carefully discussed and a consensus must be reached between those of different views on the fairness of the questions. Sufficient information must be made available so that voters can make a fair judgment.

If the Government are to use a referendum, it is incumbent on them to ensure that the questions are wide in nature, balanced and fair and--crucially--that sufficiently detailed information is made available to the public so that they vote, not just on a vague idea, but with the knowledge of the practical consequences of what is being suggested. The public need to know about matters such as the authority's powers and costs, how it will be financed and whether they will be taxed through it. Only then can the judgment that they make be taken seriously. I repeat that I welcome the idea of a referendum, but it must be carried out properly and carefully.

The Government should not close their mind to the suggestion made by some Conservative Members that, if a referendum is to be held, it should be extended to the boroughs in their strict geographical definition so as to allow individuals who live in boroughs within what is defined as Greater London to decide, borough by borough, whether they wish to participate in the proposed scheme. If we really want to reflect what ordinary people want, they should in fairness be given that choice, either as part of the main referendum or in a separate referendum, and always retain the right to opt in if they change their minds at some future date.

My final point relates to the question of boundaries--a matter touched on by the Minister and which is dealt with in greater detail in the Labour party's policy document. It states:

That is a truism. The policy paper went on to suggest three options, but appeared to rule out two of them, as did the Government earlier today. I urge the Government not to take a rigid view on London's boundaries and to keep an open mind about changes. If they wish to institute a Greater London authority, they should consider other

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ways of establishing boundaries, for example, so that it covers the area along the Thames as a river-based authority, or includes only the inner London area. The Government should not simply throw out those ideas.

My reason for urging that is obvious: I represent an outer London borough, and while I do not suggest that there is anything particularly sacrosanct about such boroughs, I must point out that the borough I represent differs greatly from many other parts of London--especially central London--and has different needs and priorities. It might well be that the people of my constituency would be better served by being outside a Greater London authority's coverage, although I am prepared to be convinced that that would not hold true for other parts of London.

The hon. Member for Brent, East spoke of London as a great urban mass, but that is not how much of Bromley looks. Were a Martian to land in the southern part of my constituency, it would see green fields, woodlands and farms. If it were then told that it was in the middle of a metropolis, it would be convinced that Earthmen were completely mad. That is also true of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam).

If the people of Biggin Hill were asked whether they lived in London, I suspect that their answer would be no. Similarly, if one went to what is known as the village of Hayes in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), one would find people who did not think that they lived in London but regarded themselves as living in a village. Indeed, the people who live in Hayes can walk down to the bottom of many of its streets and see green fields and open land.

For all those reasons, and because the consciousness of the people who live in the London borough of Bromley is, for the most part, not that of Londoners but of Kentish people--indeed, local people fought strongly for Kent to remain the postal line--it is important to look at where boundaries run. We must take into account not only the common interests of London, as the Government seek to do, but the important diversity of London, which is one of the city's strengths and which would be lost if an attempt were made to take it in a single centrally planned direction.

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