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Clause 133—(Formation Of New Small Burgh)

Volume 441: debated on Tuesday 29 July 1947

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I beg to move, in page 87, line 6, to leave out "two thousand," and to insert 'seven hundred."

This is another case where the existing legislation has been changed, and, in my view, without due cause. This Clause has to deal with the formation of new small burghs. Wherever there is a populous space 12 electors may apply to the sheriff to have it demarcated and declared a burgh. There are certain safeguards. In the first place, the 12 persons do so at their peril, for if their plea is not approved, they themselves have to pay whatever expenses are involved. In the second place, the sheriff must be satisfied that the populous space, or part thereof, is suitable for being formed into a burgh. That is the second provision. Of course, the sheriff is not going to do that if, plainly, the space is not suitable under modern conditions for being formed into a burgh. The third safeguard is that a public meeting has to be convened, and the meeting has to approve the proposition that the new small burgh should be formed, by a show of hands or "in such other manner as shall appear expedient." Whether that is by acclamation or, possibly, by a show of feet, as in the Army, I do not know. It is curious. Unless, of course, a poll is demanded. A poll may be demanded by 12 persons entitled to vote.

So there are full safeguards against a place which is not suitable for being a burgh being declared a burgh The particular case which I would like to put is this: take, for example, a small village in the Highlands which is likely to grow considerably. Is it reasonable that they should have to wait until the population reaches two thousand, when in fact they could form a burgh as soon as seven hundred population has been reached? Surely, in that case the sooner they form a burgh, the better and the more advantageous it would be. I think there is a very positive argument, therefore, for the retention of the present law, and as far as a negative argument is concerned, although there was a great deal more discussion earlier on this Amendment than there was on the last occasion, there were really no more convincing arguments advanced against the smaller figure, except that the smaller figure would not provide, under present-day conditions, a reasonable entity. In law that is so, but there are practical exceptions. The law is there and it is best to let "sleeping dogs lie." It is a Consolidating Act and there is no good reason for altering it.

I would like to support the Amendment. I agree that it appears that a population of 700 is too small for the formation of a burgh, but there is no doubt that in Scotland today there are a considerable number of small burghs with a population of 700, or less, which are extremely well and efficiently run, and which provide excellent examples of local government. I do not say that 700 is the ideal figure, but we want to hear something much more definite why the law should be changed, why 700 should not be allowed to stand, and why 2,000 has been chosen? If we keep in mind the tremendous increase in responsibility of local government under modern conditions, I think that there is no doubt about it that the more compact and more easily worked community we can produce the better will be the results. After all, the administration of local services in small burghs does touch practically every man, woman and child who lives in the particular burgh. I do think that, to put it broadly, the door should be left open, say, for application on the part of any community of 700 or more if they feel that there is reasonable ground for their forming a burgh. As my hon. Friend has said, it lies within the power of the sheriff if he does not think it is suitable to bring about.

There is in my constituency a very ancient burgh which the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Scotland knows, I think—the burgh of Abernethy. To almost all people it is the place where the biscuits come from; but Abernethy is probably one of the best examples in Scotland of an extremely efficiently run burgh of 700 inhabitants, with a live, wide-awake spirit, which produces an excellently run place to the obvious advantage of all who live there, and an example to many larger burghs nothing like so well run. There are many other small burghs in Perthshire with these small figures which provide an excellent example of how well run and how useful small burghs of this kind can be, and while I do not say that 700 should be a cut-and-dried figure, I cannot see, so far, that any argument has been advanced at any stage of this Bill that it is necessary to alter the law which stands at present and which is working so admirably in the case of so many small burghs in Scotland today.

While it is no doubt right that my hon. Friends should bring this matter to the attention of the Committee, I would suggest to them that there are one or two points which they might further take into consideration. The main one is that it is undesirable that limits which have fallen into desuetude should be left to the Minister's discretion, and that Parliament should not say what they are to be. It is desirable that Parliament should say what it thinks. It is not desirable that we as Members should be content to say that the various administrative officers, the Secretary of State and so on, will safeguard the matter. Parliament should speak clearly. Nobody would set up a burgh of 700 people under modern conditions. There may be some temporary development going on which would not be carried through, and then the place would be saddled with burdens quite unsuitable to it. As the Committee well knows, there is provision by which a burgh might resign the privileges of administration which some of the smaller burghs had found to be onerous, and I think it would be better for Parliament to keep the figure at 2,000. Thereupon the onus is placed upon the Secretary of State for Scotland. Parliament has already said the figure should be 2,000, and if that figure is laid down the Secretary of State will have to give serious consideration to it, instead of the illusory figure of 700. The Secretary of State must have clear guidance from Parliament. Anyone who has read the proceedings of the Committee will know that the original figure mentioned was 5,000. Two thousand is a compromise. It is desirable that the law should be brought up to date and a figure more consonant with the realities should be inserted, and that Parliament should speak out clearly and not leave the matter simply to the discretion of the administrative officers. I wonder if my hon. Friend could find it possible not to press the Amendment.

11.0 p.m.

I certainly cannot accept this Amendment, nor yet any compromise. A compromise is already contained in the Clause. If there were any criticism at all, it is that the figure of 2,000 is too low. Conditions are completely changed today in local government as compared with the conditions when a populous place was defined as a place of 700 or more inhabitants. I could give many instances of small burghs today—although this Bill does not affect them—of less than 800 population where a penny rate brings in £12, £18 or £19. It is not possible to give effect to things associated with local government with small valuation areas of this kind. I trust that those who moved this Amendment, after hearing the appeal made by my right hon. and gallant Friend opposite, and the statement I have made now, will see their way to withdraw the Amendment.

I feel it is more the spirit than the actual numbers that count in the small burgh. I think there is a definite point in giving encouragement to a burgh which is likely to grow, particularly an isolated burgh. I would like to have seen this Amendment carried, but as there is no support for it, I have no option but to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 134 to 146 ordered to stand part of the Bill.