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Local Government Boundaries

Volume 466: debated on Monday 27 June 1949

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With permission, I wish to make a statement on the Local Government Boundary Commission.

I am sure that the House will share the views of the Government that we are all very much indebted to the Local Government Boundary Commission under the able chairmanship of Sir Malcolm Eve for the valuable reports which they have prepared and for the thorough manner in which they have applied themselves to their duties. At the same time, the Commission are under the difficulty that the Local Government (Boundary Commission) Act, 1945, from which they derive their powers, limits their operations to the review and alteration of local government areas, and they have no power to alter the structure of local government or to vary the functions of different classes of authority. The Commission, in their annual reports, have drawn attention to the disadvantages of these limitations. The White Paper on Local Government published by the Coalition Government in January, 1945, which recommended the setting up of the Local Government Boundary Commission, recognised that the machinery for local government reorganisation might have to be changed with changes ii circumstances; and the alterations in the functions of local authorities effected since the Act of 1945 have undoubtedly changed the position.

The Government have come to the conclusion that, in present conditions, it is difficult for the Commission to proceed with their work and they have accordingly decided to repeal the Act of 1945, which will involve the winding up of the Commission. This will restore the position substantially to what it was before the passing of that Act, until such time as the Government have had an opportunity of reviewing the structure and functions of local government.

The Opposition certainly desire to join in the tribute paid by the right hon. Gentleman to the work of the Commission and its distinguished Chairman. What has been announced is, of course, a far-reaching decision, and we should require to give it full consideration. Meanwhile, can the Government give any indication when the proposed review of the structure and functions of local government will be begun?

The review of the structure and functions of local government is a constant preoccupation of the Government, but we cannot tell when the review will fructify.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that, in reconsidering the matter, the Government will take into account the desirability of appointing a commission which has power to consider the functions as well as the areas of local government?

We have considered that matter and we have decided that a Royal Commission or any other commission is not an appropriate instrument for this purpose, as the Royal Commission itself would almost certainly reproduce in its personnel all the disagreements which exist in local government circles.

Does the decision mean that the claims of local authorities which have been recognised as special priority cases can now only be satisfied in the immediate future by procedure through a Private Bill?

As I said in my statement, the position has now reverted to what it was before the passing of the Local Government (Boundary Commission) Act. That means that Private Bill legislation is all that is available to local authorities who wish to secure alterations of their boundaries from Parliament. I think that they will find on examination that the Private Bill procedure is no more expensive and tedious than the procedure of the 1945 Act itself.

Will the review cover London, which was excluded from Sir Malcolm Eve's terms of reference as it was being dealt with by another Committee under Lord Reading, which was dissolved?

The hon. Member will no doubt be aware that we had to dissolve Lord Reading's Committee because there was unwillingness on the part of the relevant authorities to give evidence before it. A review of local authorities would have to include London areas.

In view of the Minister's reference to Private Bill legislation, does it not seem more desirable than ever that he should be able to give the House and the country some indication when the review may be completed? Obviously it would affect the desire of local authorities to proceed by Private Bill legislation if an announcement were made indicating whether it would be this year or next year. Can the right hon. Gentleman give an indication whether it will be this year or next year? In the interim period, what is likely to be the attitude of the Government towards Private Bill legislation.

It is very doubtful indeed whether we would be able to come to an early decision on what the views of the Government are about the reorganisation of local government. Local authorities themselves should decide whether to proceed with Private Bill legislation. Where local authorities think they ought to have immediate easement, I think they ought to proceed by Private Bill procedure at once, and, where easement is necessary, we will give facilities.

Did not all these difficulties concerning this Commission arise from the fact that this House has never really seriously considered the question of a policy on local government? Had that been done, might not the terms of reference have helped the Commission?

That is an expression of opinion about the 1945 Act, which we are now terminating.