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Manchester (Electoral Arrangements)

Volume 901: debated on Thursday 20 March 1975

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9.59 p.m.

I welcome the opportunity to raise the subject of the proposals of the Local Government Boundary Commistion to review the electoral arrangements in the metropolitan districts and, in particular, in the Manchester Metropolitan District. The Boundary Commission's proposals, which were forwarded to local authorities in a letter of 28th August, were received in Manchester with great dismay. The members of the City Council called together the Manchester Members of Parliament to discuss with them the implications of the proposals. As a consequence of that discussion, a deputation of Manchester Members of Parliament saw the Home Secretary on 21st October and expressed to him their great concern about the proposals. That was a unique deputation, in that all the Manchester Members of Parliament took part in it, and it was led by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

The Manchester City Council is unanimous in feeling deep disturbance at the guidelines which are laid down in the Boundary Commission's proposals. The point of view I am expressing tonight is representative of both the major political parties on the City Council. Indeed, I am hopeful that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester) will have an opportunity of catching your eye, Mr. Speaker, before the Minister replies, to underline the unanimity of the Manchester City Council. The Chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities has written to the Prime Minister asking that immediate steps be taken to terminate forthwith the work of the Commission.

I shall refer briefly to the guidelines which are of such importance to Manchester. The Boundary Commission suggests that in metropolitan districts there should be between 50 and 80 councillors. What I am about to say concerns also all the other major connurbations, because they are affected just as Manchester is affected, but Manchester is unique in that the electoral arrangements were comprehensively reviewed and brought into operation in 1971. The Boundary Commission is unaware of the major review that Manchester carried out at that time. The 1981 estimation of the electorate was used on that occasion and that is the estimation that the Boundary Commission suggests in its review arrangements.

On that occasion the number of wards in the city of Manchester was reduced from 38 to 33 and the number of members was reduced from 152 to 132. Following that major reorganisation we had the local government reorganisation of 1973. In the following year the office of alderman was abolished and the City Council was reduced to 99 members.

We are now faced with another set of changes. This is the reason for the real sense of grievance that exists amongst members of the City Council. They are saying "When are the electorate of Manchester to have a period of stability so that they may know the identity of their councillors?" It is true that on both sides of the House over recent months real concern has been expressed about the continuing changes in local government arrangements. Having had a major review in 1971, followed by the complete upheaval that local government reorganisation created with the adoption of two-tier authorities in the major conurbations, we are now to be faced yet again with a major review.

There are serious anomalies in some of the other recommendations that the Boundary Commission is putting forward. There is a suggestion that the size of the county authorities should be of the order of 100 members. We are faced with a situation in the Manchester conurbation in which the metropolitan county would have approximately 100 members and the city authority, which is responsible for all the personal services, would have only 80 members.

As I have said, the two political parties represented on the council are firmly of the opinion that the number of councillors should be unaltered and that the existing electoral arrangements should be maintained. The reduction, if it were to come about, would increase the average ward electorate at a time when the Department of the Environment is pressing local authorities to adopt a more local approach in administration, and when all of us are seeking a greater ease of flow of information between the grass roots and those who represent them. However, it is being suggested that we should make our councillors more remote from the electorate by reducing their numbers.

It is the firm opinion of the City Council that the number of councillors should remain as at present. It believes that the number is sufficient to provide responsive and effective local government and that the position should remain as it now stands.

I refer briefly to the seven members of the Boundary Commission who are undertaking this task. It is important that we should take a firm grasp of a situation that is rapidly getting out of control in terms of Parliament deciding how our local government should be conducted. Is it to be Parliament or is it to be the local authorities which decide how local government is run, or is it to be the seven members of the Boundary Commission who are to determine the size of a local authority and the way in which it should conduct its affairs?

I hope that the Minister will be responsive to the plea of the City Council and will be bold enough to take the sort of action that the chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities asked of the Prime Minister —namely, that firm steps should be taken to end the review so far as it bears on the major metropolitan districts that exist in our major conurbations. No good can come out of a situation in which there is continued change in local government. It might well be said that it is scandalous that at a time when all our efforts are towards a reduction in the cost of services we should again impose on local authorities a further series of administrative changes.

I hope that the Minister will be responsive to this plea. It was made by a strong deputation, every member of which represented a Manchester constituency. Manchester has had enough local government change. Matters should be allowed to settle down. On this occasion we hope that the Minister will say to the Boundary Commission that there is no need for any further review in Manchester.

10.11 p.m.

It may be thought that if political parties agree, there must be something wrong. In this case the political parties represented on Manchester City Council, and the people who support them, take the view that enough is enough. We cannot have it both ways. If it is argued that it is important to maintain close links between councillors and those whom they represent, we cannot dig up the roots at intervals of five years, as may happen in Manchester. We are dealing with people who have hardly got their feet under the table, yet we are now planning to look again at the whole issue.

It is said that there is no way to meet the requirements of the Boundary Commission without a major overhaul of the whole city. It is conceivable that we may be able to tackle the problems of the city centre, in which there are fewer electors per councillor than in other parts of the city, although even that is doubtful when we compare the figures for 1981 with the current figures. Any tinkering is likely to result in a major unheaval all over the city.

No one has yet said what distinct advantages will flow from a change. I should like the Minister to indicate what the position will be in Manchester. I do not refer to other urban conurbations as I do not know what the balance is between electors and their representatives. However, it is clear that the boundaries of Manchester have been drawn on a reasonably fair basis under the 1971 order. Therefore, it is not fair to make a change. The Minister must say what results will flow from a change, as the disadvantages are obvious.

Will the Minister indicate what legal powers the Secretary of State has? I understand that under Section 50 of the Local Government Act it is possible for the Secretary of State to make directions and to give guidance on the way in which the Commission conducts a review, even a general review of this kind. Is the Secretary of State able to give guidance according to special circumstances? I should like to know whether that section of the Act applies in this case and, if not, whether, any other bolthole can be found for us.

I do not worry unduly about the number of members of the council. It is an arbitrary figure. The figures of the Local Government Boundary Commission are as arbitrary as those of anyone else. Our figure of 99 is as good as the Commission's figure of 80, if justification can be provided.

Manchester has already done a great deal about this matter. It may not be generally understood that the number of local government representatives on the Manchester City Council is now one-third less than five years ago. That is already a massive reduction.

On behalf of Conservatives in Manchester, I beg leave to support the hon. Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Hatton) in his application.

10.15 p.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Hatton) for initiating this debate about the review of electoral arrangements for the city of Manchester, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is now very well aware of the great concern of hon. Members representing Manchester constituencies about this problem.

This Adjournment debate gives us an opportunity to discuss the provisions of the Local Government Act 1972 relating to new electoral arrangements for counties and districts and to draw attention to the work of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England.

My hon. Friend the Member for Moss Side, quite properly, has spoken mainly about the circumstances of the Manchester situation, on which I shall comment in a moment. However, first I should like to say a few words about the general position on the reviews of elec- toral arrangements in England as a whole, and this will clarify the present legal position, as I have been asked to do.

The Local Government Boundary Commission for England was established by the Act of 1972 and, in accordance with the statutory provisions, is conducting reviews of the electoral arrangements of all the non-metropolitan districts and counties and the metropolitan districts and counties in England. The electoral arrangements of the London boroughs are also being reviewed. The Act requires the Commission to conduct the district reviews "as soon as practicable" after the first election of councillors for the district concerned. These elections took place in 1973, and the Commission has been working its way steadily through the list. It has started with the reviews of non-metropolitan districts and has so far submitted final proposals for some 104 such districts. So far, some 18 Orders have been made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary implementing the final proposals of the Commission and further orders are in preparation.

The Commission has now begun work on the reviews of electoral arrangements in the metropolitan districts and plans shortly to begin the reviews of the electoral arrangements of the counties. Under the Act of 1972, the review of a county's electoral arrangements cannot be formally begun until the Orders for all the districts in that county have been made.

I think it is important in discussing this matter for us to distinguish between the statutory provisions contained in the Act of 1972 and the procedures and guidelines which the Commission has itself adopted, after consultation with the relevant local authority associations and the political parties. In particular, the rules to be observed by both the Home Secretary and the Commission in considering future electoral arrangements are set out in Schedule 11 to the Act.

The first rule is that the ratio of local government electors to councillors shall be, as nearly as may be, the same in each ward of a district or division of a county but having regard to any change in the number or distribution of electors likely to take place within five years of the review. Other rules require that a parish, or a ward of a parish, shall not be divided between district wards or county divisions, that every county division shall lie within a single district, and that regard shall be had to fixing boundaries that are, and will remain, easily identifiable, and to local ties. So far as the electoral divisions of counties are concerned, there is provision that regard shall be had to the boundaries of the wards of the districts in those counties. These provisions are all statutory and it would require legislation to change them.

The Commission set out in its Report No. 6, published in November 1973, its proposed procedure and timetable for the conduct of reviews of electoral arrangements. This procedure is aimed at achieving the maximum consultation with local authorities and others concerned. In normal circumstances, the review of the electoral arrangements of a particular area takes over a year from the point at which the local authority is invited to prepare a draft scheme for consideration by the Commission.

The 1972 Act contains no provisions relating to the size of county or district councils, and the Commission published in its Report No. 6 its own guidelines on the size of councils. It suggested that for county councils the range should be between 60 and 100 members, for metropolitan district councils the range should be 50 to 80 members, and for non-metropolitan district councils the range should be 30 to 60 members. The Commission has asked local authorities to follow these guidelines in submitting their schemes of representation, but it emphasised that it is ready to consider schemes with membership above this range where exceptional circumstances exist, and this could possibly apply to the situation in Manchester.

I come now to the special circumstances of the review of the city of Manchester's electoral arrangements, which is the subject of this debate. It has been argued that there are special reasons why Manchester's electoral arrangements should not be the subject of a review at present, but that such a review should be left until later. Various arguments, which I know are now well known to the Home Secretary, are put forward in favour of such a deferment. There is, as the House will know, a proposal from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities that legislation should be introduced to defer until 1984 the reviews of electoral arrangements in all the metropolitan areas. I assure the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend that this proposal is currently being considered by the Government, though I cannot anticipate the outcome of that consideration in this debate.

Whatever the outcome on the more general issue, it may be argued, and it has been argued, that Manchester is a special case because the electoral arrangements for the city were the subject of a review—under the Local Government Act 1933—in 1970–71. I recognise that this places Manchester in a somewhat special situation and that the review of 1970–71 took into account expected future development in the city. Nevertheless, I understand that today there are considerable disparities between the different Manchester wards in terms of the ratio of electors to councillors. It appears that at least seven wards are very much under-represented, and at least five are very much over-represented.

Such disparities are likely to increase with time. There is the further problem that, under the 1972 Act, the review of the electoral arrangements for Greater Manchester cannot be undertaken until an Order has been made implementing new electoral arrangements for the city of Manchester, and for other districts in the county. Therefore, a deferment of the city of Manchester review would carry with it a deferment of the county review.

I know that concern has been expressed on the question of the future size of councils in the metropolitan districts. As I said earlier, the figures suggested by the Commission are intended as an indication of the range of council sizes that on general grounds appear to the Commission to be reasonable for average-size districts and counties. But it has said that larger councils can be justified in exceptional cases. I am sure that the Commission has not adopted a rigid or inflexible approach, and in deciding what constitutes an exceptional case it will, no doubt, take account of size of electorate and functional responsibility as well as more general considerations.

The important point to emphasise is that the Boundary Commission is an independent body charged by Parliament with the responsibility for carrying out reviews of the electoral arrangements in all the new local government areas in England. This is a difficult and complex task and I am sure that the House is grateful to the Commission for the way in which it has approached the matter. Because of the inter-relationship between district and county reviews, the Commission is very conscious of the need to obtain the fullest consultation with all concerned.

This applies particularly in the metropolitan areas. I would ask hon. Members concerned to urge the local authorities in their constituencies to follow the approach which I understand has already been adopted in the West Midlands of joint consultation between the various authorities in the county and the Commission. I am sure that this is the way in which any difficulties and misunderstandings that may have arisen can be resolved.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Ten o'clock.