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Parish Councils

Volume 889: debated on Monday 7 April 1975

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

10.40 p.m.

I am glad to have the opportunity of raising the subject of the establishment of new parish councils. This is a matter of importance to my constituents but also of some national importance. My objective in raising the issue is to try to speed up the closing of certain gaps left in our system of local government representation by the Local Government Act 1972.

I am particularly referring to gaps in the system in England. The Under-Secretary might well be more familiar with Scottish local government reorganisation. For that reason I welcome his presence, because it may be that he will listen with even more sympathy and understanding to my points. It is ironic that in Scotland the Government were prepared to allow in local government reorganisation what they were not prepared to allow in England. It is ironically true also that in Wales, under the same reorganisational Act, the Government were prepared to give immediate local community representation when they were not prepared to do the same for England. Although the Minister may not be able to give me immediate answers, I hope that he will be prepared to discuss these matters with his right hon. and hon. Friends and try to persuade them of the validity of my argument.

There are gaps in our system of local democracy in England. What is needed is a speeding-up in the process of designating some new parish councils for areas that have lost their community councils. I do not believe that there is any disagreement about the need to cover these gaps. The problem arises over the speed of doing so.

I begin by referring to the Local Government Act, on the Committee proceedings of which so many of us sat for long hours—a process I remember without any nostalgia and which I have no desire to repeat.

Many problems have flowed from the Act. When it first came to the House there was no provision for giving any form of community council to English councils that were to lose their status. The large number of small councils which came together into large district councils saw a future without any continuation of the traditions of government that they had enjoyed, often for many centuries.

Fortunately, as a result of considerable efforts by members of the Committee the Government changed their views. They saw that there was a great deal of wisdom in providing successor parish status for a large number of what were described as "free-standing" boroughs or urban districts with populations of less than 20,000. This was a welcome concession which means that about 386 councils in England and Wales now enjoy successor parish status.

This is of considerable importance to those towns which now enjoy that type of representation. However, there were many other unsuccessful applicants for successor parish status and many areas were and are deprived of any community representation. To quote from theLocal Council Reviewof the summteer of 1974:
"The breakdown "—of the districts" reveals several 'holes in the blanket' —town with no local council. … in the past these towns have had local councils by virtue of their former status as boroughs or urban districts. Many of them have a long tradition of self-government. Designation as parishes would have enabled them to keep their councils; now, some other way of plugging the holes in the blanket' may have to be found."
It may be that many of the applicant areas were too large or too dominant within the new district to have their own town council. In connection with those areas, perhaps I can return to the neighbourhood council suggestions which the Government have lately advanced. However, there were other areas that were precluded from these arrangements for other reasons. It is to these towns that I wish to refer.

I can illustrate the point best by referring to the matter which concerns me most immediately, namely, the position in my constituency. I was proud that under the Act Faversham was designated as a successor parish council. It now has the more dignified title of a town council. It was an ancient borough, a limb of the Cinque Ports with a charter dating back some 600 or 700 years. It now enjoys the rights and privileges of a town council. In my constituency there are two other towns which could be considered as qualifying for such status and which are currently deprived of it. It is not a satisfactory situation that small free-standing urban communities should be deprived of any form of community council for many years to come.

One such area is the ancient borough of Queenborough. It was a small borough which had borough status for 600 or 700 years. It had some 2,000 electors until 1832 and it had the privilege of returning two Members of Parliament. Sadly that privilege ended with an earlier Act of reorganisation. Another area is the Sheerness Urban District Council. It has an electorate of about 12,000. I emphasise that they are two self-contained urban communities with clearly-defined boundaries which stand out clearly from the rest of the community. They are natural communities and they are currently without councils.

This position arises because of the merger of the two communities with the Sheppey Rural District Council into the Queenborough and Sheppey Council just a few years before the Local Government Act 1972. That meant that the new borough had a population in excess of the criterion laid down at the time by the Government. I do not think there is any disagreement that these are exactly the sort of communities for which the Government are anxious to see some form of community council established.

The question is how—or, more important, when—that objective can be achieved. There is provision in the Act for the Boundary Commission to commence a general parish review once it has completed the review of the ward boundaries, but I gather that that is unlikely to take place until the end of the 1970s. That means that if the commission recommends the areas I have mentioned for new parishes it could be well into the 1980s before the towns get their community councils. I submit that that is an unsatisfactory situation. If the Minister agrees that that is not what he desires, I ask him and his colleagues to strive to find some way whereby the mechanism can be speeded up. It is not a satisfactory situation to have a break in continuity in the tradition of civic service for such a great length of time.

There are two ways in which to proceed. First, I think that the Minister has powers under the Act to designate or to arrange for the designation of new parish councils. I believe that he could take the initiative regarding certain such areas himself. I may be wrong in that but I would welcome his comments. Secondly—perhaps this is the more practical proposition—he should consult the Boundary Commission on the interim designation of certain new parishes where the district council and everyone else can agree that the boundaries themselves are undisputed. I am referring to traditionally clearly-defined boundaries about which there is no dispute. I recognise that there will be other areas left out of that category which are equally entitled to successor parish status.

There are many semi-rural areas and rural villages which should have such councils and which probably will have them but about which there is a greater problem regarding the definition of boundaries. They may have to wait some time, but let us do what we can for the communities where such problems of boundary definition do not exist.

In Scotland and Wales there has been automatic provision for community councils. We all attach great importance to such provision and I say to the Minister that there is ample evidence that some small areas that not so long ago were politically and democratically alive are in danger of becoming political deserts as a result of successive reorganisations. It is nonsense that at present we have a situation in which many small rural parishes have a right to be consulted on planning applications but a town of the size of Sheerness, with 14,000 inhabitants, has no such rights. Why should we wait until the 1980s before we remedy these clear and widely understood defects in our local government situation?

There are other areas which cannot be dealt with simply. The Government have taken a positive initiative, which I commend, in regard to neighbourhood councils. They have circularised district councils and other bodies with their suggestions. However, their consultative document poses a very different proposition from that which I am putting forward this evening. The neighbourhood councils are a good concept but they are aimed at the larger urban areas where traditional parish, town or community boundaries have become blurred or have disappeared with the expansion of the community. The neighbourhood council is for the larger urban areas. For the smaller, more clearly defined community, the parish council is clearly the answer.

I wish to refer to the consultation paper which was sent out by the Department and which makes my point for me. It said:
"The new neighbourhood council could be set up in any area not covered by an existing parish, and would be wound up where a parish was subsequently established."
It is clear that those two things are incompatible and that there are many areas which would be more suitable for parish council status than for a neighbourhood council. I believe it is for those areas where the traditional community boundaries are still meaningful that the status of town council or parish council is the right way to provide the community with a voice.

I hope that the Government will work out with the Boundary Commission some way to speed up the process of designating these parishes, ideally with an interim designation of those areas where boundaries are self-evident. The Secretary of State has this power and should exercise it to speed up the process. If he does, it will be a valuable step towards the furtherance of local democracy, not in the 1980s but in 1975.

10.53 p.m.

The hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) has for some time been pursuing his campaign to get parishes established in the Isle of Sheppey, and I have a certain amount of sympathy with him.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that I am a Scot and said that he hoped I would listen to his plea with sympathy. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will realise that all Government Ministers always listen with great sympathy to representations from all parts of the House.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Scottish situation. It is true that our legislation in local government terms is different in many ways from that elsewhere. As part of our legislation we introduced the concept of community councils. We on the Labour benches are in favour of the general strengthening of the system of parish councils in England which accompanied local government reorganisation. It is perhaps the only aspect of the reorganisation with which were were in accord. Indeed, in our proposals for neighbourhood councils we are going a good deal further, and it may be that in that direction I can make some suggestions which the hon. Member will find helpful.

Perhaps it will help the House if I set out the general position relating to parishes before and since local government reorganisation. Before 1st April last year the administrative counties in England were divided into boroughs, urban districts and rural districts each of which had a council. The rural districts were further subdivided into parishes, most of which had councils, though in some the few local government functions falling to be discharged at that level were vested in the parish meeting whose members consisted of all the electors resident in the parish.

In contrast to the subdivided rural districts, the boroughs and urban districts were not subdivided for local government purposes and any functions falling to be carried out by a parish council or parish meeting would be carried out by the borough or urban district council. It is obvious that I am speaking about English legislation because of the rather unusual way in which the word "burgh" is spelt in this context.

This division between the subdivided rural areas and the undivided urban areas had a number of consequences. One was that where a borough or urban district expanded to take in neighbouring areas the parish authorities in those areas would be extinguished. This was not uncommon, or unreasonable where the town concerned had spilled over its limits and the areas which it was now acquiring were essentially a part of the same urban community. In a few places, however, the clumsy review procedures then available led to changes which were rather more radical than the simple absorption of suburbs into towns.

Sheppey was one of those instances. In this case the decision in 1968 was that the three authorities on the Isle of Sheppey—the borough of Queenborough, the urban district of Sheerness and the rural district of Sheppey—should be combined in one authority. There is no doubt that this made sense at that time. The pre-1968 authorities were small by anyone's standards, and even after the amalgamation the new authority was still quite small.

However, so far as the hon. Members' present problems are concerned, they really stem from this amalgamation. Because borough status was the senior status, it was natural for the amalgamation to be, in form, an expansion of the old borough of Queenborough, and, because boroughs were not divided into parishes, the whole of Sheppey became represented by the one borough council, and the parish governments of the individual communities in the rural districts, were extinguished. Similarly the separate representation of the old borough and the urban district came to an end. But unlike the case of the expanding town, this did not reflect a previous natural coalescence into one community.

Moving on now to the reorganisation of local government, there are three points to make. First, it was inevitable that small authorities like Queenborough-in-Sheppey should be absorbed in larger units. There may have been much party disagreement about how to reform local government, but we agreed that there were a lot of small authorities which could not command the resources needed for effective local government.

Secondly, the scheme of reorganisation introduced by our predecessors preserved the system of parish councils as such. This we agreed with. The remoteness of the new large authorities is a matter of great concern and the existence of a ready-made system of intermediary bodies in rural areas would at any rate partially alleviate this problem.

Thirdly, the then Government sensibly gave way to pressure to allow the immediate addition to the list of parishes of boroughs and urban districts which were themselves essentially like parishes in character. Obviously, some means had to be chosen for deciding which places should qualify. This was partly done in the Act, which limited successor parish status to whole boroughs and urban districts—in fact, the only cases in which part of one might qualify was where the division was being made in any case in the course of the delineation of the new authority.

For the rest, the task of selection was assigned to the Local Government Boundary Commision for England, to which the previous Government gave some guidelines within which to work. One of those guidelines was that places with more than 20,000 population should not normally qualify, and another was that places whose population was more than 20 per cent. of the new district's should also not qualify. Queenborough-in-Sheppey's population of over 30,000 was more than 20 per cent. of Swale's 103,000 population and so it fell outside both guidelines.

I think it is fair to say that if the amalgamation had not taken place in 1968, all the places on Sheppey would now be enjoying parish status. The parishes in the old rural district cer- tainly would have survived as parishes and the old borough of Queenborough and the urban district of Sheerness would probably have qualified for successor parish status. It is for this reason that I said at the beginning of my speech that I had sympathy with the hon. Member.

But we have to deal with the situation as it is, and I am anxious to help the hon. Gentleman as much as I can. First, there is now a much simpler procedure for altering local authority patterns than there was before reorganisation. It involves the Local Government Boundary Commission, but it also involves the district council. The first step is for the district council to propose the establishment of new parishes for particular areas; it may do so only after consulting or informing any interested parties in accordance with provisions laid down by statute. It is then for the commission to consider them in the light of local comments and objections, and also in the light of any guidelines given by the Secretary of State. There may be a local hearing to consider the new points raised. Finally, the commission may put a recommendation to the Secretary of State who may implement it by order.

There are some temporary difficulties in the way of this procedure and it is these about which the hon. Member is particularly concerned. The commission is at present fully engaged on the review of electoral arrangements which the Act assigns to it as its priority task. This is indeed a major undertaking of considerable importance which should result generally in a fairer and more equal representation for the people as a whole on their local authorities. It is important that the review should be completed as soon as possible, and the commission has devised a timetable for the whole exercise which is as tight as the statutory requirements allow and admits of no slack to the commissioners themselves. Thus there can be no question of the commission's doing anything else until it has completed this exercise.

The hon. Gentleman has conceded the importance of the commission's work. I dare say he is aware that there are numerous matters relating to parishes, and also to county and district boundaries, which have been brought to the Secretary of State's attention in the past year or so, and in each instance the reply has been "You must wait until the commission has completed its review of electoral arrangements".

The hon. Gentleman has made the fair point that it would not be a difficult task to reactivate on an interim basis the pre-1968 boundaries on the Isle of Sheppey in order to enable parish councils to be established there quickly. Certainly there are attractions in this suggestion. It seems to offer a quick solution to some of the many cases which have been put to us.

But the hon. Member will not be surprised to hear me say that there are snags in this solution. First, the law does not admit any quicker procedure than the one I have described. The Boundary Commission is not there just to act as a rubber stamp, and if it is asked to do a job it will certainly want to do it properly. It might, for instance, wish to consider how well the old boundaries represent the present pattern of communities both in general terms and in the immediate vicinity of the boundaries themselves. It is empowered to consult any interested parties, and should it for any reason wish to modify the district council's proposals it is required to publish notifications and consider any representations made to it. I do not think that the commission's discretion can in any way be limited in this respect, and accordingly I can see no way in which the hon. Member's suggestion can be regarded as other than a potential major diversion from the commission's task in hand.

There is a second snag. The Local Government Act gives the Secretary of State various powers to direct the commission to advance or defer particular reviews. But it gives no power to direct the deferment of the electoral review. This review is to be undertaken, in accordance with Schedule 9 to the Act, "as soon as practicable" and any direction to the commission that it should consider other matters would tend to frustrate the clear intention of the Act. Accordingly, I do not think that the hon. Member's suggestion would help.

On the other hand, I am sure that he paints far too gloomy a picture. First, it will certainly be much less than 10 years before the commission manages to consider parish matters. The electoral review should be completed by the end of 1977, and it seems likely that the commission will be able to consider boundary anomalies and parish matters in the years immediately following. I am sure that it will have taken note of today's debate and will bear in mind the issues which the hon. Member has raised when it comes to consider its agenda for the period following the completion of the electoral review. So I think I can give the hon. Member a reasonable assurance that the time when this matter can be considered is in the foreseeable future.

Secondly, a species of self-help is available to the people of old Queenborough, Sheerness and other communities on Sheppey, if they choose to use it. They could form neighbourhood councils on a voluntary, non-statutory basis. They would not, of course, have any executive functions, but they could play the sort of vital representational rôle which is so important. The hon. Member is aware of our consultation paper containing suggestions about a statutory basis of neighbourhood councils. We are still receiving and digesting comments on that paper and it will be some time before a decision is made whether or not to proceed to legislation. With the good will of the district council, however, there seems no reason why the non-statutory arrangements should not be equally successful.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Planning and Local Government recently contributed to a television programme made by the Association for Neighbourhood Councils in the BBC's "Open Door" series. The association made it clear that it would welcome inquiries and could give assistance to those interested in the establishment of neighbourhood councils.

Therefore, while I can offer the hon. Member no immediate relaxation of the commission's timetable, I hope he will recognise both that it need not take anything like as long as he fears before the case for parish councils on Sheppey is considered and that in the meantime other less formal means of achieving the same object are available to the people of the area.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes past Eleven o'clock.