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Tonbridge And Malling (Electoral Arrangements)

Volume 927: debated on Tuesday 8 March 1977

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

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Snape.]

10.0 p.m.

I wish to raise on the Adjournment the Home Secretary's proposals in regard to the electoral arrangements for the district council of Tonbridge and Malling in my constituency. We have achieved the unusual situation in Ton-bridge and Mailing of unanimity among all political parties on agreeing the most desirable and fair system of electoral arrangements for Tonbridge and Malling and, at the same time, unanimity in disagreeing with the proposals so far approved by the Home Secretary. This is, therefore, a straightforward issue of the district of Tonbridge and Mailing versus the Home Secretary.

It may be helpful to the Minister who is to reply if I summarise the events so far. In December 1974 the district council's draft scheme for the electoral arrangements was submitted to the Local Government Boundary Commission. I stress again that it had the total agreement of all political parties and was submitted only after the most extensive local consultation.

In February 1975 the Commission replied with its own draft proposals and made five material changes from the draft scheme which the council had submitted. The first change was that the village of Eccles, now a separate ward, should be joined into a combined ward with the village of Aylesford. Secondly, it proposed that the representation of the Blue Bell Hill ward should be increased from one councillor to two. Thirdly, it proposed that the representation of the Cage Green ward should be decreased from three to two councillors. Fourthly, it proposed that the representation of the Judd ward should be reduced from three councillors to two. Lastly, it proposed that the representation of the Oast ward should be decreased from two to one.

All these changes were strongly objected to by the district council and by all the political parties. As a result, the Commission decided to hold a local inquiry into the electoral arrangements in September 1975. After the inquiry, the Commission published a report in January 1976 and decided not to make any material concessions on the points of issue between it and the district council. The Commission then submitted its final proposals to the Home Secretary and, very much to our regret, he decided to endorse the Commission's proposals in full, thereby rejecting all the alternatives that the council had previously agreed.

There are two major issues of principle on which the council feels very strongly. The Minister will recognise that in these circumstances it is generally not unusual for there to be substantial disagreement between the individual political parties within a local authority area. In Tonbridge and Mailing there has been total agreement between the political parties on what represents, politically and democratically, a fair system that most acurately reflects the individual community interests on warding. We hoped that when there had been such a clear expression, democratically and locally, by all parties, it could have been favourably considered by the Commission and the Home Office. On this occasion it was not.

The second area of principle on which the council feels strongly is that in such circumstances one would imagine that there would need to be compelling reasons for the Home Secretary to reject the local proposals in favour of some of his own. It is a matter of regret that so far we have not received any substantive reasons for the Home Secretary's decision on our electoral arrangements and why he has rejected the proposals put forward by the council. The Minister may be able to repair that omission tonight.

I ask the the Minister to reconsider the electoral arrangements with particular regard to three outstanding matters about which, it has advised me today, the council feels most strongly. The first, is that Tonbridge itself feels, legitimately in my belief, that it has had a raw deal as a result of the new arrangements. At present, the ratio of electors to councillors is exactly the same in the Tonbridge part of the district as it is in the rest of the district. But under the scheme which the Home Secretary wishes to follow Ton-bridge is to be significantly under-represented relative to the rest of the district.

Under the Home Secretary's scheme, the balance of the constituency, which is made up of Mailing, Hildenborough and Hadlow, will have a ratio of 1,234 electors per councillor, but for Tonbridge there will be a ratio of 1,428 electors per councillor. In other words, in contrast with the present equality of ratios in the area, Tonbridge is clearly to be underrepresented compared with the rest of the district.

The council feels that there is a strong case for preventing the reduction in Ton-bridge's representation by two councillors by making certain that the reduction is in any case no more than one, and that at least one of the two wards where membership is being reduced from three councillors to two should be retained at three councillors. My advice from the council today concerning these two wards says:
"Whilst it would be difficult on the basis of the 1977 electorate to justify 3 members for Judd ward, there would appear to be a good case for retaining 3 members for the Cage Green Ward."
My first point, therefore, is that the Secretary of State should consider retaining three members for the Cage Green ward, thereby retaining a reasonable equality between the ratios of electors to councillors throughout the whole district.

The second point that I ask the Home Secretary to reconsider is the proposal that Oast ward should have a reduction in councillors from two to one. "Oast" is an acronym for four separate villages with delightful Kentish names—Offham, Addington, Stansted and Trottiscliffe. We have very strong feelings about the reduction of representation for the Oast war, for two reasons.

The first reason is that it is far and away the largest area geographically in the district. It covers 2,309 hectares, and it is substantially larger than any other ward. By and large, we think that if there is a particularly large ward geographically it tends to justify erring on the side of more councillors rather than fewer. The second justification for retaining the Oast ward representation at two councillors is that, if its representation is reduced to one, Oast will be conspicuously under-represented compared with other wards.

I want to draw attention to Schedule 11(3)(2)(a) of the Local Government Act 1972, under which we are working. It states:
"The ratio of the number of local government electors to the number of councillors to be elected shall be, as nearly as may be, the same in every ward of the district or borough."
That is a clearly-stated principle. In the light of that principle, it seems hard to justify the state of affairs envisaged for the representation of Oast ward compared, for example, to that of another ward, West Mailing.

Under the Home Secretary's proposals the Oast ward, which has 1,892 electors in the 1977 electorate, will have one councillor and, therefore, a ratio of 1,892 per councillor, while the West Mailing ward, on the other hand, with 1,820 electors, will have two councillors and, therefore, a ratio of 910 electors per councillor. In other words the Oast ward, which already has more electors than West Mailing, will have fewer councillors. The ratio of electors to councillors will be nearly twice as large in the Oast ward as in the West Mailing ward.

That seems to us to be in flagrant contradiction of the very important principle in Schedule 11 to the Local Government Act 1972 that the ratio of electors to councillors throughout the wards of a district council should be the same
"as nearly as may be".
The last point on which I would be grateful if the Minister would reconsider the Home Secretary's proposals is the separation of Eccles from Aylesford. Eccles is at present a separate electoral area, and it has no wish at all to lose its individual electoral identity as a separate village and become submerged in the larger village of Aylesford.

I am glad to see that the assistant commissioner, when he published his report after the local inquiry, acknowledged the separate individual character of the village of Eccles. He said:
"It was clear from the evidence given earlier to the Commission, and at the meeting, that Eccles could reasonably claim to be different from Aylesford in many respects and to have its own characteristics."
There is at least a recognition here of the fact that Eccles has its own special and separate identity.

I agree that if Eccles remained separate from Aylesford it would have a small ratio of electors to councillors, a ratio of about 900. But, judging by the previous figures that I have given for West Malling, although this ratio is low it is not unacceptably low. It would also have the advantage, in democratic terms, of adhering to the wishes of the local community to retain their separate local identity.

I do not know what sort of brief the Minister of State has been given. I hope very much that he has not been provided with a brief which advises him to say that he cannot give any further consideration to the points put forward. If he has such a brief, I encourage him to discard it and to reconsider the points that I have made.

I assure the Minister of the strength of local feeling in the district of Ton-bridge and Mailing on this issue, and I assure him that it crosses all party lines. There is total political unanimity on this issue. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree this evening to reconsider our electoral arrangements, and I hope that when he has done so he will be able to come forward with revised proposals.

10.13 p.m.

:I am grateful to the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Mr. Stanley) for a number of things this evening. First, he has raised a subject which is topical in the light of the fact that the Local Government Boundary Commission is just about starting and that this was one of the first orders in the Commission's purview. The review will embrace 36 metropolitan districts, 296 non-metropolitan districts, six metropolitan counties and 39 non-metropolitan counties in England, as well as the 32 London boroughs.

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has given me an opportunity to put on record the general framework within which the Commission and the Home Secretary work. I think the hon. Gentle- man will agree that he himself slipped somewhat uneasily between the Home Secretary's proposals and the Boundary Commission's proposals, so I think it right for me to set out the position.

While the Home Secretary has powers that he can exercise, and will exercise, in proper cases, we as a Parliament have put in the hands of the Boundary Commission a very onerous task precisely with the intention of distancing it from any attempted interference or any suspicion of interference for political or Executive gain. I well remember the difficulties which some Conservative Members raised when there was any suggestion that the Home Secretary was so interfering. Now, apparently, but perhaps only for tonight, it is being urged that he should further interfere.

As the hon. Member said, the Local Government Act 1972 laid down fairly precise criteria about the way in which the Local Government Boundary Commission should approach its work, although it did not lay down any precise details about the method by which it would examine these proposals. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that the way in which the Commission has approached its task has been to encourage as much public discussion as possible.

I say, without any sense of flattery which sometimes accompanies contributions on an Adjournment debate, that the hon. Gentleman has certainly at all stages made articulate and eloquent pleas on behalf of the parishes in his constituency. There is no question about it that when my right hon. Friend signed the order in question he signed it in full knowledge of the representations that have been made from the district council and from many other organisations, and, not least, representations by the hon. Member for Ton-bridge and Malling.

The Commission gave notice of its intention to conduct a review on 10th June 1974, and the local council, the county council, the Member of Parliament, the parish councils, the local Press and the main political parties were informed. The idea of all this was simply to give as wide a forum as possible for the consideration of the matter and to enable the widest possible representations to be made.

So it was that the Tonbridge and Mailing District Council prepared the draft scheme to which the hon. Member has referred. It was presented on 1st December 1974 and it called for a 28-ward system with 54 members. When the Commission considered this, it considered comments which had been made by the district council and others and it considered at that stage that the range of elector-to-councillor ratios was so wide as to go beyond what was laid down in Schedule 11. In that light, it proposed adjustments. I shall come later to the words and discrepancies to which the hon. Member has alluded.

On 18th February 1975, the draft scheme was sent to all those who had received the original consultation letter. Their views were sought again, and such were their views that a local meeting under the assistant commissioner, whose report has been referred to, was held on 25th September 1975. It is interesting to note that this is well over a year after the original proposal, so there is no suggestion of rushing or that this matter was subjected to other than the closest scrutiny. A local meeting provided the assistant commissioner with the material for a report, and I hope that the hon. Member will acknowledge the care which was taken with this.

At that stage the Commission not only considered its own draft report but suggested modifications to the assistant commissioner. When it made this final report, it was prepared to modify even those proposals. One proposal which the hon. Gentleman has not mentioned, and which it is right to mention as an example of the way in which the Boundary Commission sought to meet legitimate local aspirations, was that which affected Oast ward. I am grateful to the hon. Member for the information that that is an acronym of the four wards concerned. As the hon. Member will know, however, in order to combat to an extent the discrepancies in the elector-to-councillor ratio, it was proposed that Stansted should be removed from the ward and should be put in with another ward so as to make it a three-parish rather than a four-parish ward. In its final report the Commission rejected that and said that, in view of the representations that it had received, the four parishes would continue to be part of the ward. Even at that stage it was flexible enough to make modifications and to put forward its final report.

I agree with what the Minister has said, but does he not acknowledge that bringing the Stansted ward back into the rest of the Oast ward adds substantially to the under-representation of that ward if the number of its councillors is not increased from one to two?

I shall deal with that later. The assistant commissioner put forward alternatives and said that there were two courses open to him—to keep the ward as it was and reduce the representation to one councillor, or to reduce the ward area and the representation together.

Paragraph 15 of the report said:
"In view of the strong community ties which would be broken by our draft proposals we have concluded that we should modify them by adopting the Assistant Commissioner's alternative suggestion, even though this creates some imbalance of representation between the Oast and Wrotham wards."
There was a clear trade-off to be done if the Commission was to incorporate the suggestions.

The 1972 Act provides that the order to implement the Commission's final recommendations with or without modifications shall not be made until six weeks have elapsed from the time of the submission by the Commission. That provides an opportunity for further representations to be made, and further representations were made.

The report was sent on 12th January 1976, and it was not until 29th October 1976 that my right hon. Friend signed the order which lays down the new boundaries. Whatever else has happened, it cannot be said that my right hon. Friend has rushed this matter through without due time being given for consideration of the local points.

The hon. Member raised three matters. When dealing with the question of the weaknesses—as he sees them—of the order which was laid before the House last October, his first point was the under-representation or the reduction in representation in some wards. He mentioned in particular Judd ward, which by the sound of it should be a Labour ward.

It was a Labour ward until May last year, when it was won for the first time by the Conservatives. It was the Cage Green ward that the council felt in particular should not have its representation reduced from three to two.

I can understand the point. The matter was considered by the Boundary Commission and it made its recommendations, which, in the light of all the facts of the case, are probably best decided by those who have studied the matter. Certainly the local inhabitants have studied it and have made their representations. The Boundary Commission devoted a great deal of care to considering the ratio of councillors to the electorate. It came to its own conclusions.

The second issue mentioned by the, hon. Member was that which involves the Oast ward. He said that one of the reasons why he opposed the proposal was the under-representation particularly because of the large geographical area that is involved. He will know, as I know, that the geographical area is not a criterion laid down by the Local Government Act, Schedule 11. The criterion which is laid down is that of population rather than area. Therefore, there cannot be overrepresentation merely in order to compensate for a geographical area, otherwise the principle of rural weighting, which a number of us took up during the passage of the Bill into law, as I seem to recollect, would have been enshrined in the new Act, whereas most people seem to think that it ought not to be.

Therefore, we come to the point of why Oast ward is so under-represented as compared with, say, West Malling. I accept that there is always some difficulty about drawing a line anywhere, but the fact is—and it seemed to be confirmed on the projections—that the faster population growth, although not such, I accept, as to right the imbalance, would occur in West Malling in the next five years. Therefore, although the hon. Gentleman may say that there is an injustice, it will not be in five years' time quite as manifest an injustice as it is now.

Secondly, wherever one draws the line on representation, there will be at least one ward which has the highest proportion of electors per councillor and one which will have the lowest proportion. The fact is that, if the situation to which the hon. Gentleman has asked me to accede were to come about, one would then have the position that the Oast ward would have one of the lowest ratios of electors to councillors, and that would cause the very problem of which the hon. Gentleman has spoken.

The third matter to which the hon. Gentleman has alluded is the Eccles ward. He has suggested that its combination with Aylesford is another matter which causes a great deal of criticism locally. He rightly says that the assistant commissioner visited Eccles and described it as an area of mostly older-type terraced properties, housing originally—I do not know whether it does now—mainly workers in the cement industry. The assistant commissioner concluded that it was clear from the evidence that
"Eccles could reasonably claim to be different from Aylesford in many respects and to have its own characteristics."
But he went on to say—this is germane to what the hon. Gentleman has said—that
"At the same time there was no very firm evidence that the electorate would be substantially greater in 1979, and indeed, the district council's figure of 950 was not seriously challenged. The case for the continued existence of Eccles as a separate ward would appear to rest rather on its individuality as a village than on any increase in numbers which might lead, perhaps, to a loss of that very characteristic. There would seem to be no valid reason for holding that the existence of a separate ward is necessarily synonymous with the individuality of a village and although Aylesford is composed of differing elements, it is in my opinion very difficult to justify the continued over-representation of the electors of Eccles on the district council, particularly in view of the under-representation of electors in the Aylesford ward which could come about by 1979."
Clearly, therefore, here again, this is not a matter to which the Boundary Commission failed to direct its attention. It directed its attention very carefully to it, in the light of all the representations, but felt unable to accept what the hon. Gentleman has said.

I should like to conclude, I have only a minute, and I have given way. I should prefer the hon. Gentleman to have a fuller reply.

Will the Minister be willing to receive in the Home Office an all-party delegation from the district council to represent its views directly to the Home Secretary or one of his Ministers?

Of course I would see any delegation. However, it is fair to say that the order was made final nearly six months ago. The fact is that I am not quite sure what it is that I would be able to do, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to lead such a delegation I would certainly see it.

However, the point I am making is that while one cannot satisfy the locality as to the actual arrangements—because almost everyone is an electoral expert, not least Members of Parliament, who can draw boundaries much better than the Boundary Commission—what we need to do is to satisfy the electors—

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.