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Local Government Boundaries (Lincolnshire)

Volume 175: debated on Thursday 5 July 1990

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

11.14 pm

My purpose in initiating this debate is to ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to request the Local Government Boundary Commission for England to give further consideration to the desirability of recommending the abolition of the present county of Humberside, and its replacement as an administrative entity north of the Humber by a county of East Yorkshire and south of the Humber by a restoration of the historic county of Lincolnshire under the administration of the efficient and economical Lincolnshire county council.

I recognise that my right hon. Friend cannot simply wave his magic wand and return the county of Humberside to the estuary mists from which it unhappily emerged in 1974. He can only table an Order in Council to that effect following a recommendation to that effect by the commission. The commission has been giving much attention to the subject in the knowledge of the great unpopularity of the county of Humberside among its residents on both sides of the Humber. So far, the commission has stopped short of recommending abolition. I hope that this debate will help to persuade it to do so in its next report.

In its interim review, published on 7 March this year, the commission states on page 13 that there are three strands to any consideration of boundaries. Paragraph 47 of the interim report says that the three strands are:

  • "(i) whether the boundary accords with the wishes of the local inhabitants;
  • (ii) whether it reflects the pattern of community life; and
  • (iii) whether it is conducive to the effective operation of local government any associated services."
  • In the next paragraph, it goes on to say:
    "The Commission has never sought to place any of these criteria above the others in principle. It treats each case on its merits, taking all three strands into account."
    The commission adds, significantly, the words:

    "Any one of them may, in particular cases, be more important than the other two as justification for change".
    In the limited time at my disposal tonight, I want to say a few words under those three headings. First, does the boundary of Humberside county accord with the wishes of the local inhabitants? The commission, in a number of its reports, including the interim report, accepts that it does not so accord, although the commissioners seem still to underrate the strength of feeling on the point. The commissioners say:
    "these feelings were very strong in Humberside"—
    that is, hostility to the county of Humberside.

    The commissioners add that their report No. 563 remarked on
    "the intensity of feeling against the county, and took the view that there must come to a point at which longstanding and strongly held feelings of alienation towards an authority on the part of large numbers of its residents must in themselves call for a re-examination of the justification for its existence."
    However, in that interim report, the commissioners concluded—incorrectly, in my view—that that degree of alienation had not yet been reached in the case of Humberside. I think that it has been reached and passed. To everyone who knows the area well, it seems that alienation has grown into exasperation.

    The commissioners are not local people. No doubt that helps them to be impartial, but it lessens their insight into local public feelings. It is widely felt that they pay too much attention to local government officers, who are, of course, concerned with jobs for the boys.

    Would the hon. Gentleman be kind enough to tell the House how much of the county of Humberside he represents?

    I do not represent any of the county of Humberside; I represent a constituency in Lincolnshire. But if there is to be any change in the arrangements, I have to make remarks about Humberside, which I shall go on to justify, having undertaken considerable research in Humberside and having spoken to quite a large gathering in Grimsby within the past three weeks.

    I have been a Lincolnshire Member of Parliament for more than a quarter of a century. My constituency is contiguous with south Humberside. My home, where I have lived for more than 25 years, is not far from Grimsby. I am also a member of the court of Hull university on the north bank of the Humber. I can assure the commissioners from my personal experience that there is a strong and almost unanimous wish among those living north of the Humber to return to a county of East Yorkshire and an equally strong desire among the residents living south of the Humber to return to Lincolnshire.

    As one who represents a constituency wholly in south Humberside, I can assure my hon. Friend that he speaks for the overwhelming majority of my constituents.

    I am grateful to my hon. Friend. All the opinion polls confirm what he has just said. The local newspaper editors confirm it. Mr. Simon Jenkins, the editor of The Times, in an earlier article on Humberside, described it as

    "a Frankenstein of a county".
    Even the lord lieutenant of Humberside has suggested that a change in the name of the county might help to reconcile its residents to its continued administrative existence. That is faint praise indeed.

    Extraordinary as it may seem, the news of this strong body of hostile public opinion has actually reached the Department of the Environment. My right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for the Environment, now the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who usually prides himself on his contempt for public opinion, was moved to write to the commissioners noting
    "the degree of unhappiness at the concept of Humberside which evidently persists among many of its residents some 15 years after its creation".
    The then Secretary of State added that, on the basis of submissions received by his Department,
    "No other principal area established in 1974 has provoked such widespread and sustained opposition from its residents."
    Nor is that surprising. In no other part of England are county loyalties as strong as they are in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. It is the duty of Parliament to reflect these feelings and it is doing so.

    In the House of Lords on 13 June, their Lordships debated this issue. Of the nine Back-Bench peers who spoke in that debate, many of them with the closest personal and family ties with Humberside—some stretching back over centuries—only one was not in favour of the abolition of Humberside county. My noble Friend Lord Kimball, who initiated that debate described Humberside county as

    "an unloved bastard that no one has been prepared to adopt." —[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 June 1990; Vol. 520, c. 380.]
    Our debates in this House tend of course to be less robust than those in their Lordships' House. However, I am confident that every Lincolnshire Member and most Yorkshire Members would privately echo that lordly sentiment. Therefore, I hope that the commissioners will now conclude that public opinion on the matter has passed the point of no return.

    The commissioners' second criterion is whether it reflects the pattern of community life. Humberside county clearly does not. Very few people from south Humberside go to north Humberside and very few people from north Humberside go to south Humberside. All the statistics confirm that. I will refer to only one set of statistics, but they are symptomatic. More than 6,000 residents of Lincolnshire work in south Humberside, but only 180 residents north of the Humber work in Humberside to the south of the Humber. That speaks for itself.

    The Humber is a formidable barrier, physically, socially and one might almost say ethnically. It is one of the widest estuaries in the world. It is three miles across, and is not to be compared with the Tyne or the Tees. The Humber bridge, although in my judgment beautiful and certainly a magnificent feat of engineering, does not begin to unite the two sides of the Humber. It is some distance from Grimsby and Hull, and the toll to cross it is £3.

    The chairman of Humberside county council recently said that, if tolls were abolished, more people would use the Humber bridge. I dare say that is true. However, the Government have made it clear that the tolls will not be abolished. One of the association branch chairmen in my constituency—a very strong lady—has swum the Humber. Her sister has swum the English channel. They assure me that the Humber is the more daunting challenge. Their exceptional prowess does not reflect the pattern of community life.

    The boundary commission's third criterion is whether Humberside county is conducive to the effective operation of local government and associated services. Clearly it is not. The community charge is £100 per head higher in Humberside than in Lincolnshire. The county of Humberside has spent huge sums—its council leader said recently that the sum was £18 million—trying to popularise its existence, but to no avail, either with its own residents or with people elsewhere.

    For instance, I am told that North Sea Ferries positively avoids any mention of Humberside in the literature that it distributes about its business activities on the continent of Europe. Most non-governmental organisations conduct their affairs on both sides of the Humber as if the county of Humberside did not exist.

    Lincolnshire county council sent me a list of 76 organisations that operate in Lincolnshire, as if no boundary existed between Lincolnshire and Humberside and as if the barrier of the Humber was the de facto boundary. The list, eloquent in its comprehensiveness and length, includes the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist Church and the Jehovah's Witnesses. It ranges from the Amateur Swimming Association through the Lincolnshire Steam Engine Preservation Society to British Telecom, thus embracing every phase of travel and communication through which mankind has so far passed. For all of them, Humberside does not exist.

    The same is true north of the Humber. A local newspaper editor from there sent me an almost equally expressive list, ranging from the Hull and East Riding rugby union club to the Hull and East Yorkshire council for drug problems. These bodies, too, avoid using the dreaded word "Humberside" if they possibly can. Apart from the bureaucrats and a few Labour politicians, the great mass of residents north and south of the Humber do their best to conduct their lives and run their organisations as if the county of Humberside did not exist.

    In these circumstances it should be self-evident that the continued existence of the county of Humberside is not conducive to the effective operation of local government and associated services. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for coming to listen to this debate. I hope that he will ask the Secretary of State to request the Local Government Boundary Commission to give further study to option three of its interim report of last March, with a view to recommending the abolition of the county of Humberside, the revival of a county of East Yorkshire north of the Humber and the return of South Humberside to its natural, historical, geographical and social place as part of the county of Lincolnshire.

    11.30 pm

    I am delighted to support my hon. Friend the Member for East Lindsey (Sir P. Tapsell) in putting the case for one Lincolnshire. In a balanced scale of history, tradition and local sentiment far outweigh the convenience of leaving in place the recent bureaucratic structure that is Humberside —ugly in name and cumbersome by nature. Lindsey, Kesteven and Holland are proud parts of an ancient county. Who says, "I am a Humbersider?" I doubt whether even the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) does. His constituents say, "I am a Yorkshireman," and we, south of the Humber, are proud to say that we are yellow bellies.

    Public opinion is clear: the Humber is a divide between two different cultures. Why not allow people to do what most people want to do—return to their roots? Is not that the nature of Conservatism? For the interim report of the Local Government and Boundary Commissioners to argue that there is
    "nothing unusual in Humberside apart from the estuary"
    shows a staggering lack of appreciation of 1,000 years of social history.

    I need not rehearse now the obvious administrative advantages—in terms of police and educational provision —of ending the ludicrous invented boundary that runs like the Berlin wall in the minds of administrators between villages which, for 1,000 years, have been one. Thirty-one thousands cars a year pass between Lincolnshire and south Humberside, and only 13,000 cross the bridge, which shows that the links between Lincolnshire and south Humberside are infinitely greater than those between south and north Humberside.

    I ask the Minister to trust the people and to create a local government structure that is effective and convenient—and which can inspire loyalty. That course is favoured by no fewer than 60 per cent. of the population. After 15 years of propaganda, the leaders of Humberside county council have managed to persuade only a paltry 28 per cent. of the population to support what my predecessor as the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle called a bastard county.

    I urge my hon. Friend to trust the people abolish this bastard county and create one Lincolnshire again.

    11.32 pm

    Does the hon. Gentleman have the leave of the hon. Member for East Lindsey (Sir P. Tapsell) and of the Minister to speak?

    I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Lindsey (Sir P. Tapsell). Everything that he has said will be endorsed by the overwhelming majority of my constituents. He will be the toast of the people of Brigg and Cleethorpes tonight, and I sincerely hope that the Minister will ensure that the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for East Lindsey and for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) and of myself —on behalf of all the people of south Humberside—are drawn to the attention of the Local Government Boundary Commission.

    11.33 pm

    The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
    (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)

    I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Lindsey (Sir P. Tapsell) on securing this debate and on the forceful and cogent way in which he set out his views on local government boundaries in his part of England. I also carefully noted the interventions of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown), and of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), who left the House in no doubt about his strength of feeling on this issue.

    I will briefly describe the background to the boundary commission's deliberations, with particular reference to Humberside. The Local Government Act 1972 created a major innovation in local government. Before then, the review of boundaries proceeded by fits and starts. There were periods of intense activity interspersed with periods of stagnation. The 1972 Act provided a new system. There was general agreement that it should not be possible for the Government of the day to make changes as they saw fit. The new system ensured that changes could be made when desirable for
    "effective and convenient local government."
    As my hon. Friend the Member for East Lindsey said, that has three components.

    First, changes should reflect the wishes of the majority of the local residents. Secondly, they should allow for the provision of more efficient services at county or district level, or both. Thirdly, they should better reflect the pattern of community life. My hon. Friend set out his reasoning for a return to what he considers an earlier pattern of local government, taking what is now part of Humberside into the rest of Lincolnshire.

    Under the 1972 Act, the Local Government Boundary Commission for England was established. It is a small expert body of people that studies and reviews local government boundaries. The legislation provides for the commission to take the Government's views into account, and the Secretary of State is given power to give it guidance—and that has been done in a series of Department of the Environment circulars.

    The 1972 Act also provides for local people to be given every opportunity to make their input. The commission must publicise the fact that reviews are taking place, and must make public in draft form any proposals.

    Only after all that has been done does the commission formulate its final proposals—but the public then have yet another opportunity to have their say. When the Secretary of State receives a set of proposals, he cannot take an immediate decision but must wait for at least six weeks to allow anyone who wishes to have a further say. His decision must be based on the commission's report and recommendations, and on all the other representations that he receives.

    An important feature of the system is that the Secretary of State can only act within the framework of the commission's recommendations. He can accept its recommendations or he can reject them, or he can accept them with modifications—but the modifications must still leave the proposals in line with the commission's recommendations.

    The Secretary of State has no power to go off on his own and do something quite different from that which the commission recommended, or to act when the commission makes no recommendations.

    I turn to the situation in respect of Humberside. In 1986, the Secretary of State issued guidance for the current round of reviews, making it clear that the commission should be reluctant to recommend the abolition of a principal authority, such as a county council, unless the existing arrangements did not provide satisfactory local government services. Against that background, the commission reviewed Humberside and recommended no change, to the extent of abolishing the county council.

    Public comment was massive. More than 7,000 representations were received, and in the light of the degree of dissatisfaction so expressed, the former Secretary of State for the Environment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) decided that the commission should re-examine the Humberside question without all the constraints of the general guidance that it had previously been given.

    The commission is now engaged in that further review, and is taking a fresh look. It is free to consider the abolition of Humberside county council and the division of the county in whatever way seems appropriate. We now await the commission's report on the further review.

    I am sorry to interrupt the Minister —and I am bearing in mind the difficulties that you encountered earlier this week, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman will be aware, however, that, as this is an Adjournment debate, only one side of the case can be given. May I ask whether the Local Government Boundary Commission will be able to take into account the result of the local election, in which those who argued forcefully for what the hon. Member for East Linsey (Sir P. Tapsell) has recommended were trounced?

    The commission will take into account anything that it deems relevant. We are awaiting its final review, and we know that it is carrying out a very careful and thorough study of all aspects of the question, including the costs of any change.

    I appreciate that my hon. Friend may not be able to reply to the point made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), but—on behalf of my hon. Friends—I must do so. What the hon. Gentleman said was nonsense. The boundary was not an issue at that election, and he knows it. Every public opinion poll clearly shows that people living in south and, indeed, north Humberside want to return to their roots in Lincolnshire and east Yorkshire.

    I should make it clear that it is not for the Government to express a view at this stage. Parliament clearly intends that the Government should form a view on a boundary change only in the light of the expert recommendations of the Local Government Boundary Commission. We do not have them yet, and I shall not jump to conclusions.

    We had hoped that we would have the final report by now, but the commission has told me that its consideration is proving more difficult that it had anticipated, and that it will be some time yet before its report is available. We must therefore be patient. Until we have the report, there is nothing that the Government can do. Once we have it, we can only act to implement—with or without modifications—such recommendations as the commission chooses to make. If the commission concludes that the balance of advantage is against change, the Secretary of State has no power to make any such change.

    I shall certainly ensure that the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for East Lindsey, and his hon. Friends are conveyed to the commission for its consideration. I shall personally ensure that the commission receives a copy of the Official Report of the debate. Of course, their comments—strongly expressed —are in the direction of "option 3", if I may so characterise it. For the rest, I can only say that the Government are looking forward with interest to what the commission will say in the light of its second—and more fundamental—review of the future of Humberside county council, and the consequences for the future of the northern boundary of Lincolnshire.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Twelve midnight.