Cambridge bids to become a unitary council – 1913.


Contributions from the predecessors of Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner and South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen, during the Second Reading of a bill that sought to turn Cambridge and other towns including Luton, into ‘county boroughs’ – effectively unitary councils.

During the Second Reading of the Bill that would have made Cambridge into a unitary authority, an opposing MP tabled a ‘wrecking amendment’ – one that on paper delayed its passing for three months but in reality would have had the effect of zapping the bill, which ultimately fell anyway.

The contributions from MPs make for interesting reading given current calls for Cambridge to become a single council independent of Cambridgeshire County Council.

Local Government Provisional Orders (No 21) Bill

“I know that the hon. Members who represent these county boroughs will get up and say, “It is very hard on us that we, with our own burdens and our own desires and hopes, should be asked to carry the county council partly on our backs.” There may be some truth in that, though I do not think there is a great deal, but what I say is, that Parliament has set up this machinery of the county councils.” Cecil Beck (MP for Saffron Walden)

In a similar manner, Sir Randolf Baker agreed.

“There is, first of all, Cambridge. I have very little doubt that if we could get the Members of the House present to listen to the arguments, and to vote on the question of Cambridge alone, we could succeed in defeating the proposal. Cambridge is the strongest possible illustration of the effect of this policy. Cambridge is the centre of the county. Now that its population has reached 50,000, it is endeavouring to get itself formed into a county borough, leaving the rest of the county, composed, with very few exceptions, of small or medium-sized villages, to finance the administration of the roads, education, and the police throughout the county.

“The modern tendency is for young men educated at the expense of the county to migrate into the towns and earn their living there. As to roads, an enormous amount of the traffic on the main roads is to and from Cambridge. It is a growing practice for big tradesmen in the towns to have large motor delivery vans, which they send to the surrounding villages, and thus take the trade away from the small village tradesmen.

“These big tradesmen wish to live in a county borough, and to be exempt to a large extent from the rating for the main roads outside, of which they have the greatest benefit. That is a clear instance of how very unfair and hard this practice is. As regards the police, the county police, paid for out of the county rate, form a kind of reserve to be drafted into the centres of population whenever they are needed. The case of Luton is somewhat similar to that of Cambridge”

Note the administrative size of the county of Cambridgeshire in those days was far smaller than today. CambridgeCountyCouncilMap1894boundaries

Thus the then counties of the Isle of Ely, the Soke of Peterborough, and Huntingdonshire, were all outside.

Very few central government grants

It feel to local councils to deal with the costs of running essential public services – mainly through a local property tax – the rates. The ‘ratepayer’ was the senior male member of a household. It was those ratepayers that had the vote in local elections. You can see how this excluded most women and also a large percentage of men who did not own properties. The UK only got all male suffrage in 1918 (plus propertied women over 30 in the first votes for women), and equal suffrage for men and women in 1928.

As no money was on the table to compensate rural councils for the loss of revenue resulting from the creation of county boroughs, the incentive for MPs to oppose bills such as these were huge.

“What did the two local MPs say?”

The MP for Cambridge, Almeric Paget (Cons) who, in the grand scheme of things appears to have been a bit of a slacker given his very few speeches in his parliamentary career, The Conservatives were in opposition at the time, despite Paget defeating Stanley Buckmaster QC, the Liberal MP for Cambridge 1906-10, and holding the seat at the second general election of 1910. This is what Paget said:

“I should like to say a few words against the Amendment which has been presented. I wondered why the hon. Member for Saffron Walden came forward in this matter until I realised that the hon. Member at one time sat for the Wisbech Division of Cambridgeshire, and, therefore, he might be considered. to have some strong feeling on this matter. I have listened with great interest to a few of the arguments which have been presented in favour of this Amendment. I was very glad indeed to hear from the hon. Member who has just sat down that, at any rate, Cambridge, he thought, had really a clear case. I am going to confine my remarks to the borough of Cambridge.

“That borough is fully entitled to the carrying out of the Provisional Order Bill that it has asked for, from whatever point of view the question is considered; from the point of view of history, population. rateable value, and of the distinction of the place.

“I may remind the House that the first charter of Cambridge goes as far back as 1120; that ever since the thirteenth century Cambridge has been a centre of learning; was indeed one of the mediaeval centres of learning in Europe. The permanent population at the present time is somewhere about 58,000. This is larger than that of sixteen of the seventy-five county boroughs.

“In term time the population rises as high as 61,000, which is greater than that of nineteen of the county boroughs. The rateable value of Cambridge is £380,000, which is larger than that of twenty-two of the existing county boroughs. I think you may count upon the fingers of your hand the great towns of this country where the rates are any lower.

“I should say that all the conditions laid down by the Local Government Act of 1888 in relation to this matter have been carried out. The county council has been at the two inquiries most ably represented. Therefore I think Cambridge is fully entitled to what it asks for by the Bill.

​”Two inquiries have been held. The first was an inquiry into the extension of the borough boundary. This was confirmed. The second inquiry had relation to this Local Government Bill. Every argument. possible on behalf of the county council was ably brought forward, and every consideration was given at both of the inquiries to the arguments used.

“The chief objections have been directed against the Local Government Act itself, and not against the borough or its Bill. There have been no suggestions from anyone of any maladministration by the borough, and it does seem very hard indeed that at this late date, after all the trouble and expense which the borough has been put to, that the borough should lose its case.

“One of the arguments brought forward by Sir George Fordham, the able chairman of the Cambridgeshire county council, was that conditions are very much changed; that though in 1888, 50,000 was a large population, now it is no longer so considered. The Prime Minister himself, at one of these recent inquiries, said he remembered very well that when the Act was being first considered in the House, the minimum population was put. at 150,000. Shortly afterwards by agreement it was reduced to 100,000, and before the Bill became an Act, the figure had been reduced to what it now stands at—that is, 50,000.

“There has never been a single refusal to any of the other county boroughs outside the Metropolitan area. I might cite one instance, that of Oxford, where the population is 53,000, which has been given the status of a county borough. Another objection is that by this measure you take out of the county one half of the population and one half of the rateable value, and that the county, minus the borough, would not have anything left but a fringe of villages, with no class of people in them to administer the county satisfactorily.

One other argument advanced against our proposition was that there is no great distinctive industry in Cambridge. In, reply to that I might very respectfully suggest to this House that we manufacture brains, which are, perhaps, of equal value to the country as the manufacture of cotton, steel, or anything else. If the arguments of our opponents be well founded, then the greater the population and rateable value of the borough, the less it will be entitled to be made into a county borough.

“Another argument as to administration has been put forward. I would only suggest that there have been four or ​ five different places. I will mention a few. Ely, Hunts, Soke of Peterborough, and Rutland, where the administration has been very successfully carried out, and where the population and the rateable value are considerably smaller.

“Of course, as hon. Members know very well, there are a good many borough grievances, but they seem chiefly to be on account of county road administration. I would point out that there are only fifteen miles out of sixty miles, or 25 per cent., of main roads in the borough itself, whereas in the county there are 257 miles out of 744 miles of main roads, or 33 per cent. A borough in that position is very much starved on account of the lack of sufficient grants from the county council for its own roads.

“Cambridge is an ancient city, with narrow and tortuous streets, and not enough money in the borough has been found for making the improvements desirable. Then there are a lot of the old bridges not up to modern requirements for the burdens they have to bear, and again there is not a sufficient amount of money forthcoming with which to make the desired alteration. The borough considers that a great deal of money has been spent unwisely on district county roads, and that these roads have not come properly within the Highways Act of 1878.

“There has been considerable friction in one particular case where the borough has claimed against the county in which they asked for a considerable amount of money, and for which the county council offered £800 less than the amount asked for, and they had to go before an inspector, and the inspector gave them another £400. Then Alderman Howard, tile chairman of the Road Committee of the county council, admitted that the preservation of the roads had been more or less a failure; that the cost had increased as much as 44 per cent., whereas at the time the position of the district councils undertaking these roads had reduced the cost to as much as 8 per cent.

“We naturally say that if Sir George Fordham, who has most ably represented the county council all the way through, has got such an unanswerable case, we cannot see how it is he is so very anxious that this Bill shall not pass its Second Reading and be referred to a Committee upstairs.

“The strongest argument I know of in connection with Cambridge is put forward in the statement on behalf of the corporation when they state that the proposed change is desirable in the interests of good local government, that it ​ will do away with dual control, much overlapping, and divided responsibility and discord between two classes of representative bodies.

“I do not propose to go into greater detail. I only say these few words on behalf of the borough of Cambridge, as I have reason to suppose there will be others who will speak in connection with Luton and Wakefield. I protest against this Amendment, and I hope, before the discussion is ended, it will be withdrawn and that the Bill will be given a Second Reading, so that any financial adjustments necessary may be fully considered by a Select Committee upstairs.”

Following Mr Paget’s speech, the MP for Cambridge County, the Liberal MP Edwin Montague – who was also the number 2 minister at the India Office, made the following contribution:


“I need hardly explain that I do not rise to take part in this discussion in any sense on behalf of the Government, for of course I gladly acknowledge that this has nothing to do or has only a very remote connection with the great Empire of India which I have the honour to represent. I am enabled to speak to-night owing, if I may say so with due respect, to the generous way in which the President of the Local Government Board has met those who differ from him on this particular question.

“Young men who have had the’ advantage of his invariable and generous assistance and kindness, both educationally, politically and socially, have learned to respect him. I take part in this Debate because the Bill under discussion concerns, and concerns directly, the county which I have the honour to represent, and of which I and the hon. Member for Newmarket, who has just spoken, are the only representatives in this House.

“The hon. Member for Newmarket is a newcomer to this House, and I would instance the unanimity of opinion which exists in the county of Cambridge in regard to this Bill by the fact that although no one worked harder than I did to prevent the hon. Member’s return to Parliament, although no one is more sorry than I am that he is here instead of another, yet at the same time I gladly welcome the fact that he and I are in common accord in this matter that affects the interests of our respective constituents.

“I do not forget that I also have the honour to represent nearly 1,000 voters in the borough of Cambridge, but I am bound to say that when there comes a conflict of interests between those who live in the county, I unhesitatingly intend to voice the opinions of my Constituents on the subject.

“I suggest that there has never been: before the House since the passage of the  Local Government Act of 1888 a case of this particular kind. I should like, if the House will bear with me, to read a few figures, for by these figures I can represent the pith of our case.

“The area of the county of Cambridge is only 315,168 acres, the population is 128,322 persons—I am quoting from the Census of 1911—and the assessable value of the county rate is £717,383. That is the area and population with which we are dealing. Now I would invite the House to consider from these figures the result of the proposal now before us. It is proposed to withdraw from this area of 315,168 acres an area of only 5,457 acres, but it is proposed to withdraw from this population of 128,322 persons a population of not less than 55,812 persons. It is proposed to withdraw from this assessable value of £717,383 an assessable value of no less than £352,444, so that I am right in saying that whatever you may think of the merits of this particular Bill, in the case of Cambridge, you are taking nearly half the population of the county and more than half the rateable value. I do not think it can be done. [Note – remember that Mr Montague is talking about the much smaller ‘Cambridge County’ as was in 1913, not the Cambridgeshire County of today]

“The county which I have the honour to represent has shown remarkable and acknowledged efficiency in carrying out the administrative burdens laid upon it from time to time by this House. Further, its administration of secondary education, of small holdings, and of the Insurance Act has been conspicuous by its excellence.I would seriously represent to the House that by crippling the county in this way you are presenting serious obstacles in dealing with such matters as secondary education, the new scheme of agricultural education, the sanatorium treatment of tuberculosis under the Insurance Act, and all the other matters which this House of Parliament s so constantly asking the counties to do, and trusting the counties will find energy and money 10 carry out.

“The fact is we had in Cambridgeshire a very small and compact county. The hon. Member who so ably seconded the Motion for the rejection of this Bill talked about Newmarket. Newmarket is in Suffolk, and the only urban area in the county of Cambridge is the borough of Cambridge with which we are now dealing, a borough centrally situated, a county town, the seat of the Government of the county from which radiate all the railways and all the main roads which connect all the parts of the area known by the name of the county of Cambridge.

“Cambridge is the heart of  the county, and if you take out that town you are left with a ring of small villages surrounding the town. I think I am right in saying that there is not a single village in Cambridge, or a collection of human beings outside the borough of Cambridge, which has a population of 5,000 inhabitants.9.00 P. M.I submit that the association of the town with the surrounding rural districts which make up the administrative county is naturally complete and for the common benefit. The county town is the commercial centre of an important agricultural district, and this district has been famous during a long historic period and is still famous for its agriculture.

“In this town the rural population finds a market for its corn and cattle and banking facilities, and all the trade of the town of Cambridge, with the exception of the trade brought by the universities, comes from the county of Cambridge. It is to that county that the townspeople owe their trade, their profit, the growth of their population, and to the town is entirely due the prosperity of the agricultural community by which it is surrounded.

“The trade of the borough is carried on through the county along these county roads which radiate from the town, and the heavy motor traffic which has Care-bridge for its destination proceeds along the county roads. I am quoting for a different purpose the figures which the hon. Member for Cambridge quoted.

“If this Bill is carried, of 272 miles of main roads now maintained by the whole area for its common benefit, 257½ miles would remain in the new administrative county to be chargeable upon that area with nearly half the population and more than half the rateable value. The hon. Member opposite has suggested financial compensation, but no financial compensation could possibly make up for the loss which is sustained by cutting out the heart of the county, removing the hub from the wheel on which it has revolved so long, and leaving the hub spinning by itself and the rim to roll away as best it may. That would, in my opinion, and in the opinion of my Constituents, be an outrage against the principles of local government.

“Cambridge—and I say it with no disrespect to the borough in which I happen to live—lives on the one hand as a commercial centre upon the university population, and on the other hand upon the surrounding agricultural industry. I do claim support, support, and the unanimous support, irrespective of party, of one of those factors in the prosperity of the town of Cambridge, namely, the agricultural community.

“The university of which I am also proud has declared, so far as I can understand, that its official attitude on this question is neutral. I am, therefore, bound to form my own opinion of the effects of this proposal on the university. Financially it seems to me clear that my university will be a loser, but I presume if this Bill becomes law some sort of financial compensation inadequate though it must be, will have to be offered.

“This proposal will impose a burden upon the rates of the borough of Cambridge for fourteen or fifteen years, and that will put a burden upon the University of Cambridge, although only a temporary one. More than that, the colleges and the University of Cambridge own 30,000 acres of land in the county with rent charges, tithes, and other increments from real property, and all this will be charged permanently with the increased county rates which will result from the alteration made by this Bill, so that the university stands to lose substantially, and, in part, permanently, and I know too well that its financial resources are not so large and adequate to its great and growing duties that it can afford to stand any further financial burden. Honestly, I cannot for the life of me see the advantages of the proposal.

“Cambridge borough, if it had a financial grievance, can secure redress of that financial burden far better than Cambridge county can. The university is to suffer, the county is to lose nearly half its population and more than half of its assessable value. This proposal is not based upon any geographical consideration at all, because the county of Cambridge will then consist of a large, thinly-populated country district in which the largest village has a population of 4,082 souls, the next largest only a population of 2,393, and very few other villages with a population of over 1,000; and so I suggest, in all seriousness, to all those who, whether they represent boroughs or towns, are interested in the development and prosperity of rural England, that neither the geographical character or the quantity or quality of the population of the area which would result from the passage of this Bill gives any ground for hope that this area will be an efficient unit of local government.

“As we go on year after year, the legislation of this Chamber results in putting greater and greater administrative burdens upon the men who  live in our country districts. We pass this legislation partly for considerations of public health and social benefits, and partly because we desire to pursue the policy of decentralisation. We have no right to do this unless we are careful too avoid injuring the machinery of local government and so hampering it as to make it incompetent to do its duty.

“I am not so sure, having regard to the enormous responsibilities, both financial and personal, which the districts of this country have to-day, that you will not eventually find it necessary to amalgamate areas rather than to sub-divide them. Therefore I really and seriously think that this proposal is to be accurately described as a retrograde proposal, and I would urge the House not to set high-spirited public men and willing taxpayers and ratepayers an impossible task by means of the passage of a Bill which, while it will affect, I am convinced, serious local interests, will also set the worse kind of example for future local government. legislation.”

The quotations/transcripts in italics are all taken from the recently digitised versions of Hansard – in this case starting with Cecil Beck’s speech here.


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