HC Deb 06 February 1821 vol 4 cc422-5
Mr. Fremantle

rose for the purpose of moving, that a select committee be appointed to consider the state of the supply of water to the metropolis. In 1810, the circumstances arose which had rendered it necessary to bring this subject before the notice of parliament. Up to that period, the metropolis had been supplied with water by three or four trading companies—the New River, the Chelsea, the Thames, and one or two minor companies. At that time it was stated to the House, that this was a monopoly, and, in consequence it was broken down. It was likewise held, that new companies would be able to afford the same supply of water at a less rate than the old ones, which were at that time stated to be insolvent, and consequently unable to diminish the rate at which they supplied water, which was at an average of 27 shillings for each house. The result of these statements was, that a company, calling itself the West Middlesex company, was incorporated to supply, not the metropolis, but the vicinity of the metropolis with water. Not finding the lucrative results which they expected, they came a short time afterwards to the House for an amended bill; to enable them to extend their supply to a part of the metropolis, and obtained it. In 1811, the Grand Junction company was incorporated for a similar purpose; and as the House was impressed with a conviction, that the competition of these companies would produce results beneficial to the public, they did not take even the usual precautions in incorporating them. It fixed no rate as a maximum beyond which they were not to go; all that was said in their charters was, that they should fix a reasonable rate; but they were left to judge of the reasonableness of that rate themselves. No sooner were these charters procured, than the streets were broken up by the different companies for the purpose of laying pipes; and every House was besieged for the purpose of obtaining custom. In the course of three or four years the expense of the contest convinced the parties engaged in it, that if they continued it much longer they must all be ruined; and the consequence of this conviction was, that they came to a compromise, by which they divided the metropolis into separate districts, and agreed not to interfere with the districts of each other upon pain of heavy forfeitures. Having thus established a monopoly, grievous beyond all former precedent, each company removed the pipes which it had laid in the district of the other, and demanded in its own a very considerable increase of rate, under the pretence that its expenses had considerably exceeded the original computation. After shewing, that there was no truth in their pretence, the hot), member proceeded to inform the House, that the companies came again to parliament with an amended bill, asking for authority to raise their then rate full 25 per cent. That bill passed the House of Commons, but was rejected in the other House, in consequence of the evidence which was offered upon oath at its bar. One company endeavoured, by the authority of parliament, to procure an increase of 25 per cent in addition to the existing rate; but another chose to calculate on an average of the rates themselves, and by that means imposed a most arbitrary tax on individuals. Under this latter system some persons experienced no increase of the rate, while on others it was raised from 25 to 100, 150, and even 200 per cent. He wished the water companies to be fairly remunerated, and he was anxious, that there should be a plentiful supply of water in the metropolis; but, he held, that it was not right to suffer an arbitrary tax to be imposed on the public. The subject demanded consideration, and he would therefore move, "That a committee be appointed to inquire into the past and present state of the Supply of Water to the Metropolis, and the Laws relating thereto."

Mr. H. Sumner

said, that he would afford every assistance in his power in furtherance of the object of the motion.

Mr. M. A. Taylor

said, that with great deference to his hon. friend, he could not agree in all the statements he had made. Another opportunity would occur, when he should state the real facts of the supply of water, and the House could then judge whether the steps which he (Mr. T.) had taken on that subject were those which, if they had been sanctioned by the other House of Parliament, would or would not have given to the public every advantage which could have been desired. The plain question was, whether, by the institution of any other companies, beyond those which now existed, a sufficient supply of water would be afforded for the use of their families, and to give a proper degree of security in case of fire. The truth was, that when parliament sanctioned the new companies, the original companies were deserted by those who had previously taken water from them. The old companies found, that they could not procure the rate originally affixed; they lowered the rate, and the new companies were obliged to do the same. The consequence was, that unless some arrangement took place, the new companies could not support themselves; and the New River company, and the other original companies, could not carry on the supply. Under these circumstances, he felt, that if he could not do something for the companies, the town might be left without any water at all. It was a fact, that a hundred pound share in one of those companies did not produce 3½ per cent, and those who purchased 100l. shares at the depreciated rate of 40l. did not gain more than 2½ per cent. He had therefore thought, that something should be done to enable those companies to carry on their works; and the plan he proposed was the fixing a maximum rate, beyond which they should not go. After a minute investigation, he felt, that the only way to remedy the evil was, to propose a maximum to this House. He had therefore proposed, that the companies should not be allowed to charge more than 25 per cent above the rate of 1810. The hon. gentleman then adverted to the failure of different plans that had been set on foot, and observed, that, since his bill had been thrown out of the other House, a water fever had raged throughout the metropolis, which it was almost impossible to allay. He would willingly go into the committee, which, he thought, would agree in the utility of the plan he bad proposed.

Mr. Alderman Brydges

spoke in behalf of the Water Companies, shewed that some of them had made little or no profit, and wished the Committee to be an open one.

Mr. Wilmot

thought it would be for those who went into the committee, merely to enquire into the means of doing justice between the parties. For himself, he did not see the advantages which an open committee would have over a select one.

The motion was then agreed to, and a Committee appointed.