HC Deb 13 February 1850 vol 108 cc746-55

moved for leave to bring in a Bill to amend the laws relative to the management of highways in England and Wales. During the recess a Bill had been prepared having regard to the considerations which had arisen during the discussion on the Bill of the preceding Session, of which he would state the principle to the House. The difficulty of combining turnpike roads and highway roads had been so great in the latter Bill, that the Government had resolved not to attempt it. The present Bill was therefore limited to parish roads and highways, and did not refer to turnpike trusts. The details into which he would enter sufficiently showed the importance of the question, and the magnitude of the sums involved. In 1837 the total expenditure on highways in England and Wales, amounted to 1,113,434l. In 1845, the last year for which there were any accounts, it was 1,717,334l.; so that an increase of expenditure of 603,900l. had taken place in eight years. On the other hand, a diminution of 408,711l. had occurred in the same period in the expenditure on turnpike trusts in England and Wales; the amount for 1837 being 1,780,859l.; and in 1845, 1,372,148l. The cause of the change had been, to a great extent, the introduction of railways, which had altered the internal communications of the country, and had taken the traffic off many turnpike roads, while some parish carriage ways had become of primary importance. The expense of maintaining these roads fell with considerable weight, not only upon parishes in which the population were principally agricultural, but upon those parishes also where manufactures were largely carried on, and which were thickly populated. For the purpose of showing the House the way in which the present system worked, he would just call their attention to the expenditure for highways during the year 1845 in ten counties of England. In Middlesex it was 286,921l.; in Yorkshire, including all the ridings, 187,649l.; in Lancashire, 163,451l.; in Lincolnshire, 97,316l.; in Kent, 71,019l.; in Surrey, 65,189l.; in Devonshire, 42,198l.; in Gloucestershire, 41,057l.; in Warwickshire, 39,728l.; and in Somersetshire, 39,265l. To all who examined this subject, it must be obvious that the evils and inconveniences of the system were much aggravated by the small size of the districts upon which those rates were levied. In many cases the highways were maintained not by the parishes, but by the townships; and sometimes even the townships were divided. The result was, that no fewer than 15,841 distinct places paid separate highway rates; that they had each their individual surveyors appointed by the vestry; that those surveyors possessed no professional knowledge whatever respecting roads; that they were not in the habit of receiving any species of remuneration for their services; and that their accounts were, for the most part, very imperfectly audited. The general consequences of the present system, then, were, the want of economy, the want of skill, and the want of due discrimination in expenditure. In support of these observations, and especially in favour of small districts, he might read to them various authorities, but he should content himself with calling their attention to a note on the last Highway Act, an edition of which had been published by a barrister of some eminence. It was the opinion of that gentleman—and not of him alone, but of a very large portion of the public—that the parish roads were, for the most part, very imperfectly maintained; that placing the highways under the authorities of the vestries was a mode of proceeding repugnant to all sound principles of management; and that that species of road could never be placed upon a satisfactory footing till the mode of its management could be totally changed. Such he believed to be the opinion of the most intelligent portion of the community, founded upon the principles which had been recognised for some years. It could not fail to be in the recollection of the House, that in the 5th and 6th of William IV. clauses had been introduced to enable the justices at sessions to form combinations of parishes, each combination to be placed under a common surveyor; but those clauses remained a dead letter, and no advantage accrued to the country from their enactment. Looking, then, at the experience which the way in which those clauses were received had furnished, he should say, that if any impulse were to be given to the formation of larger districts and paid surveyors, it could only be accomplished by making the provisions of the Bill compulsory; and upon that principle he had drawn up the measure which he now proposed to introduce. In thus merely moving for leave to bring in a Bill, he had no wish to enter into unnecessary details. One mode of carrying out the principle upon which the measure had been founded was, that at petty sessions the districts of the county might be settled, supposing they adopted the plan of the Bill brought that day under their notice by the hon. Member for East Sussex. If they abolished the parish surveyors, and took away from the vestry the power of appointing them, they would deprive the ratepayers of a privilege which, perhaps, they did not very much value; still it had long been conceded to the vestry, it could be exercised by that body, and it would be hardly consistent with the principles generally received on such subjects to deprive the ratepayers of such a privilege, for the purpose of vesting it in the magistrates; he should, therefore, not like to propose anything against such a principle of representation. No doubt the power might be entrusted partly to the magistrates and partly to the ratepayers; but that, after all, would be only creating a duplicate board of guardians. Now, it appeared to him that it would be much better simply to take, as he proposed to do by the present measure, the existing divisions of the poor-law unions, and the boards of guardians as they stood, and give them the powers that had been previously exercised by the vestries. To adopt this course would prevent any necessity for creating fresh territorial divisions or the creation of any new elective body, and the boards of guardians might be authorised to choose paid surveyors, at the same time that each parish might be bound to maintain its own highways, and defray the expense of them. The only additional charge to be incurred would be the salary of the surveyor, and compensation to the union officers employed, for the trouble that they might incur. He further proposed to abolish the parish surveyors altogether, to abolish the highway rate as such, or under that name; and, as the districts which he proposed to create would be nearly coincident with the poor-law districts, the highway rate, and the poor's-rate, might be made to constitute one collection—both might be collected and paid by the overseers. In making this alteration, there would be no change effected in the incidence of the highway rate as a charge upon real property. By the Bill, as he proposed to frame it, there would be power given to combine parishes in certain cases for the purpose of enabling them at their joint expense to maintain the whole or a part of their own highways. There was a maximum rate now fixed by law for highways, and he proposed to continue that maximum—nearly the whole of the present system would remain in force except in the cases which he had specifically stated, the rate, as a charge incident to property, remaining the same as before. It had just been suggested by an hon. Friend near him, that he had not yet said anything respecting his proposed audit: upon that point it was only necessary for him to say, that as the accounts would be kept at the workhouse, and the meetings held there, that would be the fitting place for the audit, and to the poor-law auditors he proposed to entrust that duty. By them it could be made with little additional trouble or expense. The Bill which he now intended to introduce would also contain a clause for the purpose of repealing a statute well known by the name of Sir Charles Burrell's Act, by which measure provision was made for contributions from parishes on account of insolvent turnpike trusts; and in repealing that Act, he proposed to provide that the expenditure, according to its provisions, should be carried on, not by the officers of the turnpike trusts, but by the district surveyors. There was one other observation which he had omitted till now to make—namely, that the management of highways was not like the relief of the poor. It was not necessary, for the purpose of managing the highways, that constant attendance should be given. It was not necessary that there should be weekly, or even fortnightly, meetings; perhaps once a month would be found quite enough to enable a standing committee, appointed out of the whole body of the guardians, to do all that could be required for the efficient care and control of the highways. Of course, the boards of guardians, in electing such committees—which they might do annually—would select those who were in the habit of giving most attention to such subjects, and who were practically best acquainted with roads.


observed, that many of the poor-law unions contained one or two parishes which were out of the county in which the greater part of the union might be situate, and for such cases it would be necessary to make provision. With regard to the most important feature of the Bill, he must say he did not consider that the poor-law guardians would be the fittest persons to undertake the control and management of the highways; and he thought this plan the more objectionable inasmuch as the parishes which contained the greatest number of roads did not always return to their respective boards of guardians the greatest number of representatives; besides that, the guardians of the poor had quite enough to do in attending to their own proper functions.


considered that on several accounts the proposed measure would improve the state of the law. He approved of the Bill upon two grounds; one was that its provisions were compulsory, the other that it would do away with parish surveyors. He was sure that the Bill of his hon. Friend would be found simple and effective; but before he sat down he wished to inquire to what extent it was proposed to invest the guardians with the control and management of the highways.


said, that every day he became more and more confirmed in the opinion that they could not find a worse management for highways than a board of guardians; and he was sure that it must lead to the employment on the roads of ablebodied paupers in excessive numbers. The surveyors would never be able to resist the pressure that would be made on them to employ the poor of the districts. The only part of the proposed measure of which he cordially approved was the repeal of Sir Charles Burrell's Act.


reserved to himself the full power, at any future stage, of objecting to the details of this Bill; but he thanked the hon. Member opposite for having introduced such a measure to improve a system that was in many respects faulty. Although he was not certain that placing the control of the highways in the hands of the poor-law guardians would be the best possible course, yet he thought that plan must open the door to an improvement on the present system; for he could not but believe that a paid surveyor of a district would be more able to resist solicitations to employ the poor of parishes unprofitably, than the unpaid surveyor was now able to do. Under the present system, there was an extravagant expenditure of money, attended with great demoralisation of the people employed on the roads.


approved of the proposed audit, and offered to the hon. Member who moved for leave to bring in the Bill the meed of his gratitude for persevering in so useful a work. He considered it a great improvement that each parish should pay its own quota, and he considered it also absolutely necessary that some such measure should pass into a law, inasmuch as the great lines of railway ran nearly at right angles to our principal roads. Likewise he approved of the Bill because he thought it would effect a greater uniformity in the repair of roads; for if it passed into a law, no obstinate parish could resist a general desire for improvement.


understood that the charge for the highways would still fall on real property, and that, too, according to a wider area than the poor-rates. He apprehended that the Bill would add to the burdens on lands, instead of reducing them.


approved of the compulsory plan. The permissive system was worth nothing. Though some of the details of the measure might be open to objection, he thought that, under it, the country would have better roads than heretofore.


said, he had discharged a painful duty when, in the course of last Session, he opposed the measure of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Herefordshire, though he gave that Gentleman full credit for the excellent motives which induced him to bring forward the former proposition. He had now much pleasure in giving his cordial support to his present proposition, so far as the introduction of the Bill went. The hon. Gentleman was entitled to much credit for devoting his time and attention to a subject not in itself very inviting. It appeared to him that the proposed Bill had been framed judiciously with reference to the compulsory combination of parishes, in lieu of the permissive principle. There might, no doubt, in some quarters, be a great unwillingness to change a long existing practice, and in others to part with present patronage. In what mode the combination of parishes should be effected, was a most important question. The hon. Member proposed to make the existing districts subject to the management of poor-law guardians. It would be premature to give a positive opinion on this subject, but it was one of the greatest importance, and it would be well worthy the consideration of the House whether district bodies could not be established for the management of the highways better suited to the discharge of the duties required from them than the present boards of poor-law guardians. These latter bodies had been established without any reference to their fitness for deciding upon the various considerations which were involved in the great change made by the railways in the lines of communication throughout the country. The true principle on which the maintenance of the highways ought to be conducted, was to do the business in the most perfect manner at the least expense, discarding every other consideration. To intrust the management of parish highways to any authority that would be likely to employ the destitute poor upon the highways, because there was a certain amount of unemployed labourers in a union, would be objectionable in principle. Now would there not be an involuntary leaning on the part of boards of guardians to employ upon the highways the unemployed labourers of their respective parishes? He should have much more confidence in a board elected by ratepayers specially appointed to manage the highways, than in the administration by the poor-law guardians. Whether it was politic in other respects to transfer duties of this kind to poor-law guardians, was another important question. He doubted whether they would not act with more authority and weight, in the discharge of their proper duties, if they confined themselves to the administration of the poor-law, than if they had other business to discharge such as the management of highways. If the House should think there was any force in these considerations, it would not be impossible, he thought, to divide the country into districts convenient for the classification and management of the highways, having duo reference to the great changes made by the railways, permitting the ratepayers to have a voice in the election of a board distinct from the board of guardians, whose single province should be-to maintain the highways in the best state at the least expense, excluding every other consideration. Approving, then, of this Bill so far as it compelled a combination of parishes, and tended to a more economical administration, by enabling districts to make contracts on a larger scale and to secure more able surveyors, and reserving his opinion as to the constitution of the authority that should manage these highways, he would give his cordial support to the Bill. He did not think the mere audit of accounts, as suggested by the hon. Gentleman who preceded him (Mr. Slaney), would be any check on the employment of unnecessary labour by a board of guardians. The duty of the auditors would be to see that a certain number of labourers had really been employed, and that they had been paid no more than reasonable wages. Whether or not employment had been given on the roads to destitute labourers for the purpose of diminishing the pressure on the poor-rate, the auditors could not determine. There might be a perfect audit upon the points he had mentioned, without a corrective of the tendency to make road-labour a source of relief for the unemployed.


had no doubt that the plan suggested by the right hon. Baronet was the best, if it were only practicable to carry it out. There were many objections to the boards of guardians, who might interfere injuriously with the supply of labour. He had more faith in a paid surveyor, as proposed to be appointed by this Bill. That officer would be likely to employ useful labour, and no other. He hoped it would not go forth to the country that a paid surveyor would entail additional expense on the districts. Such an impression was quite erroneous, as the present surveyors, though nominally unpaid, were not unpaid in reality. They received frequent votes of money from the parish vestries, and were also paid by jobs they had to perform in repairing the roads. As to the combination of the two rates, there was this objection to that plan—that we would not know how much was spent under the name of poor-rate, and how much under that of highway rate; and as long as the farmers could throw the burden of the poor on the highway rate, they would be always ready to do so. That was an argument in favour of the right hon. Baronet's suggestion; but if the right hon. Baronet had had the experience which others had acquired on this subject, in Committee upstairs, he would then have been aware of the extreme difficulty of discovering a proper remedy for these evils. He hoped that it would be shown that this measure would throw no additional burdens on land, because he was sure it would not be suffered to pass, if that would be its effect.


hoped that sufficient time would be given to the country to consider the details of so important a Bill. He thought the measure now proposed was preferable to the Bill of last Session; but he was satisfied that no addition of the nature now proposed, ought to be made to the duties of poor-law guardians. They would form committees of their body upon whom would practically devolve the management of these trusts, and he thought it better on many accounts to put the management of the highways under some other control.


wished to say a few words in reference to some remarks that had been made in course of the discussion. The Bill intended to enable the guardians to elect the paid surveyor, and fix his salary; and they would also be empowered to remove him, if his conduct called for his dismissal. That, he apprehended, would amount to a moral as well as a legal control over that officer; but if any additional words could be inserted to strengthen the intention of the clause, he would be quite ready to adopt the suggestion. To come to another point—he had already stated that he proposed to entirely abolish the highway rates by name, and require the overseers of the poor to make a rate for the purposes of the highways, and pay the money over to the board of guardians; but he did not propose any change in the incidence of the rate. Clauses were introduced into the Bill by which the rate would be made to fall on property exactly identical with that which was now subject to highway rate. He admitted the justness of the strictures of the right hon. Baronet opposite, the Member for Tamworth, on the union boundaries, and on the poor-law guardians as managers of highways; but he felt that this was a case where they had only a choice of difficulties; for whatever course they could recommend, valid objections would be urged against it. He fully admitted that if they had now for the first time to make a separate provision for the highways, it would not be advisable to adopt the poor-law area for the purpose; but, on the whole, after much consideration, he had come to the conclusion that the plan he now proposed was the one least open to objection. In reply to the hon. Member for Dover, who had inquired what control the guardians would have over the paid surveyor, he (Mr. Lewis) stated that they would elect him, they would have the power to fix his salary, and to remove him. With respect to the highway rate, he proposed entirely to abolish it under that name, and to require overseers of the poor to make a rate for the purpose of maintaining the highways, which rate it would be their duty to hand over to the boards of guardians; but he did not propose to make any change in the incidence of the rate, which would fall upon property just in the same manner as at present. He begged to thank the House for the manner in which the Bill had been received. He was glad to see so general a recognition of the importance of the subject of highways, of the improper manner in which highway rates were frequently spent, and of the importance of making it compulsory upon districts to unite for the management of their highways. He was aware of the difficulty of selecting a body to whom should be intrusted the management of highways. The last Bill he had proposed contemplated a separate elective board for the management of turnpikes and highways. But when the House resolved that the turnpikes should form the subject of distinct management, it was not thought worth while to have a separate elective body for the management of highways. If the question of territorial division were res Integra, he would admit that it would not be desirable to take the boundaries of the present poor-law unions; but the subject presented a choice of difficulties. Valid objections might be urged to whatever course might be proposed, but the plan he had adopted was open to the least objections in amount and gravity. He would, in the interval before the second reading of the Bill, see whether it would be possible to substitute any other local body in preference to the boards of guardians.

Leave given.

Bill ordered to be brought by Mr. Cornewall Lewis and Sir George Grey.

The House adjourned at half-after Five o'clock.