HC Deb 06 February 1852 vol 119 cc215-20

said, he was desirous at that early period of the Session to obtain leave to bring in a Bill respecting the supply of water to the metropolis; and he would take that opportunity of stating to the House the views he entertained upon the subject. He considered the House to be already in possession of sufficient information by means of Committees and Commissions, which had inquired into the sub- ject during the last two years, to enable it to make up its mind upon the general principles of the measure which he proposed to introduce. He imagined that the results which the House would be desirous to attain were to supply the inhabitants of the metropolis with water of a good quality, in a sufficient quantity, and at a reasonable price. These appeared to him to be the three general principles that were required to be enforced. With regard to the quality of the water and the mode of distribution, a great deal of evidence had already been obtained. There was, first, the Report of the Board of Health, then the inquiry by the Gentlemen appointed by the Government to ascertain the quality of the water; and, lastly, there was the very laborious inquiry by a Committee of that House, and a large mass of reported evidence on the subject. There was one branch of the question, however, on which he did not think sufficient information had yet been obtained—he meant as to the rate of charge and the mode of assessment. He did not find in the evidence before the House, anything to guide them as to what would be a fair rate of charge, or the best mode of assessment. But the first question to deal with was as to the sources of supply. He thought it quite right, as far as that House was concerned, to say what were the sources from which water ought not to be supplied; and it was his opinion that sufficient evidence was already before them to enable them at once to say that the river Thames within the tidal influence was a source of supply which ought to be prohibited. There were some of the water companies that had already abandoned that source; but there were other companies that would be affected by such a prohibition, namely, the West Middlesex, the Grand Junction, and the Vauxhall Companies. This, however, was not a consideration of sufficient weight to prevent the House from giving powers to the Government to appoint an inspector to report on the quality of the water, and to found on such report, if deemed necessary, a prohibition of that source of supply. After the variety of evidence which had been given on the different qualities and properties of soft and hard water, he was not prepared to say that the quality of soft or hard was in itself a sufficient ground of prohibition. He thought the Thames water beyond and without the tidal influence would be found a very fit source of supply. The water of the New River also, and its various tribu- taries, if properly brought to the houses of the people, without being exposed in its course to any extraneous impurities, would, in his opinion, afford a good source of supply. To watch over the sources of supply to this extent, was in his opinion the duty of Parliament; but it was unnecessary there should be any further interference; and, if unnecessary, it would be unwise further to interfere. On that ground, therefore, he was opposed to the adoption of the course recommended by the Board of Health—that of only going to the sands of Surrey for a supply. He thought it would be unwise to lay it down that that should be the source of supply. It would, in his opinion, be much better to allow water to be brought from different sources, taking care, however, that whencesoever brought, it should be fit for consumption by the inhabitants of the metropolis. Means, also, should be provided for filtration at the reservoirs, and the reservoirs, if within the districts of town, should be covered, to prevent the admixture of anything objectionable. It should also be provided, in case any great majority of the householders in any district should require a constant supply of water, that that supply should be afforded. That, he conceived, could be done without any difficulty. One great objection to the present system was the insufficient supply of water to the houses of the poor. To obviate that evil he would propose that all houses rated under 10l. a year should be supplied with water at a fixed rate. On a comparison of the charges made for water supplied to the houses rated under 10l. a year in this metropolis with the charges made for its supply to houses similarly rated in other towns, it appeared to him that the charges in London were at present very high. In determining what the amount of payment should be in respect to that class of houses, it would be necessary to ascertain what was the rate of charge in other places. But on this subject he had not introduced any provision at present, as it would be necessary that the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee, where that matter could be more conveniently considered. After the passing of this Bill, it would be necessary for many of the existing water companies to come to Parliament for new Acts to enable them to comply with the terms of the Bill he now sought to introduce. It would then be for Parliament to renew the powers of those companies upon such terms as might be considered fair as between them and the public. One great question, however, remained to be noticed, and that was, to whom should the management and the direction of the water supply be intrusted? He at once declared that it was not his intention to propose that private enterprise should be excluded from supplying water to the metropolis. The Board of Health had recommended management by a commission, and a Parliamentary responsibility. He did not believe it possible, however, for Government, by means of Commissioners who should be responsible to Parliament, to superintend such a work to the satisfaction of the public. He should, for his own part, be very sorry to be answerable for the water supply of the metropolis. The Bill of last year on this subject recommended a fusion of the different existing water companies. He believed that a combination of the companies, and a concentration of the management, might be attended with considerable economy; but he did not think it was the duty of Parliament to require that such a combination should be effected. All that it behoved Parliament to do was to require that water should be supplied of good quality, in sufficient quantity, and at a cheap rate. The companies had better be left to act separately, or in conjunction, as they should find best. Another proposition had been made, which was that the management of the supply should be by means of a municipal corporation. Now, in the first place, it should be remembered that there was no municipal corporation existing in this metropolis to whom that management could be confided. The first thing they would have to do, if the proposition were adopted, would be to create a corporation; and he questioned very much the expediency of creating corporations for such a purpose. Its first duty would be to provide new sources of supply, and new means of distribution. Now, to do that would be something very different from undertaking the management of establishments already in existence. If municipal bodies, inexperienced as they would be, were to be suddenly called together—divided, as doubtless would be the case, by party feeling—to provide for the supply of water to the inhabitants of this town, great delay in the first place would unquestionably arise. He was the more convinced of that from seeing what had been the effect of a like management in other towns. Last year a Committee of that House went into this subject at great length, and it appeared that many corporate towns which had the power of supplying water to the inhabitants had totally failed to do so, and that in many cases where they had undertaken to do it, they had done it very ill. When he observed that the city of Edinburgh, the people of which were as attentive to their own interests as the inhabitants of this metropolis, and which had corporate power to govern its own water supply, rather than undertake the task, had abandoned it to a private company, and that to the entire satisfaction of the inhabitants, he thought he was furnished with strong evidence that private companies, under proper control, might conduct such works with great advantage to the public. But, whether the water supply were undertaken by companies or by municipal corporations, he should be equally inclined, on the part of the Government, to impose the same conditions upon them: namely, that the source of the supply should be under the inspection of the Government; that the supply should be ample; that means for filtering the water should be provided; that the reservoirs should be covered; and that the rate of charge should be under the control of Parliament. From the observations he had already made, it might be gathered, that for the carrying out of this work he had rather more hopes from the companies than he had from municipal corporations. The large works undertaken by the Lambeth Company did them great credit, and embraced most of the requirements that could be expected from any company. But the question really was, not whether Parliament should allow municipal bodies to undertake the supply of water, but whether it should proceed further, and absolutely prohibit private companies from undertaking that supply. Now, he certainly was not prepared to take that step, and to say that on no account would he allow any private company to supply the metropolis with water. The great objection to private companies was, that they would have to look to their own interests, and would be tempted to have an eye to the question of dividends rather than to the public benefit; but he thought, if that House obliged such companies to obtain new Bills, and took care that in such Bills proper clauses were introduced, the public would have every security that they would require; and so far as carrying out the works was concerned, he believed those companies would carry them out with more efficiency and economy than any municipal corporation, while the necessity of incurring rates for a large expenditure in the first instance would be obviated. The object of the Bill which he now proposed to bring in was, in fact, directed towards the consumer. It sought to protect the consumer from bad water, from an insufficient supply, and from extravagant charges. He had been at the pains to obtain returns on this subject from all the large towns in the country, and he found the mode of charge for water was so different in the provincial towns and in the metropolis that he thought it better not to attempt to introduce a scale of rates until he had obtained further evidence on that subject. He found the Lambeth Company, who recently introduced a new scale of charges, had since thought it prudent to abandon it, and to adopt another. He proposed, therefore, when the Bill was before Committee, to take some further evidence on the subject of the mode of rating to be adopted. There was one mode of supply which had attracted some attention lately: he meant that which was acted upon by the Croydon Company; and if that company could furnish water in sufficient abundance, and at a cheap rate, they would undoubtedly confer a great advantage on the public; but he had not sufficient information respecting the cost of that supply, and therefore he could not adopt that scale of rates. The Bill which he sought to propose was in its general outline and character a controlling Bill. It was a Bill which did not propose to undertake the management of the supply of water; it left that to private companies, and if those companies would not assume it, public bodies might undertake it; but whoever undertook it, the Bill proposed some inspection and control on the part of the Government, with a view to the supply being regulated in conformity with its provisions, and so as to meet the necessities and the means of the citizens at large. The noble Lord concluded by moving leave to bring in the Bill.

Leave given.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Lord Seymour and Mr. Cornewall Lewis.

Bill read 1°.