§ Order for Committee (Supply) read.
§ Motion made and Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."
§ LORD ELCHO
said, that before Mr. Speaker left the Chair, he was anxious to submit to the House the notice of Motion which stood in his name, relative to the substitution of a system of assessment in lieu of toll on the public roads of Scotland. He now begged to move,That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying she will be graciously pleased to issue a Royal Commission, to inquire and report how far it may be desirable and practicable to substitute an equitable system of assessment in lieu of the present mode of maintaining the public roads in Scotland by tolls and statute labour.As he knew how anxious the House was to enter on the public business, he would not detain them longer than he could avoid, but he prayed their attention whilst he stated the position in which he stood with reference to the question of road reform, which had now for many years occupied the attention of the people of Scotland. It had been taken up vigorously in the county which he had the honour to represent, and various proposals had been made with a view of effecting so desirable an object. Having had his attention called to the subject, he last year drew up a Bill which was submitted to the House with the view of eliciting, as far as possible, the public opinion with reference to the important question of the best mode of providing for the maintenance of the public roads in Scotland, and at the same time of relieving the people from the payment of toll at the turnpike gates. The result of that measure was, that a considerable amount of discussion took place on the subject. His Bill was objected to on various grounds, but it certainly had the effect which he intended, of eliciting opinion, and showing in what light the question was regarded by the public of Scotland. During the present year he had ventured to ask leave to bring in a Bill on the same subject, which was of a permissive character. He 1156 must say that that Bill had met with much greater opposition than he expected it would have done. It was a measure which as he conceived, was drawn up and based on sound general principles applicable generally to Scotland. Although he was fully aware of the difficulty of the question, and that his Bill might require amendment in many of the details, yet as he conceived that it would be generally acceptable in Scotland, he had hoped that the Scotch Members would have given him more assistance in endeavouring to pass it, admitting, as they did, that the principle of substituting a system of assessment for the present inconvenient mode of taking a toll to be a sound one. Instead of, however, receiving, as he naturally expected, great assistance, the measure in question was opposed by the Scotch Members. His view was, if the Bill had been read a second time in that House, to have moved that it be referred to a Select Committee, when the whole matter might have been discussed in all its details, and, by the assistance of those hon. Members he should have nominated on the Committee, that they should have been able to frame such a measure as would have been suitable to the whole of Scotland. The Session, however, was now approaching its end, and he had had no opportunity of submitting his Bill to Parliament, still less of pressing it forward to a second reading. Under these circumstances, therefore, he thought that the best method he could adopt would be to move for the appointment of a Royal Commission to in quire into the subject. He need not trouble the House by entering into any lengthened arguments in support of the Motion. He thought that they were all pretty well agreed that the present system of maintaining the roads by levying a toll upon travellers was as inconvenient as it was expensive and extravagant. No doubt in many isolated places the cost of collecting tolls was not very heavy, but, generally speaking, in considering the cost of maintaining roads by means of tolls they must deduct from the gross amount of money contributed by the public for the purpose of keeping the roads in repair at least twenty per cent., and therefore as a question of economy alone, he thought that no hon. Gentleman would maintain that the present mode of providing for the repair of roads, by means of tolls, was other than expensive as well as inconvenient. Where the difference of opinion arose, was 1157 as to the nature of the substitute which was to be employad for the purpose of maintaining the roads. Many persons thought that it was impossible to establish an equitable system of assessment in lieu of tolls. For his part, he could not but think that it was possible to establish such a system. Those who were opposed to the system of assessment in reference to roads, based their opposition on the ground of the objection laid down by Adam Smith in his Political Economy; that it was the duty of those who used the roads to pay for them. With all due deference to the opinion of so distinguished a political economist, the argument, in his opinion, would have been better put if it had been, that those who benefit by public roads should pay for their maintenance and repair. Everybody was interested in the establishment of good roads throughout the country, and therefore it was but reasonable that everybody should be called upon to contribute to their maintenance in proportion to the benefits which they derived, or, in other words, in proportion to the property he possessed through which such roads were carried. In his view, it would be as objectionable for a man who resided in a large town to pay a sewerage rate or a lighting tax as it was for one who resided in the country to pay a road tax. His own impression was, that an equitable mode of assessment, having reference to the amount of property which each man possessed in the country, might easily be arrived at. He admitted that great doubts as to the mode of dealing with the question, and as to an equitable mode of assessment, existed in Scotland; but he thought that if a Commission of able men were appointed to visit the various districts, and consider the question uninfluenced by local feelings or prejudices, a satisfactory settlement would be arrived at. They would have an opportunity of examining legal gentlemen upon it. In suggesting the course which he was now advocating, he begged the House to remember that he was only following precedents which had been made in this House on former occasions. In reference to Ireland, the right hon. Gentleman the late Secretary for Ireland (Mr. H. Herbert) as the House would probably recollect, had adopted that course, and in 1856 a Commission was appointed to consider the question of maintaining roads in the neighbourhood of Dublin, and the Commission reported in favour of the principle of assessment, which was carried out 1158 to the extent of thirty miles round Dublin. On a subsequent occasion, a Commission was appointed to consider whether the principle which had been adopted, and had been found to work so well in the neighbourhood of Dublin, could not he applied generally to that country. The Commissioners in their report laid down the principle that the levying of tolls for the maintenance of roads was a specious fallacy, that it was not those who used the roads should pay for them, but those for whose benefit they were established. The Commission accordingly recommended that the remaining turnpikes in Ireland should be abolished. The result was, that in the last Session of Parliament a Bill was introduced for the abolition of turnpike tolls in Ireland, so that at the present moment a traveller might go from one end to another of Ireland without being subjected to this most vexatious impost. When the same difficulty arose with respect to the Welsh turnpike tolls, those tolls were likewise dealt with by Commissioners. But he might mention that, even with respect to Scotland itself, Acts of Parliament had been passed recognizing the principle of assessment in lieu of tolls on the roads. In the county of Argyleshire, and in several other places in Scotland, private Acts of Parliament had been passed providing for the maintenance of roads by assessment, and the same principle had been distinctly recognized in the Welsh Act to which he had referred. Without going into needless details, be might say that the general principle of assessment of roads having been adopted throughout the whole of Ireland, having been extended to Wales, and having been adopted in some counties of Scotland itself, as well as in some local Acts with respect to England, afforded a fair argument for the appointment of a Commission as a preliminary step to legislation. But there was another ground in favour of this change. The present turnpike system was no new system; the first Turnpike Act which related to Scotland dated no earlier than 1750. Up to that time the mode of providing for the maintenance and repair of the public roads was by means of what was termed statute labour, by which every person owning property in the neighbourhood was obliged to find a certain amount of labour for the purpose of mending the roads. The argument, of course, which would be raised against recurring to such a system as that, would be, that what I was suited to that time was no longer 1159 suitable. But he might reply to that by a counter argument, and say, that what was suitable to the country in reference to the maintenance of the roads before the establishment of the railway system was no longer suited to it. At the present moment railways traversed the whole country, and connected the most distant places, one effect of which had been that, in order to provide for the proper maintenance of the roads, they had been driven to the necessity either of establishing a different system altogether, or of imposing a much higher rate of toll. That had been eminently the case with reference to the county which he represented. For some time after the passing of the first Turnpike Act, which connected Edinburgh with that district, and before the great line of railway communication was opened between the northern and southern capitals the annual amount received was upwards of £1,500. But now that line of communication was finished, the amount of tolls were so much diminished that they were driven to the necessity either of imposing a higher rate of tolls or of having recourse to the principle of assessment for the purpose of maintaining the roads. He would not detain the House longer in support of the Motion which he had made, but he might mention that he believed his right hon. Friend the Secretary for the Home Department had been in communication with the Lord Advocate on this subject. The learned Lord had now left the House to take the appointment of Lord Justice Clerk, to which he had been nominated, and he had reason to believe that the learned Lord was favourable to this Motion. He could not resume his seat without expressing his gratification that that learned Lord had accepted the appointment of the high post he had mentioned. He was quite delighted that he had done so, for the learned Lord had been long known as an ornament to the bar in Scotland, and he had not the slightest doubt that he would prove one of the greatest ornaments of the bench. The appointment of the learned Lord had been received with extreme satisfaction throughout Scotland. The Lord Advocate had gone back to Scotland; but before he went he said that he was in favour of the Motion, and that he thought that the question ought to be decided before some impartial tribunal. He (Lord Elcho) thought that this Motion was one which was in accordance with the spirit of the age in which we lived, which was in favour of 1160 the frequency of intercourse, nation and nation, and man and man.
To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words, "an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying She will be graciously pleased to issue a Royal Commission, to inquire and report how far it may be desirable and practicable to substitute an equitable system of assessment in lieu of the present mode of maintaining the Public Roads in Scotland by tolls and statute labour," instead thereof.
§ Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."
§ MR. WALPOLE
said, that upon the Motion of his noble Friend he certainly had had some communication with the Lord Advocate before he returned to Scotland, and that the inclination of his opinion unquestionably was, that a Commission to inquire into this subject should be issued. His own opinion was also in favour of the appointment of such a Commission; but as he wished first to consult the newly appointed Lord Advocate, perhaps his noble Friend would consent to withdraw his Motion for the present, in order to enable him (Mr. Walpole) to consult that learned Lord.
§ SIR E. COLEBROOKE
observed, that he fully concurred in the necessity of a change, with reference to the maintenance of the public roads in Scotland; especially with reference to the great iron trade carried on in that country. The system of statute labour had been altogether altered; and, at the present time, many roads, which were originally public roads, had become mere local roads, and local roads which were maintained by parish assessments had become public roads, whereby a very heavy and unfair burden had been thrown upon those parishes. It was absolutely necessary that some fair adjustment, with respect to such roads, should be made. He was, therefore, in favour of any system by which the existing distribution of taxation should be altered. He was not at all surprised that the people of Scotland objected to the continuance of the present system; and he was of opinion, that if all the circumstances of the case were duly considered, the result would be a well-devised measure which, if it were framed in the spirit proposed by the noble Lord, would not only tend to equalize taxation, but to lighten the general weight; while at the same time, no heavier burden would 1161 be thrown on the farming interest than at present existed. In his opinion, it was not necessary, in any proposal for the redistribution of this taxation, to adhere to the present limits of counties, because, if that were done, there would be many cases in which difficulties would arise, especially in that portion of Lanarkshire which bordered upon Glasgow, where the interest of the various counties were not all in accordance with each other, and it would be found necessary to make a new distribution, without reference to their limits. He was very glad, indeed, to find that the Government were disposed to entertain this proposition, and he trusted that it would eventually be carried out.
§ MR. H. HERBERT
said, that having been appealed to, he could fully confirm everything which had been said in regard to the success of the new system which had been introduced into Ireland. That system had been carried out all over Ireland with very great advantage, and he believed that the people were unanimously of opinion that the principle of assessment was far preferable to the old plan of taking a toll. He had been alluded to as having introduced a short Bill last Session, in which the very last of tolls on turnpike roads had been got rid of. He had since received information which enabled him to state to the House that the new Act of Parliament had worked exceedingly well, and that the arrangements made by the Commissioners had proved eminently satisfactory, and, as his noble Friend had stated, a person could now go from one end of Ireland to the other without paying a single turnpike. The only tolls which now remained were those which existed on a few of the bridges. He thought it would be well worthy of the Government that in any measure which should be introduced, facilities should be given for the abolition of those few remaining tolls, and that the Commissioners for Ireland should be invested with powers which should enable them to deal with them.
§ MR. BLACKBURN
said, that no doubt every one was anxious to get rid of the turnpike tolls, in whatever part of the kingdom they might be situated; but he could not conceal from himself that there would be very great difficulty in satisfactorily assessing the property in Ireland. The different interests of the manufacturers would greatly clash, and it would be a work of great discrimination to fix the assessment fairly. The case of Ireland was 1162 very different, but, inasmuch as it was similar in England, the Commissioners would have to go into the whole subject, not merely as it related to Scotland, but to this country also. The Motion would not at all restrict such inquiry, and when the matter came to be examined, it might turn out that it was necessary to maintain the present system of tolls in some districts, whereas in others the proposed new system would be preferable. At all events, it was necessary to inquire whether the various trusts could not be consolidated and extended over a much larger area than at present. He hoped that this, as well as all other questions relating to the abolition of tolls, would be carefully considered before any measure was introduced on the subject.
§ MR. FINLAY
said, that having acted as a road trustee for many years through the important mining district which had been referred to, and fully concurring in the propriety of an assessment system, he hoped the House would permit him to confirm what the noble Lord had said with reference to the admirable working of that system in one part of Scotland, which he contended was a sound argument in favour of its extension throughout the whole of the kingdom. His own opinion was that there could not have been a more unfavourable locality for trying the experiment than that which had been selected, and he was confirmed in that opinion when he found, by the returns of the officers of public works, which showed that the expense of maintaining the roads on which a heavy traffic was carried on, as well as in populous towns, was much lightened by the new system. He believed that the expense of maintaining the roads in the Strand and the neighbourhood, where there was a much greater traffic than in any other place in the world, was much lighter than in country districts of Scotland. If, therefore, the system of assessment worked well under the most unfavourable circumstances, it was but reasonable to suppose that it would work well in other places. He would only add one more argument in favour of doing away with tolls, and that was, that there were instances in which 1,000 miles of country could be traversed without the payment of a single toll, in which the roads were well kept up, and the ratepayers were quite satisfied, and would not, on any account, consent to revert to the whole system.
§ MR. DE VERE
said, he was anxious to 1163 express his entire concurrence in the Motion of the noble Lord, and in confirmation of what had fallen from the hon. Member for Stirlingshire (Mr. Blackburn) he might say, that some time last year a road meeting took place in the town of Belfast, the principle seat of manufacture in Ireland, at which it was agreed upon all hands that the substitution of the assessment system had worked exceedingly well. The hon. Gentleman had also alluded to mines. He (Mr. De Vere) was well acquainted with extensive mining districts, and from his intimate connection with a large property in that neighbourhood, he was able to glean with accuracy the opinion of the public upon the matter. There was no railroad in the district, and the consequence was that heavy traffic had to be conveyed over the roads in the country in the common carts, and notwithstanding the heavy wear and tear of the roads, it had been found that the assessment system had worked perfectly well in that district also.
§ MR. BUCHANAN
said, that it was probable after the discussion they had had in the House that day, and the favourable opinions which had been elicited towards a change in the present mode of providing for the maintenance of the public roads, he would take the opportunity of calling the attention of the Government to the fact that there was a great deal of conflicting interests as regarded the boroughs and the counties. He should therefore suggest, in case such a Commission Were appointed, that they would take especial care that the various interests of the boroughs and counties should be properly represented before the Commission, and should receive its earnest consideration.
§ Amendment by leave withdrawn.