HC Deb 05 July 1859 vol 154 cc706-12

said, that the Royal Commission which he was about to ask had already been granted with the most satisfactory results in the cases of Dublin, London, Ireland, and Scotland. He had therefore a right, be thought, to ask it for England and Wales generally, and though he had no reason to expect the consent of the Government, he thought it could not very fairly be denied. The present bonded debt on the turnpike tolls of England and Wales amounted to £5,236,939. The aggregate amount of the income of the turnpike trusts was at present £1,024,382, but the amount paid in tolls by the people of this country for Turnpike tolls on roads and bridges was no less than a million and a half, so that the persons who rented the tolls got something like 33 per cent of profit. The plan which had been adopted in Ireland to get rid of turnpike tolls was to put the charge of maintaining the roads on the common law of the country. It was a principle of common law there, as it was of common sense everywhere, that the charge of repairing the highways should be borne by the owners and occupiers of land. The annual rateable value of the real property in England chargeable by law with the maintenance of the parish roads was £103,500,000, and a tax of 2d. in the pound on all real property liable under the common law for the maintenance of the parish roads would yield £862,000. From this source 23,000 miles of road, at a cost of £20 a mile, or exactly one-half of what was now paid on all the parish roads in England, could be maintained; the aggregate cost amounting to £460,000 per annum, to which had to be added £156,000 a year for the purchase of the toll bridges. Then came the sum of 208,000 a year for interest at 6½ per cent in order to pay off the debt, bringing the whole outlay below the £862,000 that would be raised by the twopenny tax. The principle already adopted in Ireland was to defray the cost of the roads by means of a rate on the different baronies, and the system worked satisfactorily. His object now was to extend a similar advantage to the people of England and Wales.

Motion made, and Question proposed,— That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that She will be graciously pleased to issue a Royal Commission to inquire into and report as to the best means of abolishing the Tolls on the Turnpike Roads and Bridges in England and Wales.


The question which the hon. Gentleman has brought under our notice is one of considerable importance. Almost every person must feel an interest in it from the manner in which it daily affects him. But to the proposition before us it is impossible for me to give my assent without some further grounds being assigned for it than those adduced on this occasion. The principle to which we are invited to commit ourselves is that tolls on all turnpike roads and bridges in England and Wales should be abolished; that the principle should be at once adopted by the House, and a Commission appointed to inquire how it is to be carried into effect. Let me call attention for a moment to the present position of the turnpike trusts in England as explained by the papers recently laid on the table. If we examine the returns we find that the position of these trusts is in every respect improving. True, the toll revenue has diminished; but, then, the cost of maintaining the roads has also diminished in an equal ratio. The expense of improvements, which in many cases were merely a means of disbursing surplus revenue, has been reduced from £200,000 in 1837 to £40,000 in 1858. The expense of salaries, the law charges, and other disbursements have likewise all fallen off. The interest of the debt, which in 1837 was £290,000, was in 1856 only £181,000. I will only read one statement as to a very material part of the case, namely, the large amount of bonded debt charged on the existing trusts, and which, if it should be proposed to abolish turnpike tolls, must, nevertheless, remain as a charge on some fund. I am speaking now of the turnpike trusts in England and North Wales, South Wales being under a different system. By the reduction which has taken place between 1837 and 1856 in the mortgage debt and in the amount of unpaid interest, there has been removed from the accounts a total charge of £2,680,000. I very much wish that it was in the power of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make an equally satisfactory statement with respect to the national debt. Looking to the financial state of turnpike trusts, I cannot admit that it presents any grounds for such a sweeping change as we are now invited to concede. A very material question to be considered is the bonded debt of £5,236,000. If you destroy all turnpike tolls, you destroy the security for that sum. It is not intended, I presume, to deprive the bondholders of their security, and it is understood that some other security would be provided for that large sum. The substituted security, I presume, would be the highway rates. The rate on land to the extent of 2d. in the pound would not, I am afraid, be sufficient to pay the interest and to maintain the roads. The hon. Gentleman omitted to call attention to the position of the turnpike trusts in the six counties of South Wales—not a very large portion of the kingdom, I admit, but still six counties. The hon. Gentleman will remember those riots which went by the name of the Rebecca riots, which he might have pressed into his service, as evincing the great dislike of that part of the kingdom to turnpike tolls. Their grievances were got rid of by spreading the debt on the tolls over a series of years, for which purpose a rather complicated financial arrangement was made, which will end about 1872. Does he suppose that the Act which was only passed a few years ago should be subverted, and that arrangement set aside. I conceive that such a proposition as the abolition of turnpike tolls cannot be assented to by the House. I have now stated in general terms the reasons why I think it is not desirable that this House should agree at this moment to a Commission, which takes for granted that it is desirable to abolish that system. The hon. Gentleman says nothing about tolls on bridges, which he proposes to include. Tolls on bridges are in a different position. They have nothing to do with turnpikes, and most of them exist under private Acts, and it is almost impossible to deal with them on any general system. There are further difficulties to be considered with respect to the sudden abolition of turnpike tolls. The subject is not new. Commissions have been issued as he states. Some years ago a Commission was issued for Ireland. In the chief parts of Ireland there are scarcely any turnpike trusts. The roads are maintained by the grand juries. The few trusts which existed in Ireland became embarrassed, and a Commission was issued for the purpose of arranging their financial affairs. I believe an Act passed founded on the Report of the Commission, and the matter was settled. But it was a special case, and forms no example for such a Commission as is now proposed. There was a Commission appointed about this time last year to inquire into the turnpike trusts in the neighbourhood of the metropolis. I quite admit that turnpike tolls in the immediate neighbourhood of the metropolis are a very serious evil. In the first place, wherever there is a gate in the streets it necessitates a whole system of side-bars, which puts the whole neighbourhood in a strait waistcoat. Every one must see that what is applicable in a rural district is wholly inapplicable in the vicinity of a large town. There is also another evil well known to hon. Gentlemen. A gate immediately adjoining the metropolis is very lucrative, and thus there is a great disposition, by putting one as near as possible, to make it pay the expense of the entire trust, which is, of course, an abuse and an undue tax on the inhabitants. There are special reasons why the turnpike system fails in its application to the metropolitan district, and accordingly a Commission was issued, of which the late Speaker, Lord Eversley, was a Member, and which is likely soon to report. If they should be able to propose any fair plan of relief, it will be an encouragement to extend the experiment, but until we have received their Report we ought to pause and not embark upon an inquiry so extensive as is now suggested. It is true that a Commission issued to inquire into turnpike tolls in Scotland. The object was not, I believe, the abolition of tolls, but some al- teration in the system, and therefore that is not a precedent for the Commission now proposed. Having stated my opinion that the House is not now in a position to assent to the doctrine of total and immediate abolition of turnpike tolls, I will admit to the hon. Gentleman that I quite enter into his view that turnpike tolls are not the best mode of taxation which can be devised. But at the same time I wish to represent this consideration to the friends of what is called equitable taxation, that a more equitable tax than turnpike tolls cannot be conceived, because it is paid by those who use the roads, and only by them. Nevertheless, all must feel that it is a somewhat vexatious and unpleasant burden. But I cannot on that account say that sufficient grounds exist for issuing a Commission. We have already had a very large number of Committees and Commissions, and I confess I am very unwilling, without very strong cause being shown, to assent to another Commission being appointed by the Crown. If the hon. Gentleman can point out to the House the means by which the principle of total abolition can be carried into effect he undoubtedly can embody it in the shape of a Bill, and then we should be able to judge whether the plan could meet with our assent. If the general principle were feasible and expedient, and difficulties arose only with regard to its application, there might be reasonable grounds for inquiring as to the means by which the scheme could be effected. But I cannot think that in the present state of the question any hon. Gentleman is entitled to call on the House to address the Crown to issue a Commission. It is my belief that the great defect of the present system of turnpike tolls arises partly from the circumstance that a number of trusts whose financial position is bad have not yet undergone revision by Committees of the House, which a number of trusts that have expired in the last ten years have undergone with very great benefit to their finances. Another great evil which I find in the present system is the unequal size and smallness of many trusts. I believe that a far more economical expenditure of public money and a better administration of the trusts would be introduced if all the trusts in a county, or where the county is too large, of a division of a county, were amalgamated, and if the system were adopted which has worked well in South Wales, where there is a county Board for their general super- intendence, and local trusts are abolished. Having offered these remarks, which I believe are more likely to tend to a practical reform, I regret that it is not in my power to support the Motion now before the House.


said, the experience which he had acquired with respect to the question under discussion in Scotland did not lead him to form an opinion favourable to its being met in the manner proposed by the hon. Member opposite. In the county with which he was connected the attempt had been made to establish a system of rates instead of a system of tolls, but although everybody seemed to agree as to the expediency of abolishing the tolls it was impossible to obtain any general concurrence of opinion as to the mode in which the rates should be levied. Still he thought tolls an unfair tax, for in some cases persons using the roads for miles never paid a farthing, while those who used it for half a mile were compelled to pay a very heavy toll. The substitution of a rate would dispense altogether with the expenses of collection and many other annoyances incidental to the present system, while at the same time many questions—such, for instance, as to whether land was to bear the whole burden, or horses a part, and other questions of a similar nature—would arise, and require solution. He thought it better to suspend legislation on the subject till they had ascertained the result of the late inquiry which had been instituted on the question.


said, he did not think the difficulty of substituting rates for tolls was so great as the hon. Member seemed to think. That plan had long been tried in the large county of Argyll with perfect success. He would suggest that the hon. Member should alter the wording of bis Motion, so as to assimilate it to the Scotch Commission; in other words, that there should be an inquiry into the possibility of substituting an equitable mode of assessment for the system of tolls. The decision arrived at by that Commission would not prejudice the case as regarded England, and in his opinion, therefore, the Motion, with the Amendment he suggested, should be agreed to.


said, he objected to the laxity with which Commissions had of late been granted. During the last twelve years a great deal of good had been done by private legislation, all new Turnpike Bills being now drawn on a uniform plan. He therefore thought it would be better to defer further action in connection with a question until the Commission which had been already appointed had reported.

Question put and negatived.