HC Deb 27 January 1860 vol 156 cc240-52

said, that he rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill for the better management of Highways in England. The House was aware that highways, according to legal phraseology, meant roads which were not included in Turnpike Acts, and which still remained as parish roads. In order to show that the Bill he asked to introduce dealt with an interest of great magnitude, he would state the amount of money raised and expended in England in the maintenance of those roads. The House was aware that those roads were chiefly maintained by a highway rate, which was levied substantially on the same class of property as the poor rate, aided by some other slight sources of revenue. The expenditure was divided, on the one hand into highways in rural parishes, and on the other to highways in the nature of streets in towns. In 1850 the expenditure on the ordinary-highways amounted to £1,026,000, and on streets in towns, under local Acts, to £828,000, making a total of £1,854,000. In 1857, the last year for which there was a return, the expenditure on the ordinary highways amounted to £1,148,000, and on streets in towns to £970,000, making a total of £2,118,000, which was more than £200,000 greater than that of 1850. It was, therefore, not only a large, but a growing expenditure. The Bill he asked to introduce was substantially, with one exception, identical with that introduced by the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Hardy) when he held the office of Under Secretary for the Home Department. That Bill itself was not only framed in a great measure on the model of previous Bills which had been submitted to the House, but it appeared to him (Sir George Lewis) to be arranged in a very convenient form, and to be expressed in unambiguous terms, and he had, therefore, taken it as the model of the one he now sought to introduce-Under the operation of the existing general Highway Act, the justices of quarter sessions had the bare option of uniting together a certain number of parishes into a district for the maintenance of highways and the appointment of a paid surveyor, and might, if they thought proper, make an order to that effect. The power thus possessed was, however, one to which they scarcely ever had recourse, inasmuch as their action depended in the first instance on the decision of a single parish. The system had, in consequence, been found to be for the most part inoperative, and his noble Friend the Member for Pembrokeshire (Lord Emlyn), in order to remedy the defects of that system, had a few years ago introduced into Parliament a Bill the object of which was the compulsory establishment of a series of districts for the maintenance of highways in the six counties of South Wales. That Bill had become law, had been in operation for some time, and he (Sir George Lewis), being a resident in one of the counties to which it applied, could bear testimony to the satisfactory manner in which it worked. It had, in fact, brought about a most efficient repair of the highways in those counties without, at the same time, creating any in-crease of expenditure which could afford reasonable grounds of complaint to a class of ratepayers who were on the average considerably less wealthy than the majority of those who were resident in England. The principle, then, he might briefly state, upon which the Bill which he held in his hand was framed was, that the magistrates of quarter sessions should be empowered to divide counties into districts of parishes for the repair of highways; that they should form districts and appoint the number of way-wardens which each should return; that the board of way-wardens should be elected by the ratepayers in a manner similar to that in which the Poor Law Boards were constituted, and that the resident magistrates of the district should be entitled to have a seat at those boards. He might add, that when the Court of Quarter Sessions should have made the order to which he had alluded they should be considered as functi officio, and neither possess nor exercise any further interference in the matter. Local Boards having been called into existence in the way which he had described would have the power of appointing paid surveyors, and selecting the other officers whose services would be required. The machinery by which their proceedings would be directed would be of a most simple character—quite analogous, in short, to that which had been in operation for some years for the relief of the poor. There was every reason to hope, therefore, that it would work in an efficient and satisfactory manner. With respect to boroughs, he proposed that the town-council should have the same powers as he would confer upon the magistrates at quarter sessions in counties. Such was an outline of the Bill which he was about to ask the House for leave to introduce; but before he sat down he might observe that it differed in one material particular from the Bill which had been brought in last Session upon the same subject, and which he trusted would facilitate its adoption in the present Session. The House could not fail to observe that the construction of railways had to so great an extent altered the comparative importance of former lines of communication throughout the country, that some of the main lines of turnpike roads had sunk into a position of inferiority in that respect to some of the parish roads. Now, it happened that there was no law in existence which provided for the due repair of those great highways, and considerable inconvenience was in consequence experienced in different parts of the kingdom. That inconvenience would, he believed, be removed by means of the machinery which the present Bill would bring into operation; but while he was of that opinion, he was, nevertheless, alive to the fact that there were certain counties in which a strong opposition to the passing of any such measure was manifested. To the want of unanimity which prevailed upon the subject was, indeed, to be attributed the obstacles to the success of any legislation with regard to it with which it was surrounded. What he proposed, therefore, to do—departing in that respect from the Bill of last Session—was to make it optional with the magistrates of each county whether or not they would set the machinery which he had provided in motion in that county. He proposed, in short, that the justices of quarter sessions should, in the first instance, be enabled to make a provisional order; that the consideration of that order should be postponed until the following quarter sessions; that if it were then confirmed it should be taken to be a compulsory order, but that its sanction should be the voluntary act of the magistrates and the town-council. If, then, the inhabitants of any part of the country desired to avail themselves of the provisions of the Bill they might do so without difficulty, while, upon the contrary, the machinery which it provided would not as a matter of course be brought into action in those counties where there was an objection to its introduction. Having made these observations it simply remained for hurt to express a hope that the scheme which he had shadowed out would meet with the sanction of the House, and to move for leave to introduce a Bill for the better management of Highways in England.


said, that a Bill similar to that which the right hon. Gentleman asked for leave to introduce had, Session after Session, been brought forward in that House, and yet that no Minister had ever informed the House what was the real reason of its introduction, or who it was by whom such a measure was required. He had, indeed, been told that the predecessor in office of the right hon, Gentleman had been under some pledge to certain Gentlemen to bring in such a Bill, but that not having remained long enough on the Treasury Bench to redeem that pledge he had left the promised measure in some pigeon-hole and had entered into an engagement with his successor to proceed with it. Now, whether that statement was strictly accurate or not he (Mr. Bright) could not say, but he could assert with perfect truth that he had never seen a petition in favour of such a Bill, nor heard outside the walls of that House a single human being complain that he was aggrieved by the system by which highways were at present regulated, or that he wished to see a departure from that system. The right hon. Gentleman had begun his speech by dwelling upon the magnitude of the interest concerned in this question, and he had pointed out that a sum amounting to more than £1,000,000 per annum was expended upon the highways not connected with towns, while upon those 'which were so situated not less than £800,000 was annually laid out. The right hon. Gentleman had, however, drawn no inference from these facts, and he had not endeavoured to argue that in the expenditure thus incurred any waste of money was involved. The fact indeed was, as the right hon. Gentleman must be aware, that in the various towns in which the outlay which he had mentioned took place there existed the most perfect system of local government which could be devised, while in the case of parishes unconnected with towns the whole management of their highways was vested in the individual occupiers, who appointed annual officers, by whom the £1,000,000 in question was expended. It was under those circumstances but natural that there should be no petitions laid before that House in favour of the Bill. Speaking generally, indeed, and leaving out of the question a few individuals who might be possessed by some crotchet on the subject, he believed no single ratepayer throughout the kingdom had asked the right hon. Gentleman to make any such proposal as he had that evening submitted to their notice. As for himself, he had in a for- mer Session protested against the introduction from a Government office of any such scheme tending to disturb ancient arrangements. He had repeatedly protested against such a disturbance of ancient arrangements in a case in which no single individual asked for the change; and he should unhesitatingly assert, without fear of contradiction, that there existed in any part of the country no demand for the present Bill. The right hon. Gentleman had informed the House that under the operation of the law as it stood there existed a power to unite parishes for the purpose of providing for the repair of highways, and had adduced that fact in support of his Motion, although he was obliged to admit that so little desire had been evinced on behalf of the inhabitants of the country to avail themselves of the power which they possessed, that the law was totally inoperative. Now, he (Mr. Bright) was aware that he would not be taking a proper course in that House in describing the Gentlemen who presided at quarter sessions in unfavourable colours, and he should refrain from adopting that course, because he did not think it was altogether justifiable, or that they deserve to be so depicted, hut he might at the same time be allowed to observe that those gentlemen were not the persons in whom the ratepayers in counties had the greatest confidence. They were appointed by somebody who was appointed by the Crown; the fact being that their appointment lay, in the county in which he lived, in the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and that in his neighbourhood a whole batch of them had, for political reasons, been nominated to the offices which they held. Every owner of land, in short, to the extent of 1,000 acres, was generally appointed a county magistrate, and those were the gentlemen to whom the right hon. Gentleman proposed to give the power of making all the parochial arrangements for the repair of highways upon a principle analagous to that which prevailed in the case of the Poor Law Boards for the purpose of doing that which nobody asked for, and remedying grievances of which nobody complained. What was the state of things at the present moment? In some of the unions in England the magistrates formed an equal number with the elected guardians. In the parish where he lived there was, he believed, a majority of one, but on what side he did not know. If, however, they put into any Board a close body like the magistrates, who were not elected by the ratepayers, and only an equal number who were elected by the ratepayers, the principle of election and representation in that Board would be virtually destroyed, and that system would be put an end to which had existed for centuries without complaint and without any reasons being assigned for the change. All the right hon. Gentleman said was that some one had brought in a somewhat similar Bill for South Wales, and there had been no complaint; it had not been productive of greater expense or a worse administration. But that was not enough: some stronger reason should have been given. He ought to have shown that it had given a better administration, and at less expense. Who asked for this change? It was just this, neither more nor less—the transference of a power which had existed for many generations in the hands of the ratepayers of parishes to take care of the repair of their highways to a body of magistrates not appointed by the ratepayers, and in no way responsible to them. That was a direct contradiction of every principle which the House ought to hold dear in legislating on matters of that kind. Then the right hon. Gentleman said he was going to make it a much better Bill than that of the hon. Gentleman opposite, by making it optional—not optional with the ratepayers, or the population of the parishes who have the greatest interest in the maintenance of the highways and the expenditure of the money, but optional with the gentlemen of the quarter sessions: it was to be optional with them whether they would take more power than they had hither to enjoyed, of diverting, changing, repairing, or letting go out of repair the highways of their parish, just as it might best suit them, and it was precisely for qualifications of that kind that this Bill seemed intended to provide. He appealed to Gentlemen opposite, who were loth to make changes that were not asked. Now that the highways were better maintained than ever why should they this Session, when they had so much before them, be troubled with a measure so offensive and unnecessary, so needlessly innovating as this? He did not think the right hon. Gentleman had the smallest affection for the measure; indeed, he could very well suppose, when he found it consigned to his care by his predecessor in the Home Office, language must have trembled on hislips—though he might not have uttered it—excessively unocmplimentary both to the Bill and to the person who drew it. Why, in the name of common sense, bring forward this Bill again? Let the right hon. Gentleman for one Session free thorn from its consideration. Some such measure seemed by a kind of fatality to be brought forward year after year, and having undergone almost endless discussion was in the end rejected. But its life could not seemingly be destroyed, and it was revived the next Session. The right hon. Gentleman, he had no doubt, would have occasion to be glad if the Bill were rejected; and, although he did not like to object to the first reading—that would be considered not very courteous to the right hon. Gentleman and the Government—he would unite with any Gentleman opposite in opposing the Bill on a future occasion.


said, he thought the hon. Member for Birmingham (Mr. Bright) had unnecessarily cast some degree of condemnation on magistrates at quarter session and had misunderstood the statement of the right hon. Gentleman. His proposal was not that the magistrates should assume the powers described, but that the way wardens elected by the parish should be the Board to manage, entirely separate from the magistrates, except that in the first instance the quarter sessions were to scheme out and fix the different districts. There would still be the way-wardens elected by the different parishes, to look after the expenditure and say if the improvements proposed were necessary. The hon. Gentleman must allow him to say that he did not understand the management of the roads in the country, though he might be well conversant with matters relating to towns. For the most part, the separate parishes now had, instead of a surveyor, a person who was changed every year, generally a farmer ignorant of the mode in which roads should be made; in very many instances he was changed just as he became acquainted with the duty, and the consequence was the roads were neglected, or not made in the best manner, and at a much greater cost than if a skilful person were employed to look after the work. This Bill, if carried, would be the means of improving very greatly the communications of the country at a less expense than they now cost, while the power would still be left in the hands of the ratepayers, who were to elect the way-wardens, who were to meet together and choose a skilled surveyor and a person to keep the accounts. He would remind the hon. Gentleman that, while the great communications with our large towns were not highways, but rail- ways, it was of the utmost advantage to have roads made as feeders to the railways at important stations, and, as these went through parishes having in some instances eight or ten townships, each township with a separate surveyor of roads, it was of the greatest consequence that they should have a larger area and properly qualified surveyors.


said, that he could not help noticing the imputations which had been thrown by the hon. Member for Birmingham (Mr. Bright) on those who had charge of Highway Bills as having some concealed motive,—some occult desire, in taking them out of the pigeon-holes at the Home Office, to gain some advantage for themselves. For himself, he begged entirely to disown such an intention. The hon. Member for Birmingham stood forth in a new character to-night. Who could have expected to see him appealing to them stare super vias antiquas? He only hoped, when the Bills came to be discussed which the hon. Member had alluded to, and to which he wished this measure should give way, he would still appear standing on the old paths. It was not for him to defend the gentlemen at quarter sessions. He would only observe that the duties committed to magistrates by this Bill were simply of an administrative character, and did not destroy the power of the ratepayers. The hon. Gentleman, who had spoken from his knowledge of the towns in Lancashire, must be well aware, that in a great number of instances where the roads were well attended to, the duty was not performed by parish surveyors appointed year by year, but by Boards elected by the ratepayers, having paid surveyors under them. In this way repairs were carried out efficiently; but when the hon. Gentleman told them that the highways of the country were repaired efficiently, economically, and in consonance with the wishes of the ratepayers who used them, he told them what no man in the House who knew the facts could bring himself to believe. This was not a Bill that was likely to cause any great outcry pro or con in the country; but the Members of the House generally knew the opnions of those who lived in their neighbourhood were in favour of such a measure. When he was in office he brought in the Bill to which the right hon. Gentleman had referred, and since that time he had been constantly asked by people in the country whether nothing was to be done for the better management of the highways. Those who really used the roads were most anxious for a change, and he believed that the farmers themselves were of the same way of thinking. In the districts where a system of management by Boards such as those provided for in this Bill was acted upon, the rates had been reduced and better roads formed, roads being made for the public advantage, and not for the benefit only of the surveyor. He bad an objection to the alteration in the Bill proposed by the right hon. Gentleman, because he thought the House,—if in a position to give an opinion that the country ought to be divided into districts for the maintenance of roads,—ought to dictate to the quarter sessions, and not leave the quarter sessions to dictate to others. He would give the quarter sessions a merely ministerial duty to do, and so leave the matter as it stood in the former Bill. If the hon. Member for Birmingham looked into the subject, he would find that there were small parishes burdened with forty miles of roads. Those small parishes would he greatly benefited by being associated with others, as they would thus be enabled to stop up a great many unnecessary roads. The hon. Member for Birmingham spoke of this Bill having been taken out of a pigeon-hole in the Home Office. There was no one who had a better right to take the Bill out of a pigeon-hole than the right hon. Gentleman (Sir George Lewis), as in 1849 he was the first to take the subject into consideration. If he now pressed the Bill firmly on the House he believed the House would go cordially with him, and that the result would be a better and more effective administration of our birth-ways.


said, although seated on the Opposition side, he was in respect of the present Bill a reformer, and nothing had surprised him more since his entrance into this House as the strong terms of Conservatism he had just heard from the lips of an hon. Member who was supposed to be the essence of Reform. He believed that the ratepayers in the counties had confidence in the magistrates who act in quarter sessions, though it is possible there may be a different feeling among the ratepayers in borough towns. There is no Bill of this Sessions which, if it passes into a law, is likely to be of more benefit to the agricultural population, and the agriculturists ought to be much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for bringing it in. Hon. Members cannot he aware of the state of the roads in his neighbourhood, and it is to be feared if they travelled over them, they would both lose their tempers and break their carriages. The hon. Member for Birmingham said the ratepayers were anxious to appoint their own surveyors, but that was against his experience, for out of nearly fifty surveyors in his district, not above five were elected by the parishioners, the rest being appointed by the magistrates. He cordially trusted that this Bill would be carried.


in reply, said he was always reluctant to treat a debate on the introduction of a Bill as if it were a debate on the second reading. The hon. Member for Birmingham had in his speech subjected him to this inconvenience, and had made it necessary that he should answer arguments applied to the principle of the Bill, when the Bill itself was not before the House, and hon. Members were consequently not in a position to judge whether the objections were valid. He would, however, confine his remarks within the narrowest possible space, reserving much that he had to say for the second reading. His hon. Friend had raised a sort of constitutional objection to the Bill, and argued that it was an unnecessary deviation from ancient customs and institutions, and, if not a dangerous, at all events a vexatious and uncalled-for innovation. He was afraid that his hon. Friend's constitutional studies in this branch of our laws had been somewhat limited. If be had looked into the nature of the Turnpike Acts passed since the middle of the last century, which abolished the ancient constitution of highways, he would have found that the very essence of the turnpike system was that it repealed the old laws with respect to highways, abolished the rights of ratepayers, and placed the management of highways under certain trustees, not appointed by popular election, but designated in the Acts of Parliament, being generally magistrates resident in the district. All the important roads of the country were placed under local Turnpike Acts, and, with regard to all the main lines of communication, the old constitutional system of highways was entirely repealed. And what he (Sir George Lewis) asked to introduce now was a system not less popular, but more popular than that which now existed. Nothing could be more accurate than the statement of the hon. Member for Shropshire (Sir B. Leighton) that the surveyors of highways were practically appointed by the magistrates, and that the ratepayers did not exercise their functions in that respect. He proposed to constitute a Board formed of elected representatives from the parishes comprising the district, together with the resident magistrates of the district. The constitution of Boards of Guardians had been found to work in a satisfactory manner with a mixture of nominated and elected guardians; but if the hon. Member thought the magistrates should be omitted from the Highway Boards which he proposed, that was a question which he could raise in Committee. He maintained, then, that there was nothing in the Bill that sinned against the popular principle. But his hon. Friend said that there was no practical grievance. It was certainly true that the table was not covered with petitions on the point, but he (Sir George Lewis) could appeal with confidence to the experience of any person who lived in the country, and ask whether the present mode of repairing the highways was not in the highest degree unsatisfactory. Where a line of road passed through different parishes, and had different surveyors, there was great inconvenience experienced in keeping it in proper repair. The surveyor was usually a farmer, unskilled in road making, and very frequently it was found that the surveyor took special care of the roads near his own house to the neglect of those at a distance. This was not the popular system that his hon. Friend's imagination had conjured up, for a more imperfect, rude, and unsatisfactory mode of administration than was exhibited in the management of highways it was almost impossible to find. That was a practical grievance, and the remedy provided by the present Bill was wholly unobjectionable. If he had proposed to intrust the operation of the measure to certain Commissioners in London, or to the Secretary of State, he would have been told that he wished to introduce a system of centralization, to which many objections would be taken. He proposed, on the contrary, to make the Bill local in its operation, and to intrust it to the county magistrates who had no interests hostile to those of the ratepayers, and who were, in fact, interested in the economical management of the rate, since the highway rates were practically a deduction from their rents. The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Hardy) said, it would have been better to adhere to the Bill he introduced, and not to make the adoption of the Bill optional with the magistrates of the county. If the House chose to make this alteration in the measure, he had no objection. He should himself prefer a compulsory Bill; but he feared it might be found very difficult to pass such a Bill, and he thought it would facilitate the passing of any measure if its adoption were left optional with the magistrates. It was true, as the hon. Member (Mr. Hardy) had remarked, that he had proposed a Bill on this subject many years ago. He believed that the Bill was founded on a sound principle, that it would produce a more efficient repair of the highways, at less cost than at present, and he trusted that the House would give its assent to the measure now brought forward.

Leave given.

Bill for the better Management of Highways in England ordered to be brought in by Sir GEORGE LEWIS and Mr. CLIVE.

Bill presented and read 1°.