HC Deb 10 July 1863 vol 172 cc577-86

said, he wished to call the attention of the House to the want of efficient control of the Public Works of the Country, and to the necessity of the re-organization of the Board of Works, with a view to remedy the evil. In doing so it was not his object to make any charge against the persons connected with the office of Public Works. The First Commissioner was respected by all who knew him; and with regard to the staff, he might say that it was impossible for the country to be served by more faithful and able servants. What he maintained was, that the First Commissioner of Works was no Commissioner of Works at all, and that his office was not practically an office connected with the public works of the country. Under that office 120 buildings in England were kept in repair, and twenty-four in Scotland. As many as seventeen parks and garden grounds, eighty post office buildings, and forty-one probate registries were under its administration, and £28,000 a year were expended for the rent of certain offices. The First Commissioner of Works might, therefore, be termed the First Commissioner of Parks, Palaces, and Public Offices. The public works of the country were really conducted by all the Departments of the Government, each Department conducting those with which it was connected. Thus it was considered that the Admiralty must have the charge of the works for the dockyards, harbours, and works connected with them. In a neighbouring country the administration of the public works was conducted in a different way, and he wished something like the plan there adopted to be followed in this country. In France, if the state of the dockyards or harbours required attention, the matter was submitted to the Minister of Public Works, who was aided by a permanent Council, and after full consideration the wishes of the Admiralty were carried out by the Department of Public Works, which dealt with the matter in an able, practical, and businesslike manner. Let the House consider whether the Admiralty in this country conducted the works under its care in a way to deserve the confidence of the country. With regard to Keyham, the estimates presented to that House had been exceeded by four times the original amount. The first estimate for Alderney harbour was £665,000, and the House was assured that it would not be exceeded; but £1,500,000 was now required to finish only one moiety of the harbour, which in its incomplete state would be perfectly useless as a protection against the greater number of storms occurring in that quarter. Having been acquainted with Mr. Walker, the engineer of Alderney harbour, and having always found his estimates accurately prepared and his plans carefully considered, he was anxious to discover how it was that the estimate had been so far exceeded. The fact was that scarcely were the works commenced when an official visit was made to the harbour by the Lords of the Admiralty, who took the clerk of the works into their confidence, and altogether changed the plan of the harbour. Scarcely anything of the original design was left—amongst other alterations they directed the piers to be carried out where the water was 125 to 128 feet deep instead of 60 feet. Of what use was it their voting sums of money if estimates were to be exceeded and plans abandoned without their sanction? Such a thing could not have happened in France, for there all the plans were in the first place fully considered by the proper authorities, and no contractor ever hesitated to accept the official estimate; and in the works carried out by his firm in that country, involving the expenditure of millions, he had never known the estimate to be fallacious. He wished to know why such a mode of proceeding could not be adopted in England. It might be said that the system of centralization which prevailed in France was a system which the people of this country would not allow to be established here; but, still, without entirely approving that system, they might learn from it how to correct some of the errors existing in their own system. Holy-head harbour had been four times changed in its plan—so that it was evident that in the first instance no well-considered plan had been adopted. At Jersey, a large amount of money, £500,000 or £600,000, had been expended on the harbour, but the works had since been abandoned. The Board of Admiralty did not do their work efficiently. Neither did the Board of Trade with regard to the harbours remitted to its superintendence. Why, the other night Portpatrick was spoken of, and positively his right hon. Friend had never seen the harbour, and no one was responsible for the expenditure to which the House stood pledged. Therefore, it was well worth the consideration of the House whether some alteration should not be made in the present mode of conducting these matters. He thought that with regard to the Board of Trade some change should be effected. He did not object to the Board of Trade having the charge of the ordinary commercial business of the harbour, but the public works connected with harbours, as well as all the public works in the country, he would transfer to the Board of Public Works, and give to the Minister of Public Works enlarged and increased responsibility. A great many public works were carried out under the administration of the Horse Guards, and other Departments. He would remodel the Office of Works altogether, and place at the head of it a responsible Minister, under whose control all the public works of the country, for which Votes were passed in that House, should be placed. That Minister should be responsible to the House for the preparation of careful estimates, and the engineers and architects should also he made responsible to the Minister. The excesses which marked the estimates for public works in this country were unknown on the Continent. In Prance, in Prussia, in Austria, and in Italy, the contrast to England in the matter of public works was most disgraceful to us. His right hon. Friend the First Commissioner of Works might fancy that he would be subject to very great responsibility under such a plan; but the fact was, that in accordance with the suggested change he would be assisted by three or four practical men, who would act as a council to him, and who, not being changed with each successive Ministry, would keep up a continuous control—while the Minister of Public Works, with a seat in the House, would always be amenable to Parliament.


said, he did not know how far his hon. Friend might be sanguine in effecting a change in the Board of Works; but for himself he was in perfect despair at the manner in which our public works were carried on. Night after night hon. Members came down to the House and said nothing could be more ridiculous and wasteful than the mode in which money was voted; yet whenever a Motion on the subject was brought forward, one had no more support from one's friends than from the Government—they literally seemed to be playing into each other's hands, and he supposed they would go on squandering money year after year. They were perpetually voting money for the purchase of houses in the vicinity of that building at five times their value, because the Government had not foresight to buy them up at the proper time. The "abomination of desolation" must go on; and if it got much worse, then there would be some hope that Parliament would interfere. He wished, however, to ask a question of his right hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Cowper) with regard to the public statues in this metropolis. He desired to know who had the control of the public monuments. He saw from a Return made to Parliament that a certain number of our monuments were under the kind protection of the right hon. Gentleman; but with regard to the rest there seemed to be no control whatever to prevent absurdities or monstrosities being put up. In passing through Leicester Square that day he saw a saw a statue of, he believed, one of the Jameses or Georges, on horseback; but the statue was actually without legs. The figure, which was represented to be in armour, had, moreover, only one arm, and by what ingenuity it managed to sit on the horse he could not comprehend. Yet this statue had been put up in the classical land of foreigners, who looked upon Leicester Square as the metropolis of London-He should like to know who was responsible for this absurdity, and whether, at any rate, there was no possibility of the right hon. Gentleman having a greater control over the public monuments than he seemed to possess. Again, he went recently to see the public monuments in St. Paul's Cathedral, and found them in a state disgraceful to the country. He believed those monu- ments were not in the right hon. Gentleman's Department, but he should be glad to learn who had any control over them. But all this proved what the hon. Baronet (Sir Morton Peto) had said—namely, that there ought to be a Minister of Public Works who would undertake the charge of all works of a public character, and especially of the public monuments. Until that was done there would be no improvement, and until there was an improvement our monuments would be a subject of ridicule to all "intelligent foreigners" who happened to visit them.


said, that having been connected with the Board of Admiralty at a time when some of the alterations of plans which had been impugned took place, he felt bound to defend that Department from the accusations that had been levelled against it. With respect to Alderney, there had, no doubt, been an alteration in the plans. The original estimate was for a smaller work, designed by Mr. Walker, who was deserving of all the eulogiums which had been passed upon him. When these works at Alderney were originally designed, the harbour was intended to receive three or four steamers, Alderney being considered a kind of watch-tower against Cherbourg. But in those days steamers were very small vessels as compared with the vessels now built; and when the great increase in the size of steamers took place, it became necessary to alter the plans for Alderney, and to enlarge them so as to enable the harbour to accommodate the larger vessels. Whether the matter had been under the control of the Admiralty or the Board of Works, or of some fanciful Minister of Works, the alteration must have been made, or the public interests would have been injuriously affected. The hon. Gentleman then spoke of Keyham. It had been said that Gentlemen on the front Opposition bench always joined with the Government in passing enlarged estimates; but the reason of that was that Gentlemen on the opposite bench had been in office, and knew at least something about the matter. The original proposal for the purchase of Keyham was made by a Government connected with the party now sitting opposite, and with respect to that dockyard the same thing happened as at Alderney. It was found that the plans as originally framed were inadequate for the demands of a navy composed of larger vessels than existed at the time of the commencement of the undertaking. Sir James Graham, who at first had objected to Keyham, afterwards found it necessary to propose a consider able increase in the estimates and to construct larger works. When he (Sir C. Wood) was First Lord of the Admiralty, he found that the largest dock of Sir James Graham's construction would not receive the Himalaya, and he was obliged to order the removal of the head of a dock to allow that most useful vessel to be received into the yard. Would any one say that it would have been good economy to permit the works at Keyham to be constructed upon the original scale, so as to be utterly useless for our present wants? Then, as to Holyhead, after the original plan and estimate were agreed to, there came a cold fit upon the House of Commons, and upon the recommendation of a Committee the plans were reduced. Soon afterwards the Lords of the Admiralty visited Holyhead, and found that the increased size of war steamers, and the demands of Irish Members for speedy communication between this country and Ireland, rendered it necessary to increase the works. An alteration, therefore, was again made; but would the House say that that alteration was improper? In that, as in the other cases, if those alterations had not been made, the alternative would have been the expenditure of public money upon works which, when completed, would have been of no public advantage. Some remarks had been made as to the advantage which some Departments, such as the Home Office and the Colonial Office, enjoyed of having permanent officers well acquainted with the business of the Departments, and who were able to assist by their experience and knowledge successive Secretaries of State; but the same state of things existed at the Admiralty. There was a director of public works, who was a permanent officer. When he first became connected with the Admiralty he found Colonel Bradford filling that office, and subsequently it had been filled by Colonel Lee. Every first Lord and Board of Admiralty had been able to obtain the assistance of one of those able and distinguished officers, who filled permanent appointments, and were intimately acquainted with everything that was in course of progress.


said, that any suggestions on this subject coming from the hon. Baronet the Member for Finsbury were deserving the careful consideration of the House; but he feared that to adopt a system of centralization such as bad been proposed would not be conducive to the interests of the country. The charge of the whole of the public works would surpass the physical capacity of any single official, even if one could be found sufficiently skilled in all the different branches of construction to be able to direct them. If the Government, for instance, wanted to build fortifications they must intrust the undertaking, not to a civil, but to a military engineer. In the same way an ordinary architect would not be competent to superintend the formation of docks—a man of Special training would be required for that duty. It was true, no doubt, that harbours had been built which were not large enough for vessels of the new and improved character, but that was owing to a change of circumstances for which the Admiralty, who had acted on the best advice, were not to blame. In his opinion, each Department ought to be left to deal with its own works.


held that the Government ought to bear the full responsibility of the public works. He recollected that when, some time ago, money was obtained for Alderney, it was then represented as a harbour of refuge; but it was afterwards admitted that that was a mere pretence, and that the real object of the harbour was to watch Cherbourg. He did not think such deceptions ought to be practised on the House.


said, that the Estimate for Holyhead harbour had already increased to about £1,500,000, and that he believed something like £500,000 more would be required to complete the works.


said, that the proposal of the hon. Member for Finsbury, to add engineering works to the business already intrusted to the Office of Works was a strange one. The French system was not what the hon. Gentleman had represented it to be, but much more resembled the system in this country. In France public works were under six different Departments. Engineering works could not be properly combined with architectural works under one office. In the case of harbours, the naval authorities must have authority to decide, as they only could know the requirements of ships. But, assuming that the erection of buildings, their repair and maintenance, was to be kept in one Department, and engineering works in another, then he thought the hon. Baronet had raised an important question. That question was how we could best combine the perma- nent administrative element of the office of Works with the political and Parliamentary element—that ordinary routine administration which followed precedent with that enterprising policy which fluctuated according to changes of opinion, and which was likely to be influenced by the division list of that House. An undue predominance of the former would render the office bureaucratic, while the excess of the latter would lead to capricious changes. The hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Baillie Cochrane) was anxious altogether to supersede the political element, and to leave the conduct of the Office exclusively to the permanent and administrative element. But that was impossible; for the permanent officers of the establishment, however able they might be, could not propose Votes to Parliament or introduce measures requiring Parliamentary sanction. If the post of First Commissioner were to be abolished to-morrow, the permanent officers would be obliged to apply to the Treasury to get their views carried into effect; and the Treasury would naturally insist upon having its own opinions carried out, and would not make itself subservient to the permanent officers of another Department. Hence the result of obliterating altogether the political element of the Office of Works would be to place the affairs of the Office under another Department, which could not give sufficient attention to them. The hon. Member was right in principle when he proposed that there should be a permanent Council. At present, indeed, that principle was recognised in the arrangements of the Office, not for the ordinary routine work of the Department, but for those new and important works which were occasionally required to be executed. The permanent staff was sufficient to conduct the ordinary business. Mr. Pennethorne was an able architect; the surveyors did their work well; the administration of the parks had given general satisfaction; and it was a fact that the ordinary Estimates had very rarely been exceeded—a statement which could not be made with respect to France. A permanent Council would not be of much use for the ordinary business of the Office; but, in regard to such matters as the selection of designs for great works, he thought it was very desirable. But practically, as he had said, there was a Council already. The designs for the National Gallery, the Houses of Parliament, and the Foreign Office were judged, not by the First Commissioner, or by the permanent officers of the Department, but by competent persons nominated for the purpose. There was such a strong party spirit in the architectural profession that it would be very difficult to name any Council of Architects which would give general satisfaction. The profession was divided into two hostile camps, the one being in favour of Gothic and the other of the classical or Palladian style; and it would constantly happen that the persons forming the Council were not those whom they would desire to select for the particular work in hand. A safer course would be to select the best architect that could be found, and when his design was approved, to leave him to carry out that design according to his individual taste and judgment. With regard to the statue in Leicester Square, and the dirty state of the statues in St, Paul's, the Office of Works had no authority over either—if they had, they would at once recommend that arms and legs should be provided for the first statue, and that the others should be cleansed. The works which had been executed during the time that he had been at the Office of Works were such as the hon. Member had not been able to attack. Among them was the new gallery in the National Gallery—a room which was admitted to be perfectly successful as to the lighting and the proper exhibition of the pictures. So also with the restorations at Windsor Castle. The new Westminster Bridge had been universally approved. With respect to the fountains in Trafalgar Square, the basin had been made alive with a great number of jets, the whole making, he thought, a very pretty composition. At all events, something had been done there towards remedying what was previously a great defect. His hon. Friend, then, had not, in his opinion, made out any case for altering this department of the Government; and it would not be expedient to establish a permanent Council, as such a body would not have that responsibility and unity of action which it was desirable to secure in a well-administered office.


said, the right hon. Gentleman had made a very good speech, but what was wanted was some Minister who could be responsible for all public works. For instance, the original estimate for constructing the harbour of Al- derney, was £650,000, whereas it had been found that the completion of only one pier would cost £1,300,000; and to make an efficient harbour and place of defence would require about £2,000,000. Instead of leaving it to Departments, which proceeded by driblets, a detailed statement of the works required, with the reasons for any change that might be considered necessary in the original plans, should be submitted to Parliament, in order that they might exercise some proper control over the expenditure. The question of public works was one of much greater importance than the Government seemed to think, and it must be dealt with sooner or later.