HC Deb 26 February 1866 vol 181 cc1135-42

Sir, I wish to call the attention of the House, before going into Committee of Supply, to a subject which I consider almost of national importance. It certainly affects all of us very nearly. Some of us have to endure evils—which might easily be remedied—for six months in the year. The rest have to undergo them from one year's end to the other. I suppose this is a subject which no metropolitan Member can take up without either offending his constituents or sacrificing his conscience. I propose to ask a question instead of moving for a Committee, because of some words which fell from the Home Secretary last year on the Motion for a Commission to consider this very point. He said he did not understand what advantage would result from the appointment of a Commission, because the facts were already known. If it was not necessary that a Commission should then be appointed, still less is it necessary that a Committee should now inquire into the matter; and, therefore, I shall content myself with asking whether the right hon. Baronet intends to introduce any legislation on the subject. Before putting the question, however, I will say a few words to point out the evil. This is, I suppose, the largest and most opulent city in the world; yet there is, not a small borough in the kingdom which might not favourably compare with it in results. On the other side of the water Paris is infinitely more beautiful, more clean, and more convenient than London; yet it is not nearly so wealthy. In Paris the municipality actually find their improvements are a source of revenue. Here we have no improvement, yet our rates are always heavy. What is the want? What is the deficiency? First, we want those to rule, who have a sense of responsibility, and of shame—not those who are so low that public opinion and the public prints never reach them. Secondly, we want those to rule who could devote their time to it—not those who hasten carelessly over the business, in order that they may be able to run away to their money-making pursuits. These two objects can be attained only by a Board whose character is high and whose authority is established. Above all, we suffer from want of unity. There are in London numerous boards and jurisdictions which divide the metropolis between them, not according to one system, but according to nineteen different systems. These various jurisdictions hustle and jostle each other, and prevented any good from ever being done. I was myself surprised when I found the number of jurisdictions into which Loudon was divided. First, there is the corporation of the City; then the corporation of the city of Westminster; there are 39 Boards of Guardians, subdivided into relief districts; there are 88 parish vestries and vestries of district parishes. Then there is another division into eight Parliamentary cities and boroughs. There are 37 registration districts for the registration of births, marriages, and deaths; and 135 sub-districts. But these are not conterminous, they have different limits. Then there are the Conservators of the River Thames, and there is the Metropolitan Board. That again is divided into 39 constituencies, and each is subdivided afterwards into wards. Then the inland revenue divides London into surveyors' districts for the purpose of the Excise, and these again are divided into collectors' districts; but the inland revenue itself also divides London into totally different districts for the purpose of the income tax. The Metropolitan Building Act divides London into 56 different districts; the County Courts Act into 13 districts; the. Metropolitan Police into 19; the Post Office into 10; the Lords Lieutenant into 4 districts, with 4 different sets of magistrates. For the Militia it is subdivided into 15 districts. It is divided into 17 districts for gas supply, and into 8 for water supply. These different districts are not conterminous, and are formed on 19 different systems. And what is the effect of having so many different systems? First, take the financial effect in one district. The city of Westminster comprises 9 parishes and 5 boards of local management. They have a staff of clerks and officials sufficient for the whole metropolis. They have 21 clerks and vestry clerks; 6 surveyors, 4 solicitors, 9 officers of health, 6 inspectors of nuisances, and 9 staffs for their 9 workhouses. Now, what is the sum which Westminster collects every year? £194,031. Marylebone parish collects a like sum—namely, £194,036; a difference of £5 only between them; but what a difference there is in the expense as regards salaries and poundage! In Westminster, out of £194,000, they pay £17,462, while Marylebone, for having the same work done a great deal better, only pays £7,711. So much for the financial effect of dividing London into so many different districts; now let us look to the effects which every one must see with his eyes. I do not merely allude to the state of the streets, where no one can walk without getting into basins of mud; while those who drive in vehicles are made aware of holes in the streets by the severe jolts they receive. Nor do I allude merely to the roads, which are neglected till dangerous, and then macadamized until impassable. I allude to evils of greater magnitude. Conceive a new street laid down firmly and handed over to the parish vestry. No sooner is it paved, and the traffic of it begun, than down comes a water company who desires to lay down their pipes; the whole street is torn up, and the traffic stopped for a month. At length their operations are concluded; the pavement is relaid and the traffic resumed. This lasts not a week when a gas company takes up the pavement again to lay down their pipes, and for another month the public and the shopkeepers on both sides of the way suffer the greatest inconvenience. Again it is paved, and the traffic resumed. But after this severe ordeal the street, of course, is seriously impaired, and then the vestry steps in to repair it; so that the traffic is again stopped for the third time, and great expense is incurred. This is no hypothetical case. It is more than borne out by actual facts. I will mention one. The Metropolitan Board had determined to construct a model street—Southwark Street, in St. Saviour's. They had not sufficient powers, and determined to come to Parliament for the purpose. They did so. They proposed to construct a subway in which the pipes of the different water and gas companies might be laid. The Southwark and Vauxhall Water Company appeared before the Parliamentary Committee and fought the Metropolitan Board. The street, however, was made with a fine subway six feet high, and everyone expected that it would be safe from being broken up, and that the gas and water companies would be glad to make use of the subway. However, the street was not long completed before a water company gave notice to the vestry of their intention to break it up; and on being told that a subway was provided for receiving the pipes, they replied, "Oh, while working in the Committee-room we acquired a Parliamentary love of consistency, and, therefore, we cannot make use of the subway which we opposed in Parliament." The company then exerted their rights, and the street, which had been well made with concrete and granite, was, by the aid of powerful levers, broken up and destroyed. This was a difficult operation; for the street also was obdurate in its consistency. The fact is that these water and gas companies ought to be put under some controlling power. They are nothing but monopolies, which it was thought that we years ago had abolished. They each obtain a district, and within that district they supply inferior gas or impure water and charge a high price for it, and tyrannize over us at their pleasure. They are huge monopolies which we have set up to reign over us. If the gas or water they supply be bad, and you apply to the company, they laugh you to scorn, because they know that you can get it nowhere else. I will now refer to another point. St. James' Street, Piccadilly, happens to be partly in one parish and partly in another. Now, when the boundary line goes down the middle of a street the result is not so bad; but sometimes the boundary line goes obliquely across, and then great inconvenience is experienced from the want of concurrent action on the part of the two vestries. In some such cases, also, the boundary line goes unevenly or in a waving line. The consequence under these circumstances is, that when either parish chooses to pave their portion, the traffic of the street is stopped, and then perhaps a few months later the other vestry determine to pave, and the traffic is again stopped, and thus the inconvenience is prolonged. There was a case where a vestry did not choose to finish a new street in Islington, and the consequence was that in a short time there were ruts in it eighteen inches deep. Thus a conflict of authorities occasions a permanent mischief. But other evils of a more ephemeral character often arise. Last January the snow fell so fast one Wednesday night, that in the morning it lay in the streets more than a foot in depth. Next day it was churned by the traffic into a dark unwholesome slush. In going to the Board of Trade on that occasion I had to pass through great puddles, which took me above my ankles. And yet if a man had been employed he could easily have kept the gutters and water-ways open, and the water would have run away. Every omnibus from the west that day discharged its passengers at Regent Circus, and let them plod their weary way to the City. Of cabs there were very few; they drove tandem, and went at a foot's pace. In the night this sludgey ooze froze over; so that in the morning there was a variation of smooth ice, and lumps of frozen snow, like icebergs, very difficult to surmount. The changes between snow and icebergs had an interrupted sway for three days; to the great inconvenience of all cockneys. Yet, by the Metropolitan Local Management Act of 1855 "every vestry shall cause the footpaths to be swept and cleansed;" but that is a duty the vestries never perform; it is therefore requisite that there should be some general board of supervision for the whole metropolis in order to preserve the streets from being in a disgraceful condition, dangerous to passengers on foot, and in carriages, and riders on horseback. In Paris a general board manages all these things, and the consequence is that Paris is always attended to in a proper and efficient manner. Many accidents take place in London from frost, though nothing can be easier than to collect the ashes from the ash-pits in the houses on each side, scatter them over the road, and thus render it safe. I will not enlarge on the architecture of the streets. There is a dull and dirty uniformity, occasionally relieved by a few incongruous elements of individual eccentricity. Neither will I say much with respect to the increased traffic of the streets; because every one is aware that he is liable to be delayed by a huge dray athwart the street, and that when so situated he has no means of beguiling the tedium but by listening to the different forms of imprecation of the drivers. These are, however, matters to which the Government should direct their attention. In 1864 no less than 232 persons were killed by carts, drays, and cabs; so that walking in London is more dangerous than travelling by the Brighton Railway. All this arises from the fact of there being no general ruling authority. It is a Babylonian anarchy which some persons worship as the basis of their liberty, and for which others entertain a maudlin sentiment under the name of local government. The cleansing of our streets by the vestries is most imperfectly performed. Some courts, streets, and lanes in London are mere fever dens, and the Nuisance Re- moval Acts are entirely ignored. In 1861 there were only 391 cases of typhus in the fever hospitals; in 1862 the number was 2,697, and of the attacked 1,334 died; in 1863 there were 2,112 cases; in 1864 there were 3,610 cases, and in 1865 the number was 3,400. Dr. Horace Jeafferson calculates that there were yearly 16,600 such cases, and that the disease proved fatal in 2,300 cases. This state of things is caused to a great extent by there being no proper authority to put in force the Nuisances Removal Act. And why is this? Because the owners of typhus dens are vestrymen. In St. Pancras this year the medical officer prepared a very able report, in which he pointed out the nests of typhus which existed, and showed how the fever might be checked and cholera warded off. In the midst of reading this report, up jumped a vestryman and moved, as an amendment, that the report be not received. The doctor was called impertinent for bringing such a matter under the notice of the vestry, and in short he got nothing but objurgatory shrieks and vulgar vituperation for his pains. The truth is that the owners of these nests of typhus sat at the vestry board, and they would not join the medical officer in improving these districts. Now this is not self-government; but a want of government—an anarchy and scandal. Where self-government exists, that is, where the people really govern themselves, by all means foster and cherish it. But where the intelligent shrink from the trouble, the industrious hurry off to their money-making pursuits, then this vaunted self-government sinks so low that it falls upon the shoulders of those who feel a little importance in pretending to discharge its functions. The educated avoid it; and we are martyred for a sentiment, and inconvenienced for a social principle of Anglo-Saxon times. My notion is that evils should be removed wherever they are found (whether they are pollutions of rivers or stinks in streets), even at the cost of fine theories. I may be asked what I would propose. I would say, let the Metropolitan Board, or some one board, have an extended jurisdiction over the whole of the metropolis. It would then be an honour to belong to it. The minor boards need not be extinguished, but should be maintained in subjection to the general board to execute mere local duties. All the skilled officers, as they are always badly chosen by mere numbers, should be nominated by the Government. I should also like to see a Minister in the House who should be directly responsible for the good government of the metropolis, and for the supervision of all the municipalities and rivers in England. This, in fact, would he the plan adapted to the metropolis, which I proposed last year for every water-shed in England, I beg to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, Whether the Government proposes to legislate on this subject?


Sir, it is quite true, as the noble Lord has stated, that when a Motion was made on this subject last Session I objected to the appointment of a Commission to inquire into the facts, because, as I said, they were notorious, and every one knew the great inconvenience resulting from the multitude of local authorities in London. I did not state that it would be inexpedient to inquire into the best modes of remedying the existing defects. But I stated that my own impression was that it would be desirable to give a more extended jurisdiction to the Metropolitan Board of Works, to enable them to superintend the paving, cleansing, and lighting of streets, not by superseding the existing local bodies, but by exercising a superintendence over them, and seeing that they perform efficiently all those duties which the law casts upon them, and which are now most imperfectly discharged. During the recess I have been in communication with the Metropolitan Board of Works, which appointed a committee to consider this question. The result of the deliberations of that committee has been that they were not prepared to recommend the consolidation of all existing boards and vestries; but that they are favourable to some extension of the appellate or superintending jurisdiction of the Board which already exists in some cases, such as those as to streets where one side was in one and the other in another jurisdiction. With regard to such streets they have already power to interfere and compel unity of action. That power has been exercised, I think, in St. James' Street, to prevent public inconvenience. With regard to streets being torn up by gas companies, I do not think that arises from any defect in London as distinguished from any other place. Any large city or borough may be subjected to the same inconvenience, because the companies obtain from Parliament powers which they exercise in defiance of local authority, I suppose that the same thing may be done in Manchester or Liverpool, although each place is governed by a town council with jurisdiction extending over the whole place. Whatever the local authority may be, if Parliament give power to a company to break up pavements and lay pipes, the local authority must submit to the exercise of powers granted by Parliament. It is very desirable that the attention of Committees of this House should be directed to the matter, so as to prevent them giving powers which may override those of local authorities. The hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Ayrton) has given notice that to-morrow he will move for a Select Committee to inquire into the local government and local taxation of the metropolis; and I hope the House will be disposed to agree to that Motion. I think this matter may be usefully inquired into by that Committee. It is not easy to devise a scheme to put an end to the various jurisdictions of London; but I trust the result of the appointment of a Committee will be that a feasible plan will be proposed for obviating the evils resulting from a multiplicity of jurisdictions.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put, and agreed to.