HC Deb 16 July 1875 vol 225 cc1607-17

, in rising to call the attention of the House to the evidence given before the Commissioners of Public Works in Ireland, at the recent inquiries held under the provisions of the Shannon Navigation Act, 1874, said, he did not wish to weary the House by going into details upon the past history of this subject; but, at the same time, it was necessary that he should state a few facts as to the efforts which had been made for a series of years by successive Governments for the improvement of the navigation and the drainage o£ the lands watered by the Shannon. The question was one which interested not only the private proprietors along the river, but the public, and it had, some 40 years ago, attracted the attention of Parliament and the Government. In consequence, a sum of nearly £600,000 had been expended upon improvements, chiefly directed towards the better navigation of the river, and more than one-half of the amount expended had been repaid by the counties adjacent to the river. That money was expended by the Commissioners without the proprietors of the lands affected having the slightest voice in the matter, and the result was that, although the navigation of the river was undoubtedly greatly improved, the lands were not freed from liability to disastrous floods. Several of the chief proprietors of the riparian lands met after the disastrous floods of 1861, and agreed to present a Memorial to Parliament, praying that they might be permitted to make the necessary improvements at their own expense, for the river was not private but public property, and could not be touched by any private individual without the permission of the Legislature. That was the first step in the more modern agitation with respect to the River Shannon. The prayer of the Memorial was not granted; the Government refusing to allow the memorialists to make these improvements at their own expense. But those periodical overflows, and the loss of crops and other damage thereby done to the proprietors and tenants, induced the Government to institute an inquiry, and they appointed a most eminent engineer, Mr. Bateman, to carry on the investigation, whilst the proprietors, on their side, appointed another engineer, Mr. Lynam, and each of those gentlemen had made Reports on the subject. The result was, that after considering these Reports, the Treasury agreed to adopt the plan submitted to them by Mr. Bateman, and to carry it out at an estimated cost of £200,000, one-half of which was to be borne by the proprietors and the other to be a free gift from the Treasury. The Bill in which this proposal was embodied, for reasons to which he need not allude, failed to pass the House, and so the matter stood when the present Government came into office. He wished to say that the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary for Ireland (Sir Michael Hicks-Beach) had, on his accession to office, visited the whole of the district, made himself acquainted with all the facts, and had shown an earnest anxiety to promote the object in view. After the investigation made by the right hon. Baronet, a Bill was introduced last Session in reference to the improvement of the Shannon, and he believed that it was brought in and passed into law with a sincere desire on the part of Her Majesty's Government that it might be the means of effecting a great public good; but it was, in fact, one of the very worst that had ever been proposed in connection with the River Shannon, because it was utterly impracticable. Under its provisions a free grant was to be made from the Exchequer of £150,000 for the carrying out of the necessary works, on the condition that the proprietors of the lands to be benefited would charge their estates to a like extent. This, at first sight, might seem a very generous offer, and one that the proprietors should gladly accept. The late Government had proposed to give a public grant towards the improvement of the river of only £100,000, and when the present Government offered £150,000, it might seem very unreasonable on the part of the proprietors to object; but it must be recollected that the increased public grant was to be dependent on an increased charge on the lands, and that whereas under the Bill of the late Government the lands were to be charged with £100,000, under the present Act they were to be charged with £150,000.

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members being found present.


resumed: The question, therefore, with the proprietors, was whether the benefit to be conferred upon their estates would be equal to the charge to be imposed upon them, and they were unanimously of opinion that it would not. They, therefore, objected to the carrying out of the plans. They would be charged at the rate of £7,500 a-year, while the utmost estimated improved value was not put higher than £5,000 a-year. The evidence given before the Public Works Commissioners on the subject by both owners and occupiers bore out this fact, and the Commissioners themselves showed in their remarks that they did not dispute it. [The hon. Member then quoted from the statements of the Commissioners showing that they did not dispute the contention of the proprietors that the proposed annual charge was excessive.] The evidence also clearly showed that it was not the entire removal, but the regulation of the waters that was sought after. The proprietors did not desire that the ordinary winter floods should be altogether removed, except where they were injurious; but, of course, they wished that the summer and autumn floods should be entirely done away with. He freely admitted that the opinion as to the retention of the ordinary and non-injurious floods was more strongly expressed in this inquiry, both by landlords and tenants, than it had ever been before; but this was not a new idea as the Commissioners seemed to think. So long ago as 1838, Mr. Nicholson, an engineer appointed by the Government, reported that the retention of the winter floods would add considerably to the value of the lands, and in the late engineering investigation, Mr. Lynam, according to his statements before the Commissioners, calculated upon retain- ing these floods, and no scheme would ever be accepted or approved by the proprietors which did not provide for their retention. Before the introduction of the Bill of the late Government a valuation of the lands was made by joint valuators, one appointed by the Government and the other by the proprietors, and the charges which they thought could safely be placed on the lands, in consequence of the proposed improvement, were increased 50 per cent in the present Act. If, then, it were proved and tacitly admitted by the Commissioners themselves that the lands would not be benefited to the extent of the annual charge, could the landlords be expected to approve of this unless they were devoid of common sense? He might be told that he was premature in bringing forward the subject now, because until November the assents and dissents would not have been all sent in under the Act. It was, however, well known that the population had dissented, and he therefore saw no reason why the matter should be allowed to rest for another six months. The proprietors had refused to accept the scheme of 1874, chiefly on the ground that the charge upon their land was excessive; but they had expressed their readiness to approve of a scheme which would charge their land up to the full extent of any value derived from the execution of the works. As this point had been disputed, he wished particularly to refer to the evidence regarding it. In page 58 of the Blue Book, Mr. O'Ferrall, on the part of the Marquess of Clanricarde, Lord Dunsandle, and other chief proprietors of the county of Galway, said— I beg to say that they are quite willing to pay to the extent of the improvements done to the lands, but they object to pay any more. Again, Mr. Fair, on behalf of the chief proprietors in Roscommon, made a similar statement, whilst numbers of individual proprietors such as Mr. Kyle, Mr. Kelly, and others corroborated this view. He urged the Chief Secretary for Ireland to give his attention to this subject during the Recess, and hoped the right hon. Gentleman would see his way to introduce a Bill next Session for the purpose of amending the Act of 1874. That Act had been tried and found wanting, and it was impossible to expect the proprietors to work under it. It was possible to amend it in such a way that by a much smaller expenditure equally good results might be accomplished. In the reach of the river between Castle-connell and Killaloe a very large expenditure of money was estimated. The extent of the land in that reach was only about 600 acres, and he believed the estimated cost per acre for improving the land in that district would be something like £30, or more than the fee-simple of the land. The proprietors there had expressed a desire to remain as they were; and, as the expenditure in that part would be very heavy, he suggested to the Government whether that part of the scheme might not be left out altogether. He would also suggest, as a system of regulating weirs must form part of any scheme which might be adopted, that this should be tried first before any expensive excavating works were undertaken. Many of the proprietors believed that this would be suffcient, and they were supported, to a certain extent, by engineering reports, and, beyond doubt, the substitution of regulating weirs in place of the fixed immovable stone-dams now placed across the river would accomplish much good. He would conclude by again expressing the hope that the Government would consider the question during the Recess, with a view of proposing a scheme which would be acceptable generally.


also impressed upon the Government the necessity of amending the Act of 1874, and contended that the evidence given before the Public Works Commissioners in Ireland went to show that on utilitarian grounds the scheme would be ineffective. In the evidence taken before the Commission a scheme was disclosed, which, at one-half the cost to the ratepayers, was likely to effect all that was desired.


, as representing the county which would be the most largely taxed under the Act, pointed out that the Government had taken the whole responsibility upon themselves, because they had refused to listen to the Amendments which the Irish Members at the time desired to propose, and had incited them to dissension among themselves. Clever as was the manœuvre of the Chief Secretary, however, it had completely failed. A dam was built without any sluices, and the engineer- ing evidence went to show that when there was a heavy rainfall, the water overflowed the dams and flooded the surrounding country. The Government had made a huge engineering blunder, by building dams across the river without sluices, and he thought that the Government might therefore be fairly asked to solve the problem out of the Imperial Exchequer solely. The probable cost would not be more than £30,000. There was, he might add, a second plan which might be adopted, and that was that they would undertake to carry out the necessary works and not charge any of the proprietors, of whose acceptance of the present scheme there was not the slightest chance, for a larger annual value than that in which he was benefited by those works.


expressed his surprise at the absence of the Irish Members who sat on the Ministerial Benches from a discussion to which they certainly could not object as having no practical bearing on the interests of Ireland.


said, the hon. Member who had last spoken (Mr. Fay) had brought an indictment against hon. Members representing constituencies in the North of Ireland for not being present on the discussion of a question which did not greatly affect them; but he thought it right to remind the hon. Member that he had heard com-plaints of the too frequent absence of hon. Members who professed the same opinions as his own when subjects of great national importance were discussed. As to the question now under consideration, he must say he was somewhat surprised that the hon. and gallant Member for Galway (Captain Nolan), while he had spoken of many Governments as having been in error with respect to it, should have charged the present Government with the final iniquity of having proposed to Parliament a scheme fair-seeming, but inadequate to carry out the purpose which they professed to have in view, and having endeavoured to carry that scheme by exciting divisions among hon. Gentlemen representing Ireland. The hon. and gallant Member was, he could not help thinking, a little too suspicious, for the whole basis of the Act of last Session, which contained within itself very large concessions from the Imperial Exchequer on behalf of Irish interests was, that those locally interested should first consent to tax themselves to a certain extent in order to carry out a work by which they would be principally benefited. He did not complain that the subject had been introduced to the notice of the House by the hon. Member for Roscommon (the O'Conor Don). Although it could hardly yet be said that the Act of last Session had proved a failure, he fully admitted, from the number of objections raised to it, that hon. Members were quite justified in bringing the matter before Parliament. With regard to the drainage of the Shannon Valley, the statement of the hon. and gallant Member for Galway was scarcely accurate. Unquestionably it was originally contemplated that the drainage of the Shannon Valley, as well as the navigation of the river, should be improved; but that was quite a secondary object, and it was, to a great extent, effected. It was because the Government felt that the question was of national importance, and that the works were of such magnitude that they could not be entirely executed by local resources, that they proposed the Act of last Session by which they undertook to meet one half of the cost. Prom the time the subject was first brought before Parliament, in 1861, it was understood that not only the summer, but also the winter floods were to be guarded against; but no sooner was the assessment made for the works than the landowners suddenly discovered that, so far from the winter floods being disastrous, they were really beneficial, and that, instead of paying anything to the Treasury, they themselves ought rather to be compensated for the injury done them by good drainage. In fact, some of the proprietors protested against the Act altogether irrespective of the amount to be charged upon their lands. He found it stated generally that the proprietors at the upper end preferred to remain as they were, as the proposed works would do them harm. Others complained that the assessment was far beyond the value of any improvement that their lands could possibly derive from the undertaking. They had in the evidence the statement of one landowner that land which now brought him from £7 to £8 per acre would be reduced to 30s. or 35s. per acre if the winter floods were drained off; and one proprietor of the same name as the hon. and gallant Member for Galway told them point blank that he ought to be paid compensation for the drainage works. Of course, if the winter floods were really a benefit and not an injury to the Shannon Valley, it was easy to understand those statements; but it was very unfortunate that this distinction between summer and winter floods had hardly been ever mentioned until an Act had been passed to remedy the grievance which had been complained of for many years. As it was, the position was somewhat discouraging. No doubt, it was asserted by the proprietors' agents that the Shannon waters could be regulated so as to improve the neighbouring lands at a cost of £150,000, instead of £300,000. On the other hand, the opinions of the experienced engineers of the Board of Works and also of Mr. Bateman pointed in an entirely opposite direction. All those gentlemen said that the mere regulation of the floods, which had been suggested by one or more speakers that night, would be wholly insufficient to remedy the evil. That question was referred years ago to Mr. Bateman, one of the foremost engineers who had devoted themselves to that class of works; and he did not think, looking to the largo amount of public money that was involved, that the Government would be justified in preferring Mr. Lynam's opinion to that of Mr. Bateman. It might be that what was necessary to regulate the summer and autumn floods might be obtained without incurring the entire expense proposed by the existing Act of Parliament. That was a question which might be inquired into, and certainly the existing Act would give the Government ample power to effect that object, because the Act did not compel them to expend £300,000, but only fixed that limit to the expenditure, and provided that half of the sum spent should be paid by the owners of the land that was benefited. If it could be satisfactorily proved that by the adoption of a modified scheme all the benefit that was really required by the landowners and tenants of that valley could be effected for less than the £300,000 which Mr. Bateman last year calculated would be the probable cost of the plan, then all that was necessary might be secured without any alteration of the law; and he hoped, judging from what they had heard that evening, that such a solution might be feasible. But what he would suggest to those who took an interest in that matter was that he hoped neither they nor the landowners in the Shannon Valley would be carried away by the idea that it would be right and proper that the Government should bear the whole cost of that work. If no local benefit was to be derived from the scheme, there was no reason for the expenditure of the public money. If local benefit was to be derived, it was right that the landowners and others interested should bear their share of the expense, and he could hold out no hope of a larger proportion being advanced by Parliament to carry out that work than was proposed by the Act of last Session.


said, the condition of things arising from the floods had existed for many years, and the question was what could be done to remedy it? From a letter written by Major Trench, the Predecessor of the hon. and gallant Member for Galway it appeared that when the river overflowed its banks the villages were in a miserable condition, nearly all the houses were surrounded with water, boats being anchored at the doors, and in many instances, where the doors would admit them, the boats remained stationary under the beds, ready to be used by the inmates for their escape. A repetition of that state of things might be expected at the present season, and it must periodically recur in a district of from 120 to 130 miles in extent, unless some remedy for the evil was provided. The present Government were entitled to credit for the promptitude with which, on taking office, they had taken action in the matter, and for their honest endeavours to set it right; but they laboured under the same difficulty that many previous Governments had experienced through receiving their advice from a Department which was in favour of an enormous outlay of public money. The engineers, on whom the Government relied, had never, until 1872, gone abroad to inspect the barrage works and sluice system of foreign countries, from which they might have gathered valuable lessons. The Board of Works in Ireland was greatly over-weighted, and, therefore, when they wished to know how the Shannon could be improved, they employed Mr. Bateman, an English engineer—no doubt, of the greatest eminence—but one whose works were remarkable, not only for their completeness, but also for their cost. What they required was not great and expensive works of the kind planned by Mr. Bateman, but that the Government should put their own engineering works in reasonable condition. It was a mistake to suppose that the landowners on the Shannon were unwilling to bear their share of the expense of improving the navigation of the river. What they were naturally unwilling to pay for was for works which they believed to be unnecessary. He believed, if the Government would instruct some engineer who was well acquainted with the system adopted in foreign countries to make a tour of the Shannon, and confer with those interested in the question, that some easy solution of the difficulty might be found in the direction of


ascribed the failure of the Act of last year to the usual faults in Irish legislation and Irish administration. When the measure was before the House he wished to propose an Amendment, but was told that if he insisted upon any change the scheme would be withdrawn, and Ireland would be left without the boon intended for her, and the same thing occurred to other hon. Members. Was it likely such a thing would have happened, if the river had been the Severn instead of the Shannon? The work contemplated by the Act was in trusted to a body of Commissioners, and this was the fatal defect which he had desired by his Amendment to remedy. He had heard the opinion frequently expressed that the Irish Board of Works should be described as a Board to obstruct improvements in Ireland. Such was the nature of the relations between the Board and the authorities at Dublin Castle that it was impossible to fix the responsibility for any mismanagement, and this was the fault in Irish administration to which he ascribed, in part, the failure of the Shannon Navigation Act. There ought to be an Irish Minister, with a seat in that House, responsible for matters of this kind and amenable to the opinion of Parliament. The right hon. Baronet the Chief Secretary for Ireland could exercise no real control whatever over the Board of Works. It was admitted that there was an evil connected with the Shannon which called for remedy. Government had brought in a Bill to remedy the defect, but the measure had failed. These were patent facts. It was not enough to say that it was the fault of the landed proprietors, for surely it was the business of statesmen and legislators to adapt measures to the men with whom they had to deal.