HC Deb 17 February 1891 vol 350 cc822-32

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

MR. STAVELEY HILL (Staffordshire, Kingswinford)

I do not rise now for the purpose of opposing the Second Reading of the Bill; but after the Bill has been read a second time, I propose to move the Instruction which stood in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Salt).

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed.

(3.15.) MR. S. HILL

I beg now to move that it be an Instruction to the Committee "to omit Clauses 5 and 6." In making this Motion I wish to say that I represent the interests of the Riparian Proprietors, the Conservators of the River Trent, and the Staffordshire County Council. The object of the Instruction is to restrain the Corporation of Wolverhampton from becoming independent of the public law, as to the discharge of the effluent of their sewage into the Pendeford Brook. The Corporation, in 1865, sought to acquire land at Dunstall, but this scheme having been opposed by the then owner, Mr. Hoodson, on public grounds, they obtained with his assistance their present sewage farm at the Barnhurst. Unfortunately, for 10 or 15 years, things went from bad to worse, no real attempt was made to remedy it, until the whole of the arrangements of the Corporation in re- gard to their disposal of the sewage of Wolverhampton became an abominable nuisance, not only to the inhabitants of the immediate locality, but for a distance of from 80 to 100 miles down the streams into which the sewage is directed. Steps were then taken to put a stop to the nuisance, and after the lapse of many years, and every consideration had been shown to them. In November last, Lord Justice Fry, held that there had been negligence on the part of the Corporation, that their action was wilful and illegal, and ordered an injunction and a sequestration against the Corporation. They propose now to take further land. With that we have nothing to do, because we feel that if they want further land they must have it. But the Corporation are now endeavouring by Clause 5 of their Bill to repeal in their favour certain provisions of the Public Health Act and the Rivers Pollution Act. By Clause 6 they seek to set aside the decision of the Courts of Law. I am told that Clause 6 has been withdrawn. I am not astonished at it, as I should have been surprised if anyone could have been found to defend it; but Clause 5 still remains, and although it professes only to repeal certain provisions of the Rivers Pollution Bill in effect it says that they are to be allowed to do what is permitted to no one else, and that a certificate granted by the Local Government Board is to be an answer in all Courts and in all cases against any action which may be brought against the Corporation. It is utterly impossible to suppose a greater interference with the law in favour of a public Corporation. When an injunction was granted against the Corporation, and sequestration was threatened, they saw, as they ought to have seen 15 years before, that they must amend their ways, and they set to work to correct the evil. Accordingly, when Dr. Frankland was sent down to make an investigation he found that to a certain extent matters were going on satisfactorily, which shows that there could be no difficulty in observing the existing provisions of the law and preventing a nuisance. The question really turns upon this: Can the Corporation or can they not comply with the provisions of the existing law, or have they a right to claim exemption from them because they are unwilling to comply with them? But although Dr. Frankland declared that there was no absolute nuisance at the time of his visit, he stated in distinct terms that what was being done approached very closely upon that which would be called an unsanitary state of matters, and therefore ought not to be allowed. The Rivers Pollution Act was passed in 1876 for the purpose of dealing with this very state of things. The County Council of Staffordshire claim that the Act shall be enforced; but the Corporation of Wolverhampton say, "Repeal those clauses, and do not allow the County Council to interfere at all." Such a position is monstrous. It simply amounts to an assertion that what is good against the rest of the world is not good against those who are bent upon breaking the law. I hope the House will support the Staffordshire County Council, and will lay down that if the law is to be altered, it must not be done by a private, but by a public, measure. At a meeting in Wolverhampton convened for the purpose of considering this Bill, the Mayor of the borough said that unfortunately Wolverhampton is situated on the top of a water shed, and consequently, as there is no large stream into which to turn the sewage, it must be turned into two small streams. And the Town Clerk added that what the borough wanted was relief against all persons who were likely to be litigants—that is to say, all persons who are likely to be injured, and he added that the object of the Bill was to give them "a right to do that which was at present wrong." I sincerely trust that the House of Commons will refuse to enable the Corporation of Wolverhampton or anybody else to do that which is at present wrong, and which will inflict a serious injury on their neighbours.

(3.30.) COLONEL KENYON-SLANEY (Shropshire, Newport)

I beg to second the Motion. I have not the slightest personal feeling in this matter, and I am glad to think that I am on terms of personal friendship with many members of the Corporation of Wolverhampton. But I recollect on one occasion having to consult the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. H. H. Fowler) in reference to the Corporation, and he asked me to remember the old saying that a Corporation had neither a soul to be saved nor a body to be kicked. Therefore, if I make allusions that are unpleasant, I hope it will be borne in mind that I am not making them individually, but only against the Corporation in its bodiless and soulless capacity. From my knowledge of the merits of the case I cordially support the Instruction moved by my hon. Friend, and in opposing the 5th clause of the Bill, the 6th clause having been withdrawn, I wish to say that I am only actuated by the earnest belief that if that clause is not amended, a very grievous injustice will be done. I had originally put down an Amendment for the total rejection of the Bill, but I have not moved it on account of the withdrawal of Clause 6, which practically set aside the injunction of the High Court. I considered that that was a piece of audacity on the part of the promoters of the Bill, and that it fully justified me in moving the rejection of the measure. As Clause 6 has been withdrawn, in lieu of bringing forward my own Motion, I beg to support that of my hon. Friend, who proposes that it shall be an Instruction to the Committee to leave out Clause 5. I know that it is unusual to stand between the promoters of a Private Bill, and the Committee to which it is proposed to be referred in its entirety, and that, as a rule, it is considered better to send a measure of this kind to a Committee, and trust to them to exercise their common sense in dealing with it. But this is a peculiar case; and I feel that if the Corporation of Wolverhampton are to have their way, this stream will not only be polluted, but become absolutely poisonous, that out-lying lands may be flooded in all directions, and the stream, instead of fulfilling its proper functions, will be the means of rendering every residence on its banks uninhabitable. In 1885 action was taken against the pollution of this stream; in 1886 an injunction was granted against the Corporation, and three years after the granting of the injunction an application for sequestration was made. An order was made that it should issue, and Lord Justice Fry, in delivering judgment, bore testimony to the unwillingness of the Corporation to incur the necessary expenditure for carrying out the necessary works. His Lordship came, further, to the conclusion that the disobedience to the injunction had been wilful, and that it was necessary to proceed to sequestration. There has been no disposition since manifested on the part of the Corporation to meet willingly those who had a right to consider themselves injured, but there has been a desire to continue to turn this stream into a sewer. I do not deny that in some cases it may be desirable, bearing in view the necessities of a large town, to come to a compromise, but this Bill rejects all compromise. Any land they may require the Corporation of Wolverhampton can get without this clause, and there are means by filtration and otherwise by which the purity of the water can be secured. All that we who oppose the Bill seek is to prevent the granting of unusual and unreasonable powers that may be dangerous to the principles of justice and equity. The immediate effect of the Bill as it stands will be to suspend the operation of the Common Statute Law of the land in favour of the Corporation of Wolverhampton. I think the House ought to hesitate before it sanctions a suspension of the general law which bears upon the health of any portion of the community. Perhaps I may be allowed to point out that this very Corporation is seeking in another district to enforce the very law which in this case it is anxious to evade. I refer to a case in which, having a personal interest in preserving the purity of the water, the Corporation of Wolverhampton is now endeavouring to put in force the provisions of the Pollution of Rivers Act, whereas in this instance it is seeking to evade them. The word "reasonable" is used in the Bill more than once, and I suppose it implies a certain amount of equity and moderation, but I cannot forget that we have had the experience of other Corporations who have succeeded in depriving the whole of a rural district of every single drop of drinkable water, and have refused to make any compensation whatever. Therefore, I decline to accept the term "reasonable." My only object is to secure that another and smaller community shall have the same justice and fair play which the Corporation of Wolverhampton are seeking to obtain for themselves.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Wolverhampton Corporation Bill, to omit Clauses 5 and 6."—(Mr. Staveley Hill.)

(3.45.) MR. H. H. FOWLER (Wolverhampton, E.)

I am sorry that I am compelled to trouble the House with a few remarks, because I quite appreciate the feeling which is in the minds of the hon. Gentlemen who have brought forward this Motion. But I feel it is due to the Corporation of Wolverhampton, who have been subjected to much terrific censure, that I should state what really are the circumstances under which they come to the House to-day to ask that this Bill shall be read a second time, not with a view of securing a definite opinion upon the measure or of legislating upon it, but simply with a view of securing that it shall be investigated by an independent Committee who will hear evidence, thresh the whole subject out, and come, I have no doubt, to a right conclusion in regard to it. The Corporation of Wolverhampton have no private interests to serve in the matter, but, like this House, they are a body of public men appointed to discharge a public duty. As they have been subjected to such severe censure, I must ask the indulgence of the House while I tell the simple story of the reasons which have induced them to come here and ask the House to relieve them from a costly and harassing course of litigation which I venture to say no Public Body whatever has been subjected to. The Member for West Staffordshire told the House that this question had been before the locality since 1865. I was going to say that prior to that, from 1854 to 1865 the Corporation of Wolverhampton had devoted a great portion of its time and attention to dealing with this very complicated and very difficult question of the sewage of a large town. If Wolverhampton had been fortunately situated on the banks of the Thames, or of some other great river, this difficulty would not have arisen; but it stands at the head of a water-shed, and some portion of the drainage finds its way into the Severn, and the rest into the Trent. Not having the outfall of a great river it is necessarily exposed to difficulties from which a great many other towns are exempt. In 1867 the Corporation came to the conclusion that it was desirable to establish a great sewage farm for the purpose of enabling the sewage of the town to be satisfactorily dealt with. They purchased an estate which has by subsequent additions cost them £36,200. In 1870 they commenced their sewage works, and in 1873 they were able to bring those works into operation. In that year 10 different actions were commenced against them for the injury they were said to have done to this particular stream, and those actions were referred to arbitration. The arbitration took place in 1875, when the arbitrator awarded to the whole of the 10 litigants the enormous sum of £1,880 as representing in full the damage which had been done to their estates during that number of years. In addition, the arbitrator called on the Corporation to construct works which cost £10,000, and thus recognised the moral right of the Corporation to the use of this stream for its effluent water. No sooner were they completed than litigation again commenced. The litigant who is the litigant carrying his controversy to a successful issue in the Courts is the son of the tenant for life who was proceeding against the Corporation in 1876. The son found out that he was not bound by his father's agreement, and that is one of the grounds upon which I ask the House to deal with the case, because in this case it is impossible to get a binding agreement between the Corporation and the tenant for life which will prevent the Corporation being sued again by the succeeding tenant for life. This litigation lasted from 1878 to 1886, and the amount of damages claimed was £3,049, and the amount awarded was £1,050; but in addition to that the Corporation had to pay £850 for the claimant's costs, and about £1,000 for their own. After this award an application was made for an injunction, damages to the extent of £3,757 being claimed. The action was tried at Birmingham, and, after Mr. Justice Wills had visited the locus in quo, inspected the stream, and seen all the alleged abominations, the damages were fixed at £400. A large sum had again to be paid in costs, the plaintiff's costs as delivered being £2,688, and as allowed £1,084, and the Corporation costs £1,000. Complaint has been made that the Corporation works were not completed until 1890. The answer to that is that it was simply impossible to complete them sooner, and nearly £50,000 have been spent upon them since 1886. Last year the High Court of Justice appointed an officer to report as to what the Corporation had done. That independent expert, in his Report, says— In reply I have to say that no excrementitious or filthy matter or sewage, or any water contaminated or mixed therewith, was passing into the Pendeford Brook on the 1st of November last, neither do I think it probable or even possible for such matters to gain access to the brook in future, so long as the defendants' works are maintained in their present efficient condition. With regard to noxious matter, the defendants were discharging nothing into the brook which was noxious, unless the water was used for dietetic purposes. There was nothing noxious to the senses in the effluents or any of them, but the water was not, in my opinion, fit for human consumption as a beverage. This is the whole gist and point in this case. The Corporation have at present no right to put any water in the stream unless such water is perfectly pure, and this Bill seeks to empower the Corporation to put water in the stream which, though not absolutely pure, will in no way detract from the beauty of the stream or its amenities. He had recently travelled down it and found it quite clear.


I did not say that the river has been in an improper state since the Corporation completed their works. I am quite prepared to admit that since last summer the stream has been in a proper condition.


I am glad to have obtained that admission. And that is the case that I present, that having spent this money and having done this work, having accomplished this improvement, I say that the Corporation are not to be exposed to litigation day by day and week by week, and spend thousands and thousands in costly and useless litigation because it has undertaken to carry out the law of the land. What the town of Wolverhampton has done has been that the Corporation have, at an enormous cost, separated the rain water from the sewage. Now, what do we ask? We ask you to stop this liti- gation, and if we do any damage—we do not interfere with private rights, we do not deprive any man of his property—we are willing to pay the last farthing, and we ask the House to let us have a cheap and effective tribunal on the spot, and not let us be subject to these injunctions, and trials, and arbitrations to which we have been subjected for years. And we ask that this Bill be sent in to a Committee upstairs in order that they may investigate it there and decide it on its merits. My hon. Friend says that "this is unprecedented, that nothing of this sort has been done before, that this is a new application brought before the House." Well, Sir, it has been done before. The House of Commons has passed a similar clause to this, and passed it in the River Lea Conservancy Act, and in this Act it may be almost said they have taken the very words used in the River Lea Act. These are the words of the River Lea Conservancy ActNothing in this Act shall operate and extend to prevent the Local Board of Health for the district of Luton and the inhabitants of Luton for the time being, maintaining and continuing their present sewerage and drainage works, or discharging into the River Lea the sewage water or matter formed from such sewers or drains, after such sewage matter has been subject to the process of purification known as Higgs' process, and then it describes the mode in which that is to be carried out. The Corporation has spent nearly £200,000 in endeavouring to carry out the sewerage. The rating of Wolverhampton this year, I think, is 3s. 9d. in the £1, and the sewerage rate that we have to pay is 1s. 2¾d. in the £1, and I ask gentlemen who are now on County Councils what a rate of 1s. 2¾d. in the £1 means? At present they are crippled and forced to incur enormous costs of litigation because of committing what is, after all, a mere technical wrong. There is no desire to avoid paying compensation to all those entitled to it, but it is desired to have a cheap and effective tribunal on the spot to deal with the matter. The House is not now being asked to pass the Bill, but only to allow it to be referred to the Police and Sanitary Committee, after which it will again come before the House for Third Reading. This is an attempt, without any precedent, to arrest the action of the Corporation, at a critical moment in its history, in its endeavour to discharge a public duty, and I ask the House to do justice, irrespective of Party or any other consideration, to allow the Bill to go before one of its own Committees, where the opponents can make out their case, for we cannot well dispose of this clause in the House; and I hope we will hear no more of it. If the Committee misconceives its duty or trenches upon principles of the general law, the House will have the Bill in its own hands on a Third Reading. You may rest assured that there is nothing in this Bill which in any way trenches upon the rights of property.


I do not think there can be any opposition to that part of the Bill which gives power to the Wolverhampton Corporation to acquire additional land for the purpose of their sewage scheme. But the Bill contains some clauses which are of an objectionable character. The 5th clause proposes something quite new and exceptional. It proposes that the Corporation should not be compelled to comply with Section 17 of the Public Health Act, 1875; and that if they obtain a certificate from an Inspector of the Local Government Board that they are employing the best practical means for carrying off the sewage, such certificate, which shall last for two years, shall be a bar against any person who may consider himself injured. That is an entirely novel power to confer on the Local Government Board, and, even if desirable, it would be extremely difficult to exercise. To confer upon the Local Government Board power to issue certificates which should be an absolute bar to all actions that may be brought in the High Court by persons who may feel aggrieved or injured would be going very far indeed. If, however, the Corporation of Wolverhampton should be able to show to the Committee that exceptional provisions are desirable in their case, the Committee, I think, ought to have power to consider the matter. Therefore, I should propose to move an instruction in lieu of that which has been moved, empowering the Committee to consider whether, under the special circumstances of the case, any special provisions are necessary for the protection of the Corporation of Wolverhampton until additional sewage works can be completed. If the Committee should decide that such provisions are necessary, the Local Government Board could be empowered to give a certificate which could be produced in any action before the High Court, and which would be taken into consideration, although it might not be an absolute bar to the proceedings. The Instruction which I am prepared to move will enable the Committee to make such provisions as would protect the Corporation from any arbitrary proceedings.

Amendment proposed, To leave out the words "Clauses 5 and 6," in order to insert the words "Clause 6; and with regard to Clause 5, to consider whether, under the special circumstances of the case, any, and, if any, what, provisions are necessary for the protection of the Corporation, until additional sewage disposal works can be completed. That any provision for this purpose should be such as will not affect the present proceedings against the Corporation, and as will be in conformity with the provisions of the Rivers Pollution Prevention Act, with regard to the conditions on which certificates are to be granted,"—(Mr. Ritchie,)

—instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

(4.20.) MR. H. H. FOWLER

The Corporation have no desire in any way to prejudice existing litigation. I would therefore propose that we should rest content to-day with providing for the omission of Clause 6. The Instruction to be moved by the President of the Local Government Board could be considered on a future occasion.

(4.22.) MR. RITCHIE

I think the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman is perfectly fair.


Would it not be the better plan to postpone the whole matter?


An Instruction similar in terms to the one which I have handed in can be placed on the Paper to-morrow.


The proper course will be to withdraw the Instruction now and bring it up again.

Amendment and Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Ordered, That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Wolverhampton Corporation Bill to omit Clause 6.

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