HC Deb 20 February 1891 vol 350 cc1212-25

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

(3.15). MR. BAUMANN (Camberwell, Peckham)

I opposed the Second Reading of this Bill last week not with a view of preventing it from being sent to a Select Committee, but in order to give to those gentlemen interested in this important question—and there are many hon. Members interested in it besides those who represent Metropolitan Constituencies—the only opportunity which the forms of this House afford for discussing it. Three other Bills dealing with the water supply have been introduced this Session, but neither of them have obtained a favourable place upon the Order Book; and, therefore, as they cannot be discussed, it will only be by the generosity and forbearance of the House that they can be referred to a Select Committee. This is absolutely the only opportunity the Members for London have of discussing this most important question. And I think it will be generally conceded that it is a subject which requires full discussion on the floor of this House. After 25 years of discussion, investigation, and discovery, before Select Committees and Royal Commissions, we seem to be at last within measurable distance of placing the control of the water supply of London in the hands of the people of the Metropolis themselves. I do not mean to say that the eight Water Companies of London have done their work badly. The enemies of the Water Companies simply say that the supply of water is dear and bad. I am not one of the enemies of the Water Companies, and I do not subscribe to that assertion. On the contrary, I say that, considering the rapid increase of the consumption and of the population within the area supplied, London, on the whole, has been wonderfully well supplied with water. Indeed, some of the Water Companies—for instance, the West Middlesex and the New River, are models of good management and business-like ability. Of course the system by which the price of water is raised on the valuation of houses cannot be long maintained, although it is a system of which the poor at any rate have no reason to complain. But the case for the transference of the powers of the Water Companies to a public representative authority cannot be said to depend mainly upon the dearness and badness of the supply. If the water reformers were to base their case for the creation of a public authority on the dearness and badness of the supply, they would not be in the strong position I think they are in at this moment. The demand for the creation of a water authority is based rather on the idea that if a profit is to be made it should be made, not in the interests of a private undertaking, but in the interests of the public themselves. That is a view which has been recommended over and over again, both by Select Committees and Royal Commissions. We are all agreed that the undertakings of the existing companies ought to be acquired by some public authority, but we are very far from, being agreed as to what the authority should be, or how the Commission or Water Trust should be constituted. This Bill proposes to create a Water Commission in London, which is to have the power of promoting Bills in Parliament for the acquisition of the undertakings of the existing Water Companies, and to do everything that may be necessary to enable the Commission to step into the Water Company's shoes. It will, therefore, be seen that the terms on which the Water Companies are to be acquired form the most important point in the whole controversy, and it is a point which is left by this Bill for future settlement by Parliament. So far I heartily approve of the Bill, but it is when I come to the Schedule which proposes the constitution of the Water Commission in a particular manner that I find myself obliged to part company with the promoters and to express my fear that the schedule itself will be knocked into a cocked hat by a Committee upstairs. The measure proposes, that a Commission shall be created, composed of 51 members, namely— The Lord Mayor of the City of London, the Chairman of the London County Council (ex officio); the remaining 49 original members shall be nominated as follows, namely: The President of the Local Government Board shall nominate 1, the President of the Board of Agriculture, 1, the Corporation of the City of London, 5, the London County Council, 20, the County Council of Middlesex, 4, the County Council of Surrey, 4, the County Council of Essex, 3, the County Council of Hertfordshire, 1, the County Council of Buckinghamshire, 1, the County Council of Berkshire, 1, the County Council of Oxfordshire, 1, the Corporation of the Borough of West Ham, 1, the Corporation of the Borough of Richmond, 1, the Corporation of the Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames, 1, the Corporation of the Borough of Windsor, 1, the Corporation of the Borough of Reading, 1, the Corporation of the Borough of Abingdon, 1, the Corporation of the City of Oxford, 1. If and whenever Parliament shall so direct, additional members may be from time to time nominated by the County Council of each of the counties next hereinafter mentioned, namely: Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Kent, and by the respective Boards of Conservancy of the Rivers Thames and Lee. There are four methods by which the water supply of London may be undertaken. First, by a system of delegation to a body nominated by existing authorities elective or official; next by creating a new authority, to be chosen by popular election; thirdly by taking one of the existing local authorities; and, lastly, by appointing a small Commission of experts. Now, we have had some experience in London of the principle of delegation, and it has not been found to work favourably. The Metropolitan Board of Works was a delegated body, and it expired in anything but an odour of sanctity. It is impossible, therefore, to speculate upon the fate of a double dose of delegation composed of the London County Council and the City Corporation. So far as the second method is concerned, I, for one, am very loth to add to the number of existing Local Authorities in London. I am unwilling to subject the wretched Londoner to the nuisance and worry of another election, and to compel him to spend his life in voting for somebody or another. No sooner has he voted for Codlin than he is required to vote for Short, and frequent elections have become the greatest bore and nuisances of the 19th century. The third alternative is to take one of the existing Local Authorities and clothe it with the powers of a Water Commission, and the London County Council have volunteered for the job; they have expressed their willingness to be the new Water Commission, and I am perfectly convinced that if the question was to find a Government for Mashonaland, the London County Council would readily volunteer. We who do not belong to that august body are of opinion that the London County Council is already overworked, and that it cannot satisfactorily discharge the work it already has to do. It would be the height of midsummer madness to add to the labours of that already overworked body. The last alternative is one which I throw out for the favourable consideration of the House, namely, the appointment of a small body of professional experts, who should be paid such a salary as would secure the services of competent men such as now manage the affairs of the Water Companies. If you want to have extravagance, delay, and I might almost add jobbery, have a popularly elected body. [Ironical Cheers.] I am speaking of purely administrative functions. If you really desire despatch, efficiency, and economy, you will have a well paid body of professional experts—and that is the suggestion which I humbly make.

(3.25.) MR. J. STUART (Shoreditch, Hoxton)

A good many hon. Members on this side of the House recognise the dissatisfaction that has been aroused at the authority proposed to be created by the Bill; but I do not share the views of the last speaker as to the inefficiency and unsuitability of the London County Council for the purpose required. We oppose the constitution of a new public authority. The hon. Member appears to hold very cheaply public representative bodies as administrative bodies. If his objections are of a general character they must apply to the whole of the recent legislation of Parliament and the action of the President of the Local Government Board, who has done so much to place the administration of local affairs in the hands of local representative bodies. Has the principle failed in regard to other large towns? It appears to me that the hon. Member has failed to show that there is any ground why the London County Council should not be the authority in this matter, except that it is not the existing authority at present, and the hon. Gentleman and his friends take every opportunity of giving it a kick whenever they can. As a Municipal Authority exists in London the most sensible plan would be to hand the control of the water supply over to it. What is the reasonable ground for making such a difference in the case of London, and electing such an authority as that proposed, except ill-will to the County Council? It is said that the water supply of London is in some way different in arrangement from that of other great towns; but I beg entirely to dissent from that position, as I do not believe that there is any particular point in connection with the water supply of London which has not had its counterpart in many other great towns in this country, and arrangements can be easily made, as they have been made in other towns. Manchester supplies Salford by meter, and Bradford is bound to supply the Local Authorities of outlying districts, if they desire it, although the Local Authorities are not bound to take the water unless they want it. Now that Manchester draws its supply from Thirlmere, it is bound to supply it to any township on the way as long as a certain minimum is left for the supply of Manchester. In other cases there are different arrangements to meet the difficulty, and these have been found to work well. There is another point on which it is said that the London water supply differentiates from that of other towns—namely, that it is gathered from districts which come under the jurisdiction of other County Councils, and that we ought therefore to put on the governing body representatives from those County Councils as well as that of London itself. This question has not been solved in that way in any other instance. Manchester, before getting its supply from Thirlmere, drew it from neighbouring districts, but those districts were not represented on the governing body. At Bradford the difficulty was met by having large stores of water placed under a separate Commission, which sees that the Bradford Corporation keeps to what it is obliged to do by Act of Parliament. With regard to the question of whether the plan proposed in this Bill will work, I think that it would not. Already, by the very petitions against the Bill, the interests of the other communities are shown to be in contradiction to the interests of the Metropolis, and therefore we should be placing on the governing body in about equal proportions two sets of people whose interests would be permanently antagonistic, the result of which would be that the body would be an unworkable one. Again, the money must be raised in some way or other for the purchase of the Companies or for the creation of new water supplies which the Companies themselves, if left, would soon have to face; the money must be raised on terms fair to the people of London, because the rates of London would be the security. How would they manage to raise money chiefly on the guarantee of a body such as that proposed? If this Bill is to be referred to a hybrid Committee upstairs, I hope that it will be a strong Committee, and that some endeavour will be made or an Instruction moved, in order to enable it to investigate the whole of the question, and to consider in a wide manner the powers to be given to the governing body, and its future action. These are interests vital to the Metropolis, not only on account of their intrinsic importance, but also in relation to the sanitary condition of London. The subject is vast in its hygienic relations, and in its relations to the poor of the Metropolis and to the purses of the ratepayers, and one question which will have to be considered by the Committee is the price to be paid for this article.

(3.40.) SIR A. BORTHWICK (Kensington, S.)

I quite agree that upon this important question it is of urgent necessity and urgent importance that a prompt decision should be arrived at. I, therefore, hope that this Bill and other Bills on the same subject will be referred to a strong Committee in order that the question may be settled upon some absolutely definite basis. I am afraid that the present measure is somewhat too ambitious in its objects. It wanders away to the City of Oxford, and it proposes merely to raise the sum of £5,000 within 12 months for the payment of a Chairman and 51 members. It is doubtful whether such a body ought to be paid at all; but certainly if it is to be paid it ought not to be paid by the Corporation of the City of London. At the same time I doubt whether the rate- payers of the Metropolis would regard with favour the prospect of being saddled with the payment of money to this body. The Bill, as it stands, is altogether unsatisfactory. What is good in it will probably be taken into consideration by the Committee upstairs, and will find its way in proposals to be submitted to the House. I hope to have the honour shortly to move the Second Reading of a measure that deals exhaustively with the whole of the water supply of London, and which contains provisions to take exclusive powers for supplying water and for securing an equalisation of rates. The latter is an important object, because the rates at present are most unequal. For instance, a house of £30 pays in one case £1 4s. per annum; in another £1 8s., and in others £2. I hope that this Bill with other kindred measures will go to the Committee, and that the Report of such Committee may be received this Session, so that prompt legislation may follow.

(3.45.) MR. LAWSON (St. Pancras, W.)

The hon. Member for Peckham (Mr. Baumann) has indulged in one of his chronic and splenetic attacks upon the London County Council, and yet I find that he, in common with the hon. Baronet the Member for Kensington (Sir A. Borthwick), proposes a Bill which would create a new body directly elected by the people of the Metropolis to take over the water supply, or, if the County Council are agreeable, to hand it over to them. If I do not move the rejection of the Bill, it is not because I do not think it an unworkable piece of legislation, but because it raises a question of vital importance after a lapse of 11 years, and recognises the principle that the water supply of the Metropolis should be controlled by a responsible public body. The central point is so far good, but the composition of the new body is ludicrous. The Bill is to secure and manage the water supply of London, but it is proposed to give a majority of Members outside the county, who would be able to out-vote London. It is a manifest absurdity to propose that the London County Council should send 20 members, the Corporation of London six or seven more, and that the total numbers of members should be 57. There would be perpetual collisions between the "insiders" and the "out- siders" —between the representatives of the area supplied and the representatives of the area from which the supply was drawn, and the rates of London would be pledged by the action of a body of 57 members, of whom the County of London would only furnish 20. The County Council should lay down the policy and exercise control, and a small body of experts, adequately paid, should manage the details. I believe this scheme to be inadequate and unsatisfactory. The question is whether the present supply is worth the purchase. The Chemical Commission (1851) was against the present system, and the Water Commission (1869) underrated the increase of population. Before the introduction of a measure of this character, there should have been the fullest preliminary inquiry, to bring our information up to date, into cost, quantity, and quality. What is true of the Thames is true of the Lea. The chalk would not, according to expert opinion, be more than auxiliary. Almost certainly we should require a new and independent supply, like Glasgow, Manchester, and Liverpool. This shows the necessity for investigation as a preliminary to any legislation by the House empowering any public body to control the supply. This is a very serious question, affecting the health and comfort of more than 5,000,000 of people, and 1 appeal to the House not to make their last state worse than their first.

(4.5.) MR. RITCHIE

I do not think it is necessary that I should discuss this Bill at any length. The Debate has shown conclusively one thing, which is a matter for congratulation, namely, that all parties in the House have come to the conclusion that the water supply, apart from the question whether the present supply is good or bad, ought to be in the hands of some public authority who should furnish the supply in the interests of the community and not for individual profit. That is a principle I have always supported. The hon. Member for Peckham states that he has very little confidence in the London County Council or the London Corporation, but with these views of the hon. Member in respect to the County Council I must disclaim any sympathy. The London County Council have had imposed upon them a very difficult task, and no doubt they have made some mistakes; but, nevertheless, I have perfect confidence that the London County Council, if intrusted with the water supply of the Metropolis, will discharge the duties connected therewith ably and well, and without a particle of anything approaching jobbery. I have never disguised my own opinion, which is that having established such a body for the whole of London, it is the proper body to be entrusted with the administration of the water supply, though, no doubt, it may be reasonable and desirable to give some representation to the outlying districts on the administrative Committee. But this and other points are not under consideration now. If we were discussing the details of the measure, I should certainly feel disposed to criticise some of the provisions of the Bill adversely. It must be agreed that there ought to be a full and complete inquiry into the whole question of the water supply, and that it would be well that that inquiry should take place before a Committee of this House, who should consider all the proposals brought forward on the subject, whether by the Corporation, the County Council, or the Vestries. I agree with the hon. Member for Hoxton (Mr. Stuart) that the Committee should be a very strong one. I think it is for the interest of everybody that the Report presented should be the Report of a Committee in whom the House has full and complete confidence. If any point is omitted by the Committee its attention can be directed to it by means of an Instruction. I would, therefore, suggest that, instead of hon. Members moving an Instruction now, they should wait until the other Bills on the subject have received their Second Reading, when all the Bills may be referred to the Committee, with, if necessary, such an Instruction as would enable the Committee to fully inquire into every branch of this subject. I hope that when the Bill of the hon. Member for Kensington (Sir A. Borthwick) comes before the House it will be read a second time.


How can you secure that?


It can be done in one or two ways—either with the general concurrence of the House or by some arrangement with the Government. One thing is certain, that if we inquire into the question at all, the Bill ought to go before the Committee. I hope that body will be able to avail themselves of the very best professional skill available, in order to arrive at a solution of this most difficult and complex question.

(4.15). SIR W. HARCOURT (Derby)

I entirely concur in almost every word that has fallen from the right hon. Gentleman. I was especially glad to hear him bear testimony to the efficiency of the London County Council, and express his opinion that that body is the proper body to have the administration of the water supply, without, however, excluding the representation of the London Corporation. The fact is that this question of the water supply has been hung up until such a body as the London County Council should come into existence. The Committee of 1882 recommended that the subject should be dealt with by the Government, and certainly it is too large, to be effectively dealt with by any private Bill. It is impossible to conceive anything more preposterous than that the Corporation of London should be able to introduce a Bill on this subject and that the County Council should not have the same power. I hope that this point will be taken into consideration by the right hon. Gentleman. The proposal for an alternative water supply is satisfactory. In the absence of power to establish an alternative supply, it would be always impossible to buy up the Water Companies on fair terms. Then, in case of contemplated purchase, care should be taken to ascertain the views of the buyers as well as of the vendors. On a former occasion negotiations for sale fell through because it was found that certain agreements had already been made with the Water Companies, with which agreements the people who were to buy would have nothing to do. The moment those agreements were published the capital of the Companies went up nine millions; but when it was found that there was to be no purchase the capital fell by the same amount. The Companies will never be made to take a reasonable view until an alternative scheme is rendered possible. I think myself that the time has come when London should have a new supply of water. When we remember how the great cities of ancient times were supplied with water, and when we see the great aqueducts in Italy and France we can come to no other conclusion but that it is absurd that London should not have a far better water supply than it has. Seeing that cities which are mere villages compared with London have been supplied adequately and cheaply, it is monstrous to think that London cannot be supplied for less than £33,000,000. As the question is now in a fair way for settlement I hope the Government will bring in a Bill to determine who the authority should be and what extent of authority it should be entrusted with. I do not favour the appointment of a Royal Commission to inquire into the subject, for a body of that kind seldom reports before the expiration of five years. Let the County Council be empowered to take steps, and I believe that a satisfactory result will be achieved.

(4.26.) MR. DIXON-HARTLAND (Middlesex, Uxbridge)

I must ask for the indulgence of the House while I say a few words on behalf of those who live outside the Metropolitan area. At present one-half of the supply for London is taken from the River Thames, and my contention is that if it is intended to take a still further quantity from the Thames the people resident along the banks of the river, who are deeply interested in the matter, ought to be represented on the Commission. The real question is whether an independent supply should not be obtained, and I believe that no good will be done by way of settlement of the question until this is ensured. In that case the inhabitants of the outside area adjacent to the Thames would not need representation.

(4.29.) SIR J. LUBBOCK

Before the House proceeds to read the Bill a second time perhaps I may be allowed to say a few words on the important subject. I do not think the promoters of this Bill would base their grounds for it on the allegation, that the water supplied in London is either dear or bad. My own individual opinion would rather be to change the present system of charge rather than to take the matter entirely out of the hands of the companies. Much dissatisfaction is certainly felt with the system of charging on the rate of assessment, and there is a strong belief that the supply of water in the basins of the Thames and Lea will not long suffice for the growing needs of the Metropolis. It is, therefore, necessary to make further provision within a comparatively short time. I am afraid we shall never get a system of Government entirely satisfactory to the hon. Member for Peckham. He proposes that the management of the Water Companies should be entrusted to a small body of professional experts, but then the question arises, by whom is that small body to be appointed? I desire to thank the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board for the testimony he has borne to the work of the London County Council. I hope the hon. Member for St. Pancras will accept the suggestion thrown out by the right hon. Gentleman, and withdraw his Instruction, in order that a wider one may be framed by the Government. The London County Council do not wish to oppose the Bill, but they do not wish it to go forth they are entirely satisfied with its provisions. There are two proposals in the Bill especially which seem open to serious objection. One is the mode of raising the funds. I agree with the hon. Member for Hoxton that the money should be raised on London County Council Stock and upon the security of the Metropolitan rates. If a new Stock is created a higher rate will have to be paid, and even if the difference is only one-quarter or one-eighth, still on such large amounts the loss will be considerable. Secondly, the constitution of the Commission is not satisfactory. At the same time the London County Council have confidence that these and all other questions will be thoroughly and carefully discussed upstairs. They hope that the strongest possible Committee will be selected to deal with this very important question, and believing that that will be the case they do not desire to offer any opposition to the Second Reading of the Bill.

(4.33.) MR. J. ROWLANDS (Finsbury East)

This is one of the most important questions affecting London that has ever come before the House, and I therefore think hon. Members opposite should not be so anxious to end the Debate, for we ought to be careful that no mistake is made in providing that proper terms and an adequate water supply are secured. I rise, after the generous speech of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board, to ask my hon. Friend the Member for West St. Pancras to fall in with his suggestion, so that we may have one comprehensive Instruction given to the Committee. This afternoon's Debate has been one which must have given satisfaction to all hon. Members who desire to see the water supply of London placed under the control of a representative body. Should it be decided to purchase the undertakings of the existing Companies, one point ought to be borne in mind. It ought to be ascertained whether the Companies, while they have been paying large dividends, have created adequate sinking funds which would enable them to secure fresh sources of supply if necessary. If they have not done that, the capitalised value of their property is not so great as has been suggested, and I think the figures of 33,000,000, which have been quoted, are at least 100 per cent. too high. For this, if for no other reason, we must have a strong Committee.

(4.36.) MR. CAUSTON (Southwark, W.)

I want to draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board to the Metropolitan Water Companies Charges Bill which I have in charge, and the Second Reading of which is fixed for the 4th March, and which, I hope, will have the support of the Government. It will prevent the companies raising their charges upon the forthcoming revaluation of property, and I maintain that any such increase ought certainly to be prevented at a time when it is probable that the undertakings of the companies may be acquired by a Public Authority.

(4.37.) MR. LAWSON

I am willing to accept the general view of the House and withdraw my Instruction, providing we have a distinct understanding. There are three Bills before the House, and I should like to know if, when the right hon. Gentleman speaks of their being read a second time, he intends to give facilities for that, because we know the Water Companies have friends in this House who object to anybody interfering with them in their long feast upon our increasing rateable value. Under these circumstances, there might be some difficulty in getting the Bills read a second time. Is the right hon. Gentleman willing to movean Instruction covering the questions of the quantity, quality, and cost of the water supply.

(4.39.) MR. RITCHIE

I can hardly think the House would be satisfied with referring only this Bill to the Committee. No doubt it would wish to refer the Bills which are much more comprehensive in their character, and which raise the issue much better than this particular measure. The Government will take care that the Instruction to the Committee will secure inquiry into the whole matter.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed to a Select Committee of Nine Members, Five to be nominated by the House and Four by the Committee of Selection. Ordered, That all Petitions against the Bill presented Five clear days before the meeting of the Committee be referred to the Committee that the Petitioners praying to be heard by themselves, their Counsel, or Agents, be heard against the Bill, and Counsel heard in support of the Bill. Ordered, That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers, and records. Ordered; That Five be the quorum.—(Mr. Ritchie.)