HC Deb 31 May 1892 vol 5 cc351-61


Order for Second Reading read.

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

*(3.21.) MR. LAWRENCE (Liverpool, Abercromby)

In the unavoidable absence of my hon. Friend the Member for the Knutsford Division of Cheshire (Mr. Tatton Egerton), I beg to move that this Bill be read this day six months. This is a matter of great local interest, because it really largely affects the whole trade of the district. It affects not merely the traders to whose hands the trade goes, but also the Local Board of the district, who oppose very keenly the Bill now brought before the House. The matter has been discussed now for about twelve years, but I will only briefly refer to it. There are some points which I quite agree are not such as should be brought to-day before the House, but the general question, I think, is worthy of its consideration. The question of subsidence in the salt districts first came on the tapis, as far as this district is concerned, in 1881. The people interested were then willing that the area should be divided into four districts; but, for reasons not connected with any local differences, I understand that that Bill never became law. It was ten years before the matter was again broached—in 1891—when a Bill was brought in which is the foundation of the Provisional Order of to-day. Before it got to the Select Committee stage, there was some very important correspondence between the districts which come before the House to-day to air their grievances—namely, the Northwich Local Board and the Winsford Local Board. The Winsford Local Board has to deal with, an area where, at present, there is a large amount of pumping, and a very small amount of subsidence. The Northwich Local Board is in wholly different circumstances. For the last one hundred years or more, Northwich has yielded large quantities of salt, and, as one person very wittily put it, "There is something very rotten beneath Northwich." A large area has already subsided, and the chances are that before very long a still larger area may be affected. At present no less, than forty-six acres of Northwich have subsided, and that may very easily be added to. When this Bill of 1891 came before the House the Winsford Local Board wrote to the Local Board of Northwich and asked what they were going for—whether they were really going for one large district, or whether they were endeavouring to embrace Winsford in the compensation area which the Bill contemplated. I need not read the correspondence at large, but I may say that the Local Board of Northwich passed a resolution when there were sixteen people present out of the twenty entitled to be there, and by that resolution they passed with, I believe, one dissentient, a statement that they were perfectly content with the areas laid down with the Bill ten years before, under which each of the four districts was to bear the consequences of its own pumping. On the strength of that assurance, the Winsford Local Board came forward and co-operated with Northwich in introducing the General Act which is now on the Statute Book. This Provisional Order is a Provisional Order made under that Act, by which one compensation area is formed. In spite of the assurance which the Winsford Local Board received from the Northwich Local Board, the Northwich Board immediately applied to the Local Government Board, and an Inspector came down and, after a consideration of four days, decided that the very thing which Winsford most deprecated should become law, and we are here to-day to consider whether this proposal of the Local Government Inspector should be carried out, or whether the matter should be relegated for further inquiry. I appeal also on behalf of the traders, for the trade of Winsford passes largely through Liverpool hands, and therefore I am not out of my place in raising this question. The trade of Winsford deals largely with the cheapest kind of salt—altogether the salt of this character dealt with in England amounts to one and a half million tons. One-half million of that amount would not be touched by this Bill, so that any tax put on the other million will distinctly handicap the working of that million tons. That is a consideration which ought to be taken into account, because assuredly the other half million not affected by the Bill will be seriously advantaged. It will be seriously advantaged in this way that whereas at Middlesbrough, where it is made, it can be put on board ship at a cost of eightpence per ton, the same salt made at Winsford costs to put on board at Liverpool three shillings and sixpence per ton. If this Bill becomes law another threepence will be added, which would be three and ninepence per ton, as against the eightpence which is charged at Middlesbrough. The people of Winsford, and not merely the traders oppose this because it is the only trade of Winsford, and it is not the only trade of Northwich. They say that the subsidence in Northwich, for the reasons I have already mentioned, is very great, and as the pumping at Winsford is so much greater, the tax will be borne in Winsford and expended in Northwich. The cost of the damage done per annum in Northwich is £4,800, while that in Winsford is only £1,600 a year, so that there seems to be a prima facie and strong case why this Bill should not become law. Then again, in the matter of pumping, out of the million tons that are pumped in the two districts, 700,000 tons are pumped at Winsford, on which this tax would be levied, and only 300,000 tons at Northwich; so that there, again, the tax being on the pumping, the burden will be on the shoulders of Winsford, and it will be, as I say, expended in compensating Northwich for its subsidence. When I add also that the subsidence of the same character in Winsford only represents one-quarter of an acre, or something like that, as compared with forty-six acres at Northwich, you will agree with me that the difference between the two districts is so great that though the general principle where you have to tax you should make a wide area is perfectly right, the particular case of Winsford makes its claim for exemption from this general principle quite fair. We have also to consider the expert evidence. Everybody knows that expert evidence is liable to vary in quantity and quality, but the singular fact is that Mr. Boyd-Dawkins, a great authority on this matter, who was a witness examined on behalf of Northwich before the Local Government Inspector, himself affirmed, on two or three occasions, judging from the questions put him, that there was no damage now done to Northwich by Winsford. And when you remember that, under the 8th section of the Act of 1891, the Local Government Board has always the power to vary the boundaries, surely it would be fairer and wiser, if there is no damage done at present to Northwich by Winsford, to wait until damage is done before you make this law; for when you have the power to vary the boundaries, you can always meet a hardship whenever a case may arise. You may hear about there being a continuity of strata over the whole of the district, but the expert evidence is quite to the contrary. Mr. Dickinson, Chief Inspector of Mines, I believe, of all England, has twice reported that there is no continuous bed. Mr. Green, Professor of Geology at Oxford; Mr. Leader Williams, engineer of the Manchester Ship Canal, and formerly engineer to the River Weaver Navigation, and who was for ten years at Northwich, have affirmed that there is no continuous bed of salt; while, quite lately, Professor Hull has affirmed, that there could not be a weaker geological case than that propounded by the people of Northwich. I think, therefore, I have shown that there is a strong prima facie case against the Bill becoming law—namely, that while on the general ground the people of Winsford accept the principle of the general law of 1891, they contend that the particular circumstances of their locality are such that it may be fairly made an exception. Some hon. Members may say, How hard it will be if the whole burden of this taxation is thrown upon Northwich! As a matter of fact, Northwich has several industries; Winsford has only one. Winsford is farther up the Weaver, and the expense of carting the salt down from the district to Liverpool is very much greater owing to the longer distances, and the distance from rail and canal is also greater, and when you take the whole of these facts into consideration, I think you may fairly say that Winsford is perfectly entitled to come here and complain of what seems to me a very hard case—namely, that by the application of the general principle in a wide area a great hardship will be conferred upon a particular locality. This feeling at Winsford is not confined to the Local Board, but is general throughout all society there, including the working men, who believe that their trade is in danger. As we all know, the salt trade, in spite of recent and spasmodic efforts, has gone back to the low ebb of fortune it has been at for the last ten years or so, and this further tax of threepence will do much to kill that trade. The trade in Winsford is entirely export, and if this Bill becomes law it will bring considerable suffering and distress upon everybody who has anything to do with the salt industry in the district.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Mr. Lawrence.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

(3.32.) MR. JOHN S. GATHORNE-HARDY (Kent, Medway)

As the Chairman of the Committee on last year's Act, it is only right that I should say that the question of areas was not actually before the Committee, and that the Committee declined to take evidence upon it. We knew it was a matter to be afterwards settled by a Provisional Order. But the evidence taken with regard to the general question was such as to give us a very fair opportunity of judging what were the proper areas to be appointed under any future Bill, and the Committee were practically unanimous in the opinion that the area should be as large as possible. For my part, I think that if this Bill fails in any respect it is that the Local Government Board have not had the courage which they should have shown, and have not made the whole salt district of Cheshire into one area for taxation. One thing which was clearly shown before the Committee was that in this case of brine-pumping it is absolutely impossible to say where the mischief is being done by those who are pumping the brine. I think that the figures the hon. Member has put before the House show that that is the case. He told us that at Winsford 700,000 tons of brine are pumped, and that yet there is little or no disturbance, whereas at Northwich only 300,000 tons of brine are pumped and there is enormous disturbance. It is a matter of absolute fact that the disturbance occurs in consequence of the quantity of salt taken away; and if Winsford is really taking two and a half times as much salt from its own area as Northwich does, it is clear that the subsidences at Winsford would be much larger than they are at Northwich. But as a matter of fact these 700,000 tons of brine are being taken away from somewhere else, and are causing a subsidence there; and I am confident that no man can say that no part of the brine is taken from under the town of Northwich, and is not causing subsidence there. It is perfectly clear that the only safe ground is to make the area of taxation as large as possible. You will thus spread an equal burden over all those engaged in the trade, whereas in having only small areas you may be making them pay for the damage which they have not themselves caused. My only regret is that this Bill does not propose a much larger area.

(3.35.) MR. WILLIAM H. CROSS (Liverpool, West Derby)

I am sorry that no Representative of the Local Government Board is present to-day. This is a question of scientific and technical evidence which I do not think this House can be expected to hear and to judge; but what the House can judge is that there has been a direct breach of understanding, and a breach of understanding that has been sanctioned by the Report of the officer of the Local Government Board. It seems to me that nothing could be clearer than what was said by my hon. Friend in opening this discussion, that there was a perfect understanding between the Local Board of Winsford on the one side and the promoters of the Bill of last year on the other when they accepted the declaration that they were unanimous in agreeing that the districts of Winsford and Northwich should be kept separate. That declaration was signed by the promoters of the Bill of last year, and yet these very promoters, once the Bill had passed, applied to the Local Government Board for a district and asked that that district might include both. There could not be a more direct breach of an understanding than is disclosed by the correspondence and by what has passed since. I think it is a great hardship on a small and rather struggling town like Winsford that it should have the great expense of fighting the Bill of last year in a Committee of this House, and of being represented again on the inquiry by the Local Government Inspector; and now, if this Bill goes to a Select Committee upstairs, they will have to fight the whole thing over again at a very heavy cost to the rates. The real secret of this Bill is kindly explained to us in the Memorandum circulated this morning in favour of the Second Reading, and the reason that is given is this— To make small districts," say the promoters, "would create inequality, as the maximum levy authorised would be inadequate in some suffering districts, and more than necessary in others. The people of Northwich say they are a suffering district where the maximum levy will not compensate, and therefore they take the very natural way of putting in other people's districts in addition to their own, so that there may be plenty of area from which to compensate themselves. The reason why the damage at Northwich is very much heavier than elsewhere is that the town is honeycombed by old mines which are not worked now and which are perpetually falling in; and that is accelerated by pumping of the brine. My hon. Friend who presided over the Committee last year stated what was the unanimous opinion of the Committee, and he also stated that they took no evidence and did not hear counsel on the subject. But he could not have been aware of the fact that there is the greatest distinction between the soil from which the brine is pumped at Northwich and the soil from which it is pumped at Winsford. I hope the people of Winsford may be spared another fight in this matter. At all events, I hope the House will see that they have been grossly deceived in relying on the representations made to them last year, and that an injustice has been done which the House has it in its power to rectify.

(3.39.) MR. TOLLEMACHE (Cheshire, Eddisbury)

I am very glad my friends have raised this question, but having raised it, and made their protest, I rather doubt whether the floor of the House is the proper place to discuss the scientific evidence that is necessary to be brought forward, or to enter into the unfortunate disputes which have taken place between the towns of Northwich and Winsford. I should like, however, to say I thoroughly endorse everything that has been said by them as to the merits of the question. I feel very strongly that the town of Winsford has been extremely badly treated. The Bill of last year was passed by the Committee upstairs on the distinct understanding that there should be a separate compensation district for each town; and although my hon. Friend who was Chairman of the Committee did not take any evidence on the subject of the loss caused to each town, I cannot agree with him in the conclusion which he has arrived at without taking that evidence. Anyone who knows the district, although he might not be able to say the particular damage that is caused by each particular set of pumps, would be perfectly able to say that in certain localities where pumping goes on no damage whatever is caused except in the area immediately around. I have just presented a Petition from eight hundred ratepayers and property owners of Winsford protesting, not against the Bill in itself, but against the very unfair provision which puts the town of Winsford and the town of Northwich together in one compensation area. I think my hon. Friend would perhaps be wise not to press this matter to a Division, but to take every step to bring the proper evidence before the Committee upstairs, with the view of getting this most unjust provision expunged from the Bill.


I share in the regret that neither of the Parliamentary Representatives of the Local Government Board is present; but I am empowered on behalf of my right hon. Friend the President to say this much to the House, that in his view—a view which he takes very strongly—this is pre-eminently one of the cases which the House, in passing the Compensation Bill of last year, considered should be dealt with in the ordinary way by the ordinary procedure created by that Bill. This is a matter of geological and scientific inquiry which could not possibly be settled here. It has been inquired into locally by an officer skilled in the matters discussed before him, and with the aid of expert evidence, I submit, it was the intention of Parliament last year that such matters as this urged by my hon. Friends behind me—as to which they may be entitled to sympathy—should be settled. Such matters are rather pertinent to what the Committee should do upstairs than to what the House should do. I trust, therefore, the House will not depart from the ordinary precedure in regard to this Bill.

*(3.44.) MR. BRUNNER (Cheshire, Northwich)

I was very glad to hear, last among the speeches made on the opposite side, the kindly tones of the hon. Member for the Eddisbury Division. He has a right to speak on this subject, for he has given the suffering property owners of that district his sympathy in the matter throughout the whole of this long discussion. I should like to say a few words in reply to the accusation made against my neighbours in Northwich, of bad faith in this matter. I know all the gentlemen who were at the meeting, the proceedings of which occupy so large a space in the pamphlet which has been distributed during the last few days. They are all men who would refuse to stoop to do a mean thing. They carried that resolution, expressing their opinions at that time, in perfect good faith, and it has not been because they wish to do an injury to Winsford that they have since changed their tactics, but simply because that having heard the evidence before the Committee of last year, and the statements made by its Chairman, they deemed it unwise, impolitic, and dangerous to the last degree, to ask for separate districts. The hon. Member for the Medway Division (Mr. J. S. Gathorne-Hardy), who presided over the Committee with so much care and ability last year, has, I am inclined to think, forgotten some of the evidence that was given before him. Mr. Thomas Ward, who is Director of the Salt Union, and who knows perhaps more about this matter than any man in this country, stated that in his opinion it is impossible to say where the mischief began or where it ended, and it was thereupon that the hon. Member said that the Committee were unanimously of opinion that it was impossible to divide the district. The hon. Member for the Cricklade Division (Mr. Story-Maskelyne), who sat upon the Committee in 1881 as well as in 1891, declared in Committee last year that the principle of separate districts was fatal to the Bill of 1881. I am very glad to think that the Amendment will not be pressed. If it were accepted, it would be a strong condemnation of the Committee of last year, and would involve an almost indefinite postponement of an honest attempt by the people of the district to make those pay who cause the suffering.


With the permission of the House, I will withdraw the Amendment.


Is it the pleasure of the House that the Amendment be withdrawn?

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed.

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