HC Deb 28 February 1899 vol 67 cc761-75

Order for Second Reading-read.

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

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

*SIR H. FOWLER (Wolverhampton)

Mr. Speaker, I have two reasons for my attitude in respect of the Second Reading of this Bill to-day. The first is that I hold, and have held for some time past, that one of the greatest and most difficult problems with which we have to deal in London is the enormous growth of the traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular, and, as has been pointed out by Sir Walter Besant, and other gentlemen, it is a question with which the London County Council will have to deal, so that we may have our streets more able to take the traffic with which they are now overburdened. My second reason is this; that the Strand Improvement came before this House some nine years ago. I had the honour of presiding over a strong Committee for the consideration of this question, and after sitting for many days, I venture to say that we passed a satisfactory Bill. This Bill, however, was abandoned, and that improvement stood still until the-year 1897. In the year 1889, when; this question first came under the management of the London County Council, two schemes were brought before the Council; one was a scheme for the construction of a new street from Holborn to the Strand, the other a scheme for the widening of the Strand by the destruction of Holywell Street island; but the County Council then determined, I have no doubt for very good reasons—at all events, I presume they were satisfactory to themselves—that they would postpone the construction of the new street from Holborn to the Strand until after the Strand Improvement was made. They did not submit to Parliament that year any Bill for the construction of the new street, but they did submit to Parliament a Bill for removing the Holywell Street island, and for widening the Strand. It was to the Committee of which I have spoken that the question of this improvement, which I have already mentioned, was referred. Just to show the character of that Committee, I should like to mention that, amongst other gentlemen, it comprised Sir Joseph Pease, Mr. Hanbury, Mr. Shaw-Lefevre, Mr. Lawson, Lord Carmarthen, and Sir Selwyn Ibbotson. That Committee had brought before it the enormous traffic which then passed along the Strand. What the traffic was then is but an indication of what it is now, and, of course, everybody knows that it has enormously increased between 1889 and 1899. At that time we had evidence before us saying that there were between 11,000 and 12,000 vehicles passing the point where that improvement was to be made in the business part of the day, that is from eight in the morning until 12 at night. We had then clear evidence as to the necessity for the improvement of this very narrow portion of the Strand. As I rely upon that evidence, I venture to trouble the House with some of the actual measurements, which I consider to be of some importance in connection with this matter. The width of the Strand at Somerset House is from 76ft. to 104ft., including footpaths. I am quoting from the evidence of Mr. Alexander Binney, as to which, I think the House will agree with me, there can be no question. The Strand, at its widest portion—opposite the Law Courts—is 113ft. 9in. Now, Sir, the portion of the Strand which I wish to impress upon the House the necessity of being dealt with at once is between Surrey Street, Arundel Street, and Norfolk Street. At Surrey Street the width is 46ft. 10in., at Arundel Street it is 44ft., and at Norfolk Street it is 40ft., and that is the narrowest point between Charing Cross and St. Paul's, and as a chain is no stronger than its weakest link, so the carrying capacity of a street is the capacity of its narrowest part. We have, therefore, then a sort of Khyber Pass in the Strand, reducing it to a width of 40ft. In connection with this point the question was raised of betterment. That question was very fully considered by the Committee. There was a large scheme of betterment, because the property involved extended from the Thames Embankment to Lincoln's Inn Fields, and from the Law Courts to Somerset House. The Committee were of opinion that the betterment which was then proposed would not apply to the improvement, and they thought that the only district to which it would apply was Holywell Street, on its north side. That Bill was abandoned, as I said before. In the year 1897, the winter before last, the County Council came back again to Parliament to obtain powers to widen the Strand, and the practical scheme, which was then brought forward in 1897, was the scheme which the Committee approved of in 1889. The House will note the sad delay of eight years in bringing forward that scheme. Under the present system of betterment or improvement, which has met with the sanction of both Houses of Parliament, it requires the improvement area to be defined; the improved area in this case is the north side of Holywell Street. Having obtained these powers, the Committee set to work—I do not know when —at all events, I have the report before me of the Committee, stating that progress has been made. There are 98 owners of property in this district, freeholders and leaseholders—I am now speaking of the improvement which Parliament sanctioned in 1897. On the 1st February, 1899, three purchases, and three purchases only, have been completed. That was the whole number of purchases completed between '97 and '99. In 14 cases terms have been agreed, and I suppose we may regard those cases as ones in which agreement has practically been arrived at. There were 34 cases in which negotiations were being carried on, and there appear to be 47 cases with reference to which practically no steps appear to have been taken, or, perhaps I should say, none of an effective character, and it is for these reasons that I am dealing with the Bill at the present moment. I do not want my Friends to think I am opposing the construction of this new street from the Strand to Holborn. That ought to have been made, in my opinion, many years ago, and I believe that the County Council has selected the best plan possible, and that this scheme is of paramount importance, and ought to be carried out as quickly as possible. All I seek to establish is that while one improvement is being made, the other improvement should not be left undone, and that the Strand Improvement should not be delayed until this new street is made. That, in plain English, appears to me to be the present intention of the Improvements Committee of the London County Council. In their report they give reasons why they are delaying, because they say in that report that the property on the north side of Holywell Street will become enhanced in value, and it will therefore be better not to arrange for the demolition of the Holywell Street block, and that, therefore, it would be impossible to press forward the improvement plan—that is, as to the widening of the Strand. [Cheers.] My honourable Friend behind me cheers that statement, but it appears to me to be one of the most extraordinary reasons to be given for the improvement which is now proposed to take place. The law requires that immediately after an Act is passed the Council or the Local Government Board shall, on the application of the owners, appoint an independent Valuer, and he has to make at once a valuation of what the property, in his opinion, is worth, totally irrespective of any enhanced value that may arise in consequence of the improvement, and that is called the initial valuation; that is to say, the value of the land and the value of the buildings, exclusive of any increased value that may arise from the improvement. Then the improvement goes on, and when it is completed and finally wound up, then, not before the expiration of one year, and before the expiration of three years, the Council must assess the charge for improvement; that is to say, it must fix the assessment which it is proposed to place upon the property in consequence of the improvement. Well, I want the House to see that that is confined exclusively to the improvement area. In this instance the improved area is simply the north side of Holywell Street. An argument of the County Council is this: do not pull down the south side of Holywell Street, because if you do you will increase the value of the north side of Holywell Street I ask honourable Members to appreciate the strength of that reasoning. That might have been an argument against bringing in the Strand improvement at all—it might have been an argument for postponing it, and for saying we won't take away that island until we have made it quite clear where our new street is to be. But the Act is passed, and you are bound to take it away, and you cannot escape from that—you cannot avoid it. Do you think any arbitrator would not have his attention called to the fact that the improvement must take place, that it would take place, and that the County Council themselves have already made an initial valuation, which recognises that they were going to claim a charge in respect of that improvement? It seems to me almost like a nursery tale to pretend that there would be no improvement. The property would have to be bought, and the Council, I think, will be entitled to charge the improvement value in respect of the new improvement; and it will be a very simple matter to adjust between the owners of property and the Council as to what is to be the real charge on the additional value. These are small matters of detail, which have very little practical bearing upon a question of a great improvement of this sort, which is to cost somewhere between four and five millions. The enhanced value, even if it arises, will be small in reference to the tumble-down property on the north side of Holywell Street, and in the meantime this improvement, which is wanted so much, is at a standstill until all these preliminary proceedings have been gone through. I would ask the House, what has the Commissioner of Works done with reference to the Parliament Street Improvement? It is not two years since this House sanctioned the great Whitehall improvement, and now the property is pulled down, and the ground is being rapidly cleared.

*MR. BURNS (Battersea)

That is Government property.


I beg pardon, only a portion. Very large sums of money have been paid in respect of that property, and the property is pulled down. The Commissioner of Works has paid large sums in settlement of claims, but the real point is this: Are you to delay this great Strand improvement for reasons which, I think, are of no practical advantage whatever? A statement has been circulated with the Votes this morning. I do hot know whether there is any responsibility attached to that statement, but I will call the attention of the House to it, and I think that will show some good reason for my being anxious that this improvement should be carried out. A paragraph of the statement says— It is hoped by the Council that before the end of the present year, possibly next autumn, it may be practicable to proceed with the demolition of the houses between Holywell Street and the Strand, and that the widening authorised by the Act of 1897 may be completed within three years from the passing of the Act—that is, in the autumn of 1900, instead of 1902, as allowed by the Act. That is not a very encouraging reason for the House to suspend its action, and not to enforce the completion of this great metropolitan improvement. I am sorry to have detained the House so long. I have no hostility to the London County Council improvement, nor to this Bill. I do not want to take any steps to interfere with the prospect of that Bill, or in any way to hamper my Friends who represent the London County Council, and if the responsible members of the London County Council in this House will give to the House an undertaking that they will proceed with all practical speed to carry out this improvement, then my object will be attained. I have no wish nor desire to assume any hostility to the London County Council; I do not wish to interfere with the carrying out of their improvements. This is a great metropolitan improvement, the need of which is obvious to every man and to every person who goes along the Strand, whether as a pedestrian or otherwise. But this improvement was sanctioned by Parliament in 1897, and I say there has been too much delay. Thirty years elapsed since it was first proposed before Parliamentary sanction was obtained; and I think that, having obtained that sanction two years ago, we are not asking too much in wishing that improvement to be proceeded with with as little delay as possible.

MR. BANBURY (Camberwell, Peckham)

formally seconded the Motion.

MR. STUART (Shoreditch, Hoxton)

I find some difficulty in ascertaining exactly the point of the right honourable Gentleman's objection to the Second Reading of this very important Bill. He is not opposed to the Bill, and yet he has moved its formal rejection. That may be a proceeding which is intelligible in the House, but it is hardly intelligible to the public generally. What is the point that we are considering? The right honourable Gentleman says that we are not proceeding fast enough with the Strand Improvement, and that is what his objection comes to. Now, that should have really, surely, been brought forward by Counsel before the Committee, in order to obtain the Strand Improvement, in order to shorten the period of three years which has been given to us to acquire the property and of five years which has been given to complete the improvement. To make it quite plain, three years is the period which has been given by Parliament for the purchase and five years is the period which has been given for completing the improvement. We have lost no time in any way in proceeding with all the necessary steps in connection with betterment and otherwise in order that the work may be completed as soon as possible, and I have every reason to expect, as was stated in this document sent round on behalf of the Bill— it may be practicable to proceed with the demolition of the houses between Holywell Street and the Strand in the next autumn. Then the right honourable Gentleman desired us to say when we shall do it. How can we say that when houses have not yet been acquired between the Strand and Holywell Street? We have many negotiations to go through; we have large and important arrangements to make, and we are proceeding with all possible speed, and we really hope that the improvement may be absolutely completed by the three years, or very soon after the three years are up, or two years shorter than Parliament allowed us. What more can we do? It seems to me to be a very curious thing to alter, or endeavour to alter, the Act of Parliament upon which the Strand Improvement is based in another Act of Parliament which might deal with an improvement which abuts on the Strand Improvement, which is an improvement which extends in many directions. The improvement we now undertake is in itself one of the greatest, if not the greatest, improvements that has ever been undertaken in London. We have split it from the Strand Improvement, and we have acted very wisely, because by carrying out the two arrangements by separate Bills we have been able to save something like from half a million to three-quarters of a million of money—that is the amount extra which we should have expended if we had gone forward by one Bill. That was one of the reasons which impelled the London County Council to undertake this specific improvement which we are doing just now. It is well known that the London County Council has been very averse to undertaking large improvements while the incidence of the rates remained as it is now. It will also be well known to the House that the improvement which we have before us now has the practically unanimous, or nearly the unanimous, support of all the parties in the London County Council, because it embodies that character of improvement which sweeps away insanitary property, and which has so many contingent advantages, that those who feel strongly that there should be a better adjustment of charge upon occupier and owner feel that in the present circumstances they might reasonably waive their opposition. Now, Sir, let us look at the point that the right honourable Gentleman makes a great deal of. He read an extract from the Report of the Committee, which was placed before the County Council on 17th February this year, but I want to go back to the 5th July, when this matter was first of all brought before the London County Council, and was one of the reasons that induced the County Council not to delay this second important improvement, and to go on with it in the present year. We had received from our valuer a report which pointed out that a most important feature of The case was that the widening of the Strand by the removal of the Holywell Street island would add considerably to the value of the circumjacent properties required for the new, street, unless powers were sought in the present Session, so that they might be obtained before the removal of the Holywell Street island. There is no obligation for us to remove that until three years have elapsed for the passing of the first Act, but, notwithstanding that we have no obligation, we are not delaying the matter. I really submit to the House that the only effect of the right honourable Gentleman's suggestion that we should go on with the Strand Improvement immediately would be that we should be obliged immediately to remove property which we have not yet acquired—which we are in the process of acquiring as quickly as possible. It would also oblige us of necessity, and by the pledge of this House, to remove the buildings between the Strand and Holywell Street at once, and by that means to give an increased value to certain properties which we think we had better, in the interests of the town, acquire in our own way, and subject to the provisions of the Act of Parliament. I cannot, under these circumstances, give any pledge whatever to the right honourable Gentleman further than what I have said. I am sure that I have the House with mo when I say that we stand upon the Bill we have already got in reference to the Strand Improvement, and which we think will be for the best interests of the great improvement of London which will be brought about thereby, and for the best interests of the ratepayers whom we have to protect.

MR. R. G. WEBSTER (St. Pancras, E.)

I quite concur with the remarks of the honourable Member who has just sat down, the Member for the Hoxton Division, that all people throughout the length and breadth of the country will agree with the honourable Member that it is advisable to leave the London County Council to have the full administration of this matter, and to have full power to carry it out in the best wav they can for the benefit of the authorities and for the benefit of London. This, as has been stated by the right honourable Gentleman the Member for Wolverhampton, is not a question that has come recently before London or this House. This question of the improvement of the Strand—the widening of the Strand and the inter-communication between these great thoroughfares—has been mooted for nearly 30 years, and it is our duty to endeavour to do all we can to endeavour to bring that improvement about as speedily as possible. The London County Council have very carefully considered this matter, and they have made what I conceive to be a very excellent and admirable improvement, and I sincerely hope that this House will carry out in its integrity the proposal of the London County Council, and reject the suggestion of the right honourable Gentleman the Member for Wolverhampton.


It is only right that the House of Commons should know the elementary facts, as regards the action of the London County Council, of the widening of the Strand and of the Holborn scheme. The Motion of the right honourable Gentleman is, in my opinion, more or less of an obstructive character, and is one which might lead to great delay and unnecessary ex- travagance. It is not necessary in a Debate of this description to go into the question of betterment and the question of taxation, which have been referred to. In 1897 the London County Council, with practical unanimity, came to the House of Commons and asked it to pass a Bill which is known as the Strand Improvement Bill. On that occasion this House, gave a maximum period of five years to carry out the improvement, and a maximum period of three years within which to acquire the property. The point that I want to deal with here is this—is there any argument which has been adduced this afternoon to show that the Council has been dilatory in carrying out the mandate of the House of Commons? I say no argument has been adduced, and no evidence can be produced in that direction. On the contrary, if there has been an improvement in London over which the London County Council has shown a most commendable dispatch it has been in connection with this Strand Improvement. Whilst we have been proceeding with economical dispatch in that direction, we have brought on a much larger improvement, namely, the improvement known as the intercommunication between Holborn and the Strand; that is to say, we have found it possible to kill two birds with one stone, to carry out the Strand Improvement with the making of a new thoroughfare between these two great main arteries without enhancing the price which is to be paid, and we come here to say that by a Motion of the kind which the right honourable Gentleman has made this afternoon there is a possibility of that price being considerably enhanced. We say that the Motion will not facilitate the Strand Improvement a single day or a single minute, but we do say this—that the real charge of the right honourable Gentleman is that we have been unduly anxious for the ratepayers' interests. As a rule, that is not a charge which is brought against the London County Council, and, as this is the first time that we have been guilty of that virtue, it ought rather to count for righteousness than against us. The second allegation is that the London County Council is not doing this class of work quite so quickly as the Government has done it. That in no sense is true. Well, Sir, I happen to have had the honour of being selected by both Governments on the Sites Committee, and as a member of the Sites Committee, I have had the pleasure of working with the First Commissioner of Works in the excellent improvement that he has carried out—excellent in every sense of the word, and admittedly excellent by all of us. The right honourable Gentleman the Member for Wolverhampton is rather wrong in his facts, for this reason—that twelve months only have expired out of the three and five years respectively granted to us for the Strand Improvement and purchase. On the other hand, of the Parliament Street block 60 per cent, was Government property, and yet, notwithstanding that, it has taken nearly four years to bring about that very useful and beautiful improvement. Everyone in London knows how difficult it is to acquire property for public improvements. It takes an extraordinary length of time. It has been so with the Government in connection with Parliament Street, and it has been so with the London County Council in connection with the Strand Improvement. The right honourable Gentleman is fearful lest we should delay the improvement of London traffic. We all know, to our sorrow perhaps, that the question of London traffic is a question which must, be dealt with at once, but it is rather curious to think that the very best Bill which has been introduced by the London County Council to effectively remove congestion in London's most crowded streets should meet with a more or less obstructive Motion of this description. I trust that the House will allow us to go on with the Strand Improvement as quickly as we can, and I trust that the House will allow us to make it as part of a vast improvement scheme, and I can assure the right honourable Gentleman the Member for Wolverhampton, as he has expressed a desire not to press his Motion to a Division, if a guarantee is required that we mean business, I can assure him that the valuer has doubled his staff, and that the London County Council is unanimous on this point, that the Strand block must come down as quickly as it possibly can be secured. The guarantee that the right honourable Gentleman seeks can be given, because we are in earnest in this matter, but the worst thing that can happen with the future improvement of London streets would be for the right honourable Gentleman to establish a dangerous precedent, and induce the House to adopt his Motion. If that Motion is adopted, then every property owner who wants the price of an improvement unduly enhanced will only suggest to his local Member that he is to put a Motion down of this character, and up goes the price of property. Then the improvement will be delayed, and the ratepayers will have to pay more than they reasonably ought to pay. I can assure the House of Commons that both Moderates and Progressives are unanimous in believing in the advisability of carrying out this scheme at once. We want a big street from Euston Station, through Holborn to the Strand, the removal of the Strand Island, and probably another new bridge, a few years hence, east of Somerset House.

*MR. COHEN (Islington, E.)

I can assure the House of Commons that the London County Council, which is almost as divided in opinion as perhaps the House of Commons itself, has practically an almost absolute unanimity of opinion upon this subject. Nobody can doubt the right honourable Gentleman when he says that he has no prejudice against this Bill. The right honourable Gentleman says there are two reasons for the Motion (which I hope is only a formal Motion) which he has moved. He is concerned about the great congestion of vehicular traffic throughout one of the great arteries of London, and although he is impressed with the necessity of dealing with that, he submits a Motion which would have the effect of delaying an improvement designed to repair the great and crying evil from which London suffers. The methods; which the London County Council have adopted of bringing in these two improvements by means of separate Bills will enable them to go more economically to work. That is our sole reason for acting as we have done. I should say that of all the gentlemen in the world the right honourable Gentleman opposite is the last man that I should have expected to censure the London County Council, because we are not desirous ourselves of permanently enhancing the value of the, property we want to acquire. I see that the right honourable Gentleman smiles at what I say.


I was not smiling at you.


I hope not. The attitude of the right honourable Gentleman towards this question is illogical. The London County Council does not want to delay these improvements, but it does not want, and it will not create, the enhancement of the property which it must and will acquire on reasonable terms. I will not conceal that I think the London County Council is greatly responsible for the delay from 1889 to 1897 in the carrying out of this improvement. I am not going to argue that now; that can be done in Spring Gardens; but, at any rate, for once we have an unanimity which is calculated to contribute to the removal of one of the greatest grievances which it is universally acknowledged London suffers from, and I hope that by an overwhelming majority the House will approve of the action of the London County Council.


May I suggest to the right honourable Gentleman that he has gained his object so far as he could expect to do so. I am sure that he does not wish to defeat or delay this Bill, and if he was not convinced of it before, he will probably be convinced by now that the House is unanimous in approving of the proposals which the London County Council has placed before the House. The only fault which the right honourable Gentleman finds with the London County Council is that they are not going fast enough with the scheme for which they already have powers. But I think he can hardly persuade the House to alter the Act of 1897, which gave the London County Council power to widen the streets. It may have been right or it may have been wrong to give the County Council the latitude which that Act did; but Parliament evidently thought that it was only fair to the London County Council that they should have till next year for the purchase of the property, and another two years for the accomplishment of the work, and I think the right honourable Gentleman will find it very difficult indeed to persuade Parliament at this time to alter an Act which so short time ago was passed. Therefore, under these circumstances, I think it is only reasonable that the County Council should have a latitude up to the dates given by Parliament for dealing with the properties which they are bound to acquire for carrying this work out; and as we are all agreed upon the desirableness of passing the Bill now before us, I venture to suggest to the right honourable Gentleman that we might now close the discussion, and that he might withdraw his opposition.


The right honourable Gentleman has very accurately expressed my views upon this question. But with reference to the remark of the honourable Member for Battersea, to charge me with attempting to obstructively oppose the Bill, or delay it, is an absolutely unfounded charge, and I think I repudiated any such suggestions more than once in my speech. This is not only the proper way of raising this question, but it is the only opportunity that I should have, owing to the forms of the House. I am quite satisfied with the statement of my honourable Friend the Member for Battersea, and I rely upon that statement. I feel that all I desired to have done has been done. Public attention has been called to the matter, and I have no desire to press it any further, and I therefore, Sir, beg leave of the House to withdraw my Motion.

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

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed.