HC Deb 13 July 1910 vol 19 cc456-69

Order for Second Reading read.

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


I beg to move as an Amendment to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."

I want to explain somewhat shortly the reasons why I take this course. Caversham is a small town in the neighbourhood of Reading, but in a different county and on the other side of the river. It has not in any sense a town population; it is not a town community. As a matter of fact, the population of Caversham is slightly over 9,000, and the acreage of the Caversham urban district is 2,400. The population of Reading, on the other hand, is something like a quarter of a million. It is an admitted fact that the administration by Caversham of its local affairs is carried on in an excellent way, and has no detrimental effect upon Reading. What I think should be the dominant point in a question of this kind—one which makes it a matter of principle, rather than of detail—is that the predominant opinion in Caversham is undoubtedly opposed to this proposed incorporation. We may take three tests, and they are very proper tests to apply in a case of this kind. Caversham has to elect Members to the Oxfordshire County Council, and those elected members made it a part of their programme to oppose any annexation to Reading. There is a petition against the proposal, which, although got up in rather a hurry, represents more than half the rateable value, while a poll of the ratepayers, which was taken on the question, shows that they by three to one are opposed to the annexation. Surely, as a matter of principle, when you have facts of this kind, a community ought not to be forced from the local administration of the county in which it is situated and annexed unwillingly to a borough with which it really has no connection. I am aware, of course, of the ordinary doctrine of community of interests, but I venture to assert that there the real community of interests is not between Reading and Caversham, but between Caversham and the surrounding rural districts, with which it is properly united. There is another very important point to be considered in matters of this kind. The President of the Local Government Board is too fond of the borough side in these questions of borough extension. The result is that in a place like Caversham, where at the present time you have real local government—they have an urban district council holding its meetings in Caversham itself, and the effect is to enable the Caversham people to take an effective part in the management of their own local affairs—immediately you annex it to Reading you will get a contrary result, and the local ratepayer—particularly the poorer man—who wishes to take part in the ordinary administration of local government will no longer be able to do so, because be will have to go to a central meeting place at the Town Hall at Reading. Under the principle of unfair borough extension, you are really destroying the spirit of local administration, because you are putting the head of local administration too far off, and people, locally interested, will be unable to attend the meetings.

There is another very important consideration in cases of this kind which should induce this House to give weight to the opinion of the people of Caversham. Reading, like many other boroughs, has incurred certain debts in connection with its own local administration. I am not blaming Reading for that; but I do suggest that the burden of those debts ought primâ facie to be borne by the people responsible for incurring them. It is very important in local self-government that the burden should be imposed on the area which has incurred the debt, and not on an outside area which had no voice at all in incurring it, but for which it is sought to be made liable by incorporation with the adjacent borough. The Caversham ratepayer never had a voice as regards Reading expenditure. It is not suggested that any harm is being done to Reading by Caversham being left under county government, and, therefore, why should it be subjected to a burden of taxation in the incurring of which it had no voice at all? I am anxious to emphasise this point because the time has really come when, if borough extensions of this character are permitted you will destroy the spirit of county administration in this country and make people liable against their will to heavy burdens in the creation of which they had no part. These are matters on which there is no clashing of evidence at all. It is really a question of principle that is involved here Will this House sanction a borough extension where the inhabitants of the borough proposed to be annexed are predominantly against annexation, and where they will be brought against their will under a burden which they had no voice in incurring in any sort or way?

There is another point and one of great importance and that is the question of financial adjustment. I know at the present time it is proposed that this Bill should be referred to a Joint Committee. I am not satisfied with that. I think that Caversham and the county of Oxford ought to know what are the terms to be imposed in the financial adjustment before this scheme is allowed to go upstairs after Second Reading. The reason is this; these borough extensions nearly always take an important portion of rateable value out of the county. I believe in every case the expense thrown on the borough is greater than anticipated, because a great change has to be made in local administration. Pensions and compensation to officials have to be provided for, and there is, therefore, always very heavy expense incurred when a county district is annexed to an adjacent borough. It is of vital importance nowadays not to put an undue burden on the ratepayers of our country districts. They consist partly of people engaged in agriculture, and everyone must feel that if there is one industry on which no undue burden of rates ought to be placed it is the industry of agriculture. It is the industry which has to meet the greatest amount of foreign competition, and in respect to which we ought to be as careful as possible not to put upon it undue burdens as regards rates and taxes. Who are the other people? They are people who pay rates in the small villages and towns which we find in our country districts.

I think everyone in this House agrees with me that the small villages and towns should be preserved, with their small local industries and small local prosperity, whatever it may be. And why should Reading, which has its own difficulties, no doubt, but also its own prosperity—why should they add to the rateable burdens of the outlying portions of the county of Oxford when the rates will fall eventually either upon the agriculturists, who ought not to have additional rates thrown upon them, or upon the small industries of the villages and towns, which ought to be encouraged as far as possible? The present policy of the Local Government Board is to discourage county life and county government, whereas I take the other view that, although certain borough extensions are justifiable, yet you ought to be most careful to see that, as far as possible, you do not in regard to them interfere with the amenities of county life or place fresh taxation on the people who live there. I think the grounds I have indicated are grounds of principle. I know it is often necessary in cases of this kind to say, Why should not this particular Order go upstairs so as to give an opportunity of having the matter thrashed out before a Select Committee? The answer to that really is this. In those circumstances you place the determination in the hands of four or five Gentlemen, for whom I have the greatest respect, but who, as regards their particular conclusions on the evidence, may find one way or another, but I want this House to determine the question of principle. The question of principle is this, that a portion of a county district ought not to be annexed to a borough unless the borough can show that if that portion of the county is left independent they are injured as regards their urban life. This, however, appears to be a pure case of unadulterated coercion to those people who believe in a representative government and think that people should not be transferred from one form of government to another against their will where they have done no harm, and carried on administration in the best possible manner. I ask all persons who adopt that view to vote in favour of the Resolution which I move.


I beg to second the Amendment for the rejection of this Bill.

After the very interesting Debate which took place last Wednesday on the principle contained in the Birmingham Bill, and after the exhaustive speech of my hon. Friend, I do not think that I need do more than summarise some of the particular considerations which have led the people of Caversham to protest so frequently and so emphatically against the proposal of the Corporation of Reading which is contained in this Provisional Order. I do not know whether the House realises the drastic nature of the action which the Reading Corporation desires to take. It is not a case of a borough enlarging its boundaries by annexing a few hundred acres of the county in which it happens to be situated. The Corporation of Reading proposes to do a good deal more than that; they propose to annex a part, and a very desirable part, of the county of Oxfordshire, and in doing so they disregard deliberately the ancient and definite county boundary which is formed by the River Thames. In doing so also they are acting in direct opposition to a majority of the population of the urban area of Caversham, which is within the district they propose to take. I do not intend to dwell upon the point of view which is taken by the Oxford County Council, because I know that the Noble Lord the Member for Oxford will probably deal with that later, but I think it would be of interest to the House generally, especially to Members of county constituencies, if I were to bring before it the exact principles on which the Local Government Board act when they oppose and support these county borough extensions.

I submit that there are really only two clear main grounds which can justify a gigantic extension such as this. The first is that the administration of the area which it is proposed to annex will be more efficient and more economical when carried out on the larger scale proposed by the scheme, and, secondly, that the desires of the inhabitants to be annexed have been ascertained to be absolutely in favour of the scheme of incorporation. Those are the principles which were laid down most clearly by Lord Ritchie, an ex-President of the Local Government Board, when a discussion was going on between Hove and Brighton. Those were the principles which were followed with the greatest possible success in the Bradford Incorporation Bill of 1901 and the Liverpool Incorporation Bill of 1903, but I do submit that in this instance both those principles have been disregarded in what I may call a most cynical and highhanded manner. Not a single word was said at the inquiry at Reading before the Local Government Board Inspector in disparagement of the local urban district of Caversham. It was admitted by Counsel in their speeches, and proved by the evidence, that it was worked economically in every detail, and was as efficient an administration as that of Reading in the matter of roads, main drains, and sewers, lighting, police, and so forth, and it was established generally that Caversham had nothing absolutely to gain by incorporation with Reading, while a great many people in Caversham think it stands to lose a great deal. I quite agree that it is an important problem to get the working class of South Caversham to their work in Reading across the River Thames, and I think that could be solved just as satisfactorily and considerably more cheaply by the extension of the present footbridge. This extension would have been carried out some time ago if it had not been for the obstruction of the Reading people, and other methods could be adopted for dealing with vehicular traffic. I wish, however, to point out that this Provisional Order is persisted in in face of the downright and vehement opposition of the people who live in the locality.

The President of the Local Government Board knows that petitions and polls are not always satisfactory means of testing what the feeling of a district is, but still they are indications of what the feeling in the district is. When this proposal was first mooted, a poll resulted in a majority of over 500 against the incorporation, and in the last few days a petition has been lodged with this House, signed by people representing more than half the rateable value of Caversham, against this Bill, and that exclusive of the largest owner in the locality, who is opposing this Bill separately on his own behalf. Moreover, I do submit that a county council election does afford a very satisfactory opportunity of finding out what the feelings of the people in a district are, and not very long ago a county council election was fought simply and entirely on this question. On that occasion the two retiring candidates, both men of considerable influence and popularity in the district, who expressed themselves in favour of incorporation, were beaten by a majority of over 400 by the two anti-incorporation candidates who fought the election on that issue alone. I submit that a scheme which, so far as I can see, will confer no additional benefits on the people of Caversham, which, instead of leaving them in the position they are in now, with an effective control of their own admirable local representation, will give them a representation of eight on the unwieldy Reading Council of forty-eight, and a scheme which, above all, has been opposed over and over again by the people in the area concerned, does no credit either to its originators or to the Local Government Board, which persists in supporting it. We hear a great deal about the will of the people prevailing nowadays, but it seems inconsistent of a Liberal Government to support a scheme which, quite apart from its inherent vices, faults, and dangers, does absolutely go against the expressed will of the people, and which appears to me to strike at the root of the most fundamental principle of democratic government.


The hon. and learned Gentleman who has taken the very exceptional course of moving the rejection of this Bill does not represent the immediate district which is to be absorbed. I admit that he represents an adjoining district that is perhaps indirectly affected by this Order, but I had hoped that with his experience, and in the light of some of the facts and arguments that he has used this evening, he would have seen not only the necessity but the justice and wisdom of these facts and arguments being tested, as they cannot possibly be tested properly on the Second Reading of the Bill, before a proper tribunal, where by maps, by diagrams, and by facts and figures that can be challenged and cross-examined, the Bill may receive that fair and equitable consideration that it can only receive from a Committee upstairs. The hon. and learned Gentleman pointed to the condition of things which might prevail under this Order, as if the town of Reading were to assume an added area of exaggerated size and of unmanageable proportions, the simple facts being that a town of not more than 80,000 seeks to absorb, for what the Committee may or may not determine proper reasons, an additional population of only 9,300. It is no answer to this Provisional Order to say that the river divides Reading from Caversham. The hon. and learned Gentleman, who knows his Shakespeare very well, will know that most unsuccessfully a similar argument was used with regard to a river by one of Shakespeare's characters, who said:— There is a river in Macedon and there is also, moreover, a river at Monmouth. We also know that there is a river at Reading, and there is the river at Caversham. Each has the same community of interests that makes the river indispensable to both, particularly when the river happens to have a very inadequate footbridge, for which is to be substituted, I hope and trust, a convenient and commodious and handsome bridge, the cost of which probably will mainly fall upon Reading. The hon. and learned Gentleman must not forget that Caversham is of Reading, although not in it. This Bill seeks to make it, under just and equitable conditions, in and of it, and when we know, as we do, from the facts that emerged on the Provisional Order stage that 50 per cent. of the people of Caversham get their living in and out of Reading, that seems to be primâa facie evidence in favour of the Bill being considered by a Committee. My hon. and learned Friend really misunderstands the attitude of the Local Government Board in these matters and certainly of myself. He is mistaken when he thinks we wish to destroy either civic pride or pride in county administration. On the contrary, when we can do anything to stimulate it we do our best in that direction, but it is a moot point whether we have not in this country too many authorities both large and small. We have 25,400 local authorities in England and Wales, involving in many cases great expense both to the ratepayers of the counties themselves and of adjoining counties, involving overlapping in many cases and waste of money which the facts and circumstances do not warrant, and we think this is a case in which 50 per cent. of the people dependent upon Reading, who live in an outside area, should be included in the larger township for the advantage of both. I believe the promoters are prepared, in the event of the Bill passing the Second Reading, as I hope it may, to assent to the financial adjustments to which my hon. and learned Friend refers being subject to the decision of the Joint Committee, as in the case of the Birmingham and Bath Bills. When my hon. and learned Friend seeks to make a grievance in the matter of rates as one form of financial adjustment, he has only to look at the Order and he will find that Reading has been not only generous but magnanimous to Caversham.


I was arguing the case of the outside county ratepayer. You can always bribe a particular district.


Sufficient for the day is the goodness thereof. I am dealing with the district to be absorbed. When my hon. and learned Friend ricochets from the district to be absorbed to the outside areas which are not affected, that is not in the Order, and we have only to deal with Reading versus Caversham, and in the matter of differential rating I would ask the House to listen to the simple but very important fact that Reading is quite willing to give Caversham a differential rate for fifteen years, which for practically the whole of that period will be considerably lower than the rates of Reading—I believe something like 6d. or 7d. in the £. If Caversham is included in Reading I believe no injustice can be done to Caversham, because it will have the advantage of several profitable enterprises which Reading now has in the way of gas and water. It seems to me that the hon. and learned Gentleman has made no case against the Bill. When the Bill becomes law I have not the least doubt that the rural areas abutting upon the Caversham that now is, but the Reading that is to be, will profit to the same extent by the growth of both communities merged into one, and will not suffer as the hon. and learned Gentleman suggests.

I might point out that since this Bill has been under discussion 700 owners and occupiers in Caversham itself, out of a population of 9,300, which is a very large proportion of owners and occupiers in so small a population, have petitioned in favour of this Bill. This Bill has been very thoroughly considered. The inquiry lasted seven days, and everybody has been heard. I believe that nobody will be damnified if this Bill passes, and Caversham is included. Caversham has now the advantage of the tramways, libraries and markets, which the larger and wealthier community enjoys, and if it is included, instead of regretting this, it will, I am sure, get the safeguards and generous treatment which Reading already offers. The Committee upstairs will also secure for Caversham the adjustments which the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite referred to. They will he equitably met and no injustice will be done to the included area. From the point of view of the permanent interests of Caversham and Reading there is no reason why a population which is relatively small should be governed by five different bodies when one is capable of governing not only equally well, but in my opinion better and more economically. I recommend the House to give this Bill a Second Reading. I trust that it will go upstairs and receive from the hands of the Committee the treatment which Bills of this kind always receive, and that Caversham will be afforded an opportunity of putting its case before the Committee. If Caversham is not apparently at this moment as well treated as it thinks it should be, its interests can be safely left to the impartial Committee upstairs.


In this case the district concerned is unwilling to be annexed. The figure which the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Burns) quoted does not represent more than one-fourth of the inhabitants of Caversham. While the district is unwilling to be annexed to Reading, Oxfordshire is unwilling to part with it. In these circumstances is Reading entitled to annex this district from the neighbouring county and to overstep the natural boundary? If Reading were extending in the other direction, there might be something to be said for it; but Reading has ample means of extending on its own side of the river, and therefore it is in order to gratify the ambition of the borough community that this district is sought to be extinguished as regards its local government. The wishes of the inhabitants within that area of local government are to be disregarded, and the conditions of the county which will suffer considerably pecuniarily by the taking away of Caversham, are also to be disregarded. I must confess it appears to me that the Local Government Board are treating these areas very much as portions of Europe were treated in the old days when the wishes of the inhabitants were disregarded and the great Powers portioned out Europe as they pleased. I cannot imagine a stronger case than this in which the parties most interested, not wishing to be annexed, have expressed an opinion against annexation. No particular profit is to be gained by anybody through the annexation, and when the Local Government Board wishes the district to be taken away from one county and given to another against the wishes of the parties interested in the matter. I must cordially support the Amendment of my hon. Friend.

The SOLICITOR-GENERAL (Sir Rufus Isaacs)

There are really two questions involved in this Debate. In the first place there is the point put by my hon. Friend the Member for South Oxfordshire (Mr. Fleming) to the effect that Reading is attempting to swallow Caversham, and that in principle this ought not to be allowed. Then he came to what I cannot but think was the real point of his argument. His second point was that he was anxious to secure for the county of Oxford the financial adjustments which would make quite certain that that county would not suffer. It was in that sense that the hon. and learned Baronet (Sir W. Anson) spoke, not only as representing the university, but also on behalf of the Noble Lord who represents the City of Oxford (Viscount Valentia). The hon. Member for South Oxfordshire and I are close neighbours. Caversham is situated in his constituency, which is only separated by the river from that which I represent. In fact, I have many supporters or opponents in common on both sides.

The main question, after all, is one which is not for the consideration of this House on the Second Reading of the Bill. It is most unusual to discuss a private Bill of this character in its intricacies and details at this stage, because the House is not really in a position to deal with the facts stated on the other side. It cannot examine into them, whereas a Committee upstairs has all the power to do that, and always does it very impartially and thoroughly. I do not wish to enter into all the matters which have been mentioned by some hon. Members opposite, but I wish to point out briefly that this is not a Bill in which one borough is seeking to merge a neighbouring borough or town or village which has no interest in the greater borough. Quite the contrary. What really happens here is that at least half—and I do not think I am exaggerating when I say a large majority—of the inhabitants of the district proposed to be annexed get their living in and are dependent upon Reading. They get all the advantages which the administration of the municipality of Reading gives, but they do not pay, and the result is, of course, that we get a constant stream of the inhabitants into the borough of Reading from Caversham. In that way a greater burden is imposed on the inhabitants of Reading who remain in the borough, whereas a great number of persons who get the advantage of the borough migrate to the neighbouring district. I would like to say a word on the substantial aspects of the question. Take the current six months. The suggestion was made by the hon. Member for south Oxfordshire that there was some at tempt at imposing a crushing burden on Caversham for the benefit of Reading. That is a suggestion which it is very well to consider. It is utterly unsupported by facts and quite unwarranted by anything that has been put before the House. I think the hon. Member who advanced the argument must have forgotten an important point. During the current six months the rate at Caversham is 3s. 9d. in the £, while the rate at Reading is 3s.10d. in the £. So there is only a difference of 1d. in the £ excess in the case of Reading over Caversham.


Taking an average of the last three years the Caversham rates are 1s. 2d. in the £ lower than the Reading rates.

9.0 P.M.


I happen to have here the figures of the rates for the last five years, and I quite agree that the hon. Member is correct to this extent, that if you take an average over the last five years, and not the last three years, it will show that the rates in Caversham are something like 10d. in the £ less than in Reading. From 31st March, 1906, to 31st March, 1910, the figures show an average of 7s. 10d. and one-fifth of a penny in Reading and 7s. and two-fifths of a penny in the £ in Caversham for the same period. So during that period there was a difference of about 10d. in favour of Caversham. The reason I took the last six months was because there never was a period in which, if Caversham is opposed to incorporation with Reacting, it would have been so much to its interest to keep down the rates, and yet in that period the figures are 3s. 9d. in Caversham as against 3s 10d. in Reading for the six months. But this is not a question of discussing where there is a difference of 1d. or of 10d. As my right hon. Friend the President of the Local Government Board painted out, Reading is most generous to Caversham, inasmuch as it offers to Caversham differential rating for fifteen years to the extent of 7d. in the £. It is hardly fair, and it certainly is not generous. to complain in those circumstances of the way in which Reading is treating Caversham. There are other respects also in which Reading is willing to give terms to the advantage of Caversham. There is the bridge, which would be a great boon to Caversham, and which Caversham some years ago failed to secure, though it wanted it badly, in order, as my hon. Friend says quite correctly, that the workmen who live in Caversham may be able to cross the bridge to come to their work in Reading. It is for that purpose that Reading is willing to have the bridge constructed, which will be one of the advantages that Caversham is to obtain by incorporation. In view of the Debates which took place last week in which everything that could be said was said on the principle of financial adjustment, I trust that in the present circumstances the House, having accepted this principle by referring to the Joint Committee the special Instruction which was moved by my right hon. Friend, will allow the matter to be dealt with by the Joint Committee. Reading has expressed itself as willing to abide by whatever the Joint Committee may say in respect of this financial adjustment, and under those circumstances I would press on the hon. Member for South Bucks, and those who are acting with him, that they may let this matter now proceed so that it may go at once into the hands of the Committee and be considered in the usual way.


I believe that this Bill introduces a principle entirely different from what we settled last week as regards Birmingham and Bath. In both those cases the localities were ready to accept incorporation, but were anxious on the subject of financial adjustment. This is an entirely different principle. According to the right hon. Gentleman, the locality in this case, in the proportion of three-fourths to one-fourth, is opposed to this measure. It seems to me it is a measure which every county Member ought to resist. The right hon. Gentleman, I know, is anxious to incorporate portions of counties in the borough. That may be all very well when those portions of the county consent to it, but when the portions of the county are against it, then I think they ought to have the support of the county councils, and ought to have the support of this House in opposing it. I think we ought to take the part of the lesser bodies against the greater, of the weak against the strong. I hope that those who are opposing this measure will go to a Division, because it introduces a new principle which I do not think ought to be introduced.


There is one point of which my hon. Friend who has just spoken I think is not quite aware. This Bill affects not only Caversham, but it also effects other parts of the adjoining districts. It affects the district of Tilehurst, which happens to be in my Constituency. It is a district adjoining Reading towards which Reading has been growing rather rapidly during the last few years, and a district which clearly ought to come into the boundaries of Reading for municipal purposes. We have had, I frankly admit, our differences with Reading with regard to provisions which were not in the Provisional Order, but I understand that an informal arrangement has been made between Reading and Tilehurst which will meet the wishes of the people of that place. If my hon. Friend goes to a Division, and prevents the Bill being read a second time, he will not only deal with the Bill as regards Caversham but also as regards Tilehurst. It is far better that the Bill should go upstairs, where the claim of Caversham to be excluded and the claim of Tilehurst to be included can both be considered.

Main Question put, and agreed to; Bill read a second time, and committed.

Ordered, "That it be an Instruction to the Committee that, if they pass the Preamble of the Bill, they shall insert a Clause in the Bill providing that financial adjustments shall be made in accordance with the decision of the Joint Committee of both Houses on Financial Relations when ascertained, such financial adjustments to take effect as from the date of the coming into operation of the Order."—[Mr. Burns.]