HC Deb 10 April 1912 vol 36 cc1360-7

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—[Mr. J. M. Robertson.]


Clause 6 of this Bill requires some explanation. It empowers local authorities to guarantee interest on the capital of light railways, not only on debentures, but on ordinary share capital. Under the Act of 1896 the council of a county or borough or district already have power to advance money by loan to light railways, and therefore I cannot see what the object of this particular Clause is. The hon. Member may say that it is easier to guarantee interest than to provide money, but I cannot see any difference between the local authority borrowing the money and their guaranteeing to provide the interest if the company provide the money. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman will say that this is an attempt to evade the provisions of the Act of 1896, which put checks and safeguards upon local authorities borrowing this money. That Act provided that the money must be obtained in pursuance of a special resolution passed in the manner directed by the First Schedule to this Act, and there are other provisos. Will the hon. Gentleman give me an assurance that these provisos are not done away with? There is another point on Clause 7 which apparently does away with proviso E of Section 24 of the principal Act. That proviso says that an amending Order may not be made without the consent of the persons owning the property. That is a very sensible proviso, and I do not understand why it was done away with in that particular Clause.


This Bill differs from the last inasmuch as it is a general Bill, but in the case of both Bills we have not had the advantage of any memorandum of explanation. These Bills are brought forward without a word of explanation, and we are supposed to find out for ourselves in advance what they mean. If I understand the first Clause aright, the Board of Trade is to be empowered to try to get an Act of Parliament through to enable a particular light railway to be carried out. That is a most extraordinary idea. If the promoters of a light railway make an application for a light railway under the Light Railways Act they are sometimes told that under the particular circumstances they ought to apply for an Act of Parliament. The first Clause of this Bill says that if an application is thrown out when made to the Light Railway Commissioners, on the ground that it ought to have come before Parliament, then the Board of Trade is to have the power to submit the proposals to Parliament by bringing in a Bill. A more extraordinary proposal I never heard, and we ought to have some very good examples of where there has been a failure of justice before we empower the Board of Trade to come to Parliament to get Acts of Parliament for all kinds of undertakings up and down the country instead of leaving the promoters of these undertakings to do so in the ordinary manner. Clause 2 of this Bill is again a most astonishing Clause. It is proposed to include in light railways what is called the trackless trolley system. An ordinary tramway is not under the light tramways Order, and anybody who-wants to construct an ordinary tramway cannot come to the Light Railway Commissioners to get an Order under the Light Railways Act. If you want to construct a tramway on a public road you cannon do so under the Light Railways Act. This Clause proposes that what is called the trackless trolley system shall have some special privilege. I would like to know how the promoters, patentees, and owners of the trackless trolley system have managed to get hold of the Board of Trade? They have evidently succeeded in persuading the Board of Trade that they are it most important body, and that the trackless, trolley system is a marvellous invention and ought to have some special privileges. I would like to know on what evidence the Board of Trade have come to such a conclusion? I have had something to do with tramway matters. I was chairman of the Liverpool tramways, when we constructed about 100 miles of tramway, and we investigated a number of these matters at that time. Therefore, I speak with some knowledge of the subject, and I think that anything more objectionable than the trackless trolley system would be difficult to imagine. The idea is that you have along the roads wires, and hanging on those wires you have a kind of small trolley, and from that little trolley from the wires overhead you have a little string. This string is connected with a moving vehicle which is not on rails, but can go to any part of the road. If that string, which carries the electricity, comes into contact with another vehicle—a lamp-post, or anything at all that happens to be passing, there will be very considerabla difficulty, and I am informed that this trackless trolley system will be found in most cases to be a very inconvenient and very expensive experiment.


Is not the trackless trolley system in existence?

8.0 P.M.


This Bill is to enable the trackless trolley system to be constructed under the Light Railways Act, and that is what I object to. I think that the promoters of the trackless trolley system ought to be subject, as they are to-day, to the same difficulties as the promoters of an ordinary tramway are. It is not fair to give such a system as the trackless trolley system special preference and great advantages over the ordinary tramways. Besides that, happily, by the great development of omnibuses, self-propelled with petrol, such as we see to-day in the streets of London, that problem has been very largely solved. When we have got an omnibus that can go anywhere on the road, and is not dependent on a long string, or on wires overhead and does not disfigure the road or cut up traffic or inconvenience other people, and which is very superior to anything in the nature of a fixed tramway or a trackless trolley, I regard this Clause as being decidedly retrograde. It is going back oh the experience of the present day. The only reason I can imagine why the Board of Trade put in this Clause is that some five or six years ago this trackless trolley system was thought rather an improvement. This Clause was drawn up, and apparently the right hon. Gentleman has inherited it from some predecessors connected with the Department, and he now brings it forward. There is almost as effective criticisms to be made on some other Clauses of this Bill, and I do protest against a Bill of this importance being brought forward in this way—thrown at the House, so to speak, without any explanatory memorandum of any sort or description—and our being asked to pass matters that might turn out to be of the greatest possible importance without any proper explanation whatever.


I do not wish to oppose any Bill which extends facilities to agricultural districts, realising as I do that the main development of agriculture is due to just such light railways as are contemplated in this measure; but I do wish to protest against the terms of Clause 6, which gives what I consider a most dangerous power to the lesser local authorities—namely, district councils. Under the principal Act district councils were authorised to undertake and to construct and work light railways, or, alternatively, advance money to light railway companies for such purposes. It is now proposed to give even a district council the power of advancing money, or guaranteeing the payment of dividends, on capital embarked by some local company in a light railway. I know something about district councils, and I am strongly of opinion that you will find in certain places, if district councils have these very large powers, that pressure may possibly be put upon them by some self-interested parties prepared to make a business out of the transaction, and they may enter into a guarantee which, not they themselves, but their successors some time thereafter, will have to make good out of the rates. It is one thing for a district council to embark upon the decision to advance a large sum of money which the ratepayers have to find forthwith, or, at any rate, of which they will have immediate knowledge, but it is quite another thing to guarantee the payment of money, which guarantee would not be made good for several years, and the incubus of which will fall not upon them, the responsible representatives of the ratepayers, but on somebody not yet in being, who will have to bear the onus hereafter. I think this a dangerous power to extend to the lesser local authorities, and I would like to sec that power of guarantee excised from the Bill so far as district councils are concerned.

With regard to Sub-section (2) of the same Clause, I should like to ask how it is going to work. Perhaps I ought to remind the House that under the principal Act the Treasury is empowered to make advances of one-fourth of the total amount that is required in the way of loans to local authorities taking advantage of the Act. It is now proposed, in the event of their guaranteeing the sum that may be necessary for such an undertaking, to allow that one-fourth still to be advanced, but not to the local authority that gives the guarantee, but to the company which is working or is prepared to work the light railway; that is to say, in return for the guarantee made on behalf of the ratepayers of the district, the advantages are going to be conferred, not upon the ratepayers or their representatives, but upon those who are going to derive some commercial benefit out of the undertaking. As regards Clause 7, I would like to know what is meant by the expression "any local or road authority." For the first time we have powers given to bodies which are not either the undertakers of the light railways in a commercial sense or local authorities as defined by the principal Act. There are these road authorities. It seems to me that they are either local authorities so far as the work of road construction and maintenance is concerned, or they are some central road authority or some body of that kind. If these powers are going to be given for the first time to a central road authority, or any other road authority that may hereafter be constituted, I think you are stretching the principal Act into a sphere which was wholly uncontemplated when the Bill was passed into law in 1896. Because the new road authorities want to have those additional powers of obtaining amended Orders after abortive Orders have been previously obtained, I do not know why the owners of the undertakings are no longer to be required to give their consent. It appears to me that for some reason or another, because new road authorities have come into existence, possibly the Road Boards, the owners are no longer to have a say as to what may seriously affect their commercial or proprietary interests.


The question raised by the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down was also referred to by the hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury). It has reference to Clause 6, and to the extended powers which are given to the local authorities not merely to advance money, but to guarantee dividends in the case of light railway construction. The defence of that particular provision of the Bill may be taken in terms as the justification of the Bill as a whole. The Light Railways Act of 1896 has done a considerable amount of work, but has not done all that was expected of it. Some seven hundred miles of light, railway have been constructed under the Act, and that is good work; but it has been found that at several points the measure has been prevented from coming into operation by reason of certain restrictions in the original Act. It is intelligible that a local authority, as the hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London himself suggested, might find it simple and more convenient to guarantee the dividends in connection with an undertaking than to go into the money market and undertake for itself the business of finding the money, with the cost that the finding of the money might involve. But I think the hon. Member will agree that it is merely a matter of giving special convenience to the local authority, and I can assure him that all the former restrictions on the action of the local authority still remain. The provision under Section 2 of Clause 3 of the original Act to which I referred will remain in operation, so that local authorities would be no more free to do dangerous things in that way than they were under the original measure. The kind of liability they incur in this way is not fundamentally other than the kind of liability they incur in the other way, and this Bill simply gives the local authorities another convenience in the matter of giving their assent to a particular scheme. In regard to the point raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool (Mr. Watson Rutherford), I may here say briefly as to the provision to which he demurred, that the Board of Trade should have power to produce a Bill in case an Order is net sufficient, that again was on the ground of meeting the convenience of the promoters, who, under the new arrangement, would not have to come to Parliament and go over the whole business of promotion again. The object of the Bill is to facilitate these undertakings in the interests of agriculture, fishing and other forms of trade. Instead of having to undertake the burdensome process of coming to Parliament again, and to fulfil formalities, it is now proposed that the Board of Trade should do what is easier for them as a Department to do, namely, produce a Bill. The hon. Member opposite spoke about trackless trolleys, and he wished to know whether these undertakings would be subject to the same requirements as in the case of light railways, and whether the Light Railway Commissioners would make the same sort of inquiries and put the same sort of difficulties in their way. I may state that promoters of these undertakings will not be allowed to ride roughshod any more than light railway people in the past. The hon. Member suggests that the promoters of the trackless trolley system have captured the Board of Trade. If there is to be any capture, the people they have to capture will be the Light Railway Commissioners, because the Board of Trade only confirm the Orders. If it should be found, however, that the motor-omnibus is better than the trackless trolley, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, the motor-omnibus could in any case compete with the trackless trolley, and, if it prove the cheaper, it will drive the trackless trolley out.


If the trackless trolley system is introduced into a city it might be in a position to always interfere with anybody else.


I do not think it is possible. I think the Light Railway Commissioners would take that into account. The hon. Member for Wiltshire (Mr. C. Bathurst) thinks Clause 6 is dangerous, but I have already referred to that subject. Again, as to the meaning of the expression "road or local authority," that seems to me a point better fitted for discussion in Committee, and if the hon. Member has anything to suggest on the point, it will receive most careful consideration.


Can the hon. Gentleman say what is intended by the expression?


It is very difficult on the moment to give a complete definition of the expression "road or local authority."


I wish to draw attention to Clause 2 of this Bill, and I should like some explanation on the matter. I venture to suggest that the Clause is an innovation which ought to be very seriously considered by this House before it is allowed to be passed. The Light Railway Commissioners at present have certain powers with reference to ordinary light railways, and private owners are able to appear before them for the purpose of as far as possible protecting their rights. I am bound to say that so far as I have any cognisance of the matter the Commissioners have taken very little notice of any public authority appearing before them for the purpose of protecting those rights.

And it being a Quarter past Eight of the clock, further Proceeding was postponed without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 4.

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