HC Deb 16 July 1914 vol 64 cc2271-8

Order for Second Reading read.

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


I beg to move to leave out the word "now," and at the end of and insert instead thereof the word "eleven."

the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."

The objections I have to urge against the Bill are quite apart from any local considerations. I believe it is alleged that the canal constitutes a nuisance to various persons in respect of its condition. I am not going to attempt to discuss any consideration of that kind. For the purpose of my argument it may be admitted that the condition of the canal is far from what it should be from the point of view of the inhabitants, and that some attempt should be made to do away with the nuisance which at present exists. The point I wish to raise is a very serious question of principle. The canal gives communication with important parts of Berkshire and Wiltshire, and it gives access to a large portion of the south and west of England. At present foreign countries are developing their waterways to the great benefit of the traders and inhabitants. There is a great and powerful movement which is attempting to arouse public interest in the development of the waterways of this country as they have been developed abroad. There is great reason why that should be done because rates and charges are constantly increasing and there is a tendency which cannot in my opinion be checked for railway companies to come more and more into combinations to the disadvantage of the trader who has to deal with one or other of those groups and has not access to other competing lines.

Canals and waterways are eminently suitable for cheap carriage of heavy goods and other classes of goods for which it is not necessary to obtain rapid transit. Those who have studied this question agree that a great mistake was made in this country when canals were hurriedly abandoned on the construction of railways. I would ask the House seriously to consider whether some alternative scheme might not be undertaken to relieve the local difficulties which may exist without destroying what has been a great waterway and ought to be developed as an important part of the waterways system of this country. The Bill proposes to hand over to the Corporation of Swindon all that part of the canal which is within the boundaries of the borough, and it is evidently intended that the canal should be filled up and streets built and the space utilised in this way. If the House does agree to give the Bill a Second Reading I trust that the Committee will give the most serious consideration to the great principle which is involved and endeavour to discover whether a local grievance may not be remedied without involving the destruction of this canal.


I beg to second the Amendment of the hon. Member for Rutland. I desire to point out that the part of Wiltshire through which this canal travels is served effectively by only one railway for a distance of seventy miles through which this canal travels and in which it used to work effectively. It is a very serious thing to contemplate the abandonment of any canal. Whether it is now derelict or not does not now affect my argument. [HON. MEMBERS: "It does."] I hear hon. Members say that if it is derelict it does affect the argument. On that point I should say that the worse the present condition of the canal the stronger the argument for never having allowed it to get into that condition, and undoubtedly whether it is bad or good there is the trace of a canal—[Laughter.] When hon. Members are done laughing they will see something more in the point. As long as you have got a line seventy miles long running through a county with all its bridges and everything in connection with the canal still operative you have got the site for the canal. The construction of the canal cost nearly a million sterling, for which it is now proposed to get the magnificent sum of £8,800. If it were for nothing else but the Preamble, and some of the Clauses which the Bill contains, I should oppose it. One paragraph of the Preamble is:— And whereas owing to the construction of the Great Western Railway and other causes, no traffic has for some years past been carried upon the said canals, and the canals are now unnecessary, and for want of sufficient funds to maintain them the banks and locks thereof have fallen into a state of dilapidation, and the canals have become, derelict. That might be said of almost every canal in the country at the present time, for it proceeds on the basis that wherever you get a railway coming into a district then the canal becomes unnecessary, and a Bill which proceeds on such an assumption as that ought not to receive the Second Reading in this House. It is argued by those who support the Bill that everybody is satisfied. I see that there are special Clauses for the protection of nearly everybody who can be named by name. The class left out altogether are the general public, who cannot be named by name, who cannot have a special Clause inserted in the Bill to see that they are satisfied. I see that Mr. F. P. Goddard is to be paid £250 in cash and payments of £8 and £12 a year. Mr. Goddard is satisfied. A little later there is a special Clause for the protection of Lord Lansdowne. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] In order that hon. Members may cheer impartially I may mention that there is protection for Lord Crewe. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] And other illustrious persons are named, but I find no Clause for the protection of a great number whom we are bound to uphold in this House before we abandon the last remains of the efforts of the early part of last century to provide a reasonable inland waterway communication. I wish to ask why nothing has been done with regard to the Report of the very expensive and very authoritative Commission which sat in 1906 and only reported in 1909.

There are Members still in this House who were on that Commission, and I believe the hon. Member for Blackburn and the hon. Member for Holborn were members of the Commission, which decided by a majority of 16 to 3 in favour of the Report, although two or three differed on certain details. They examined 266 witnesses, and the Commission recommended that there should be immediately set up the formation of a Central Waterway Board to consider the great mass of facts which they had collected. The Commission recommended what is known as a cross watercourse from north to south and east to west, and with regard to that and the feeders of it, I think it is worth noting that it was calculated that if this great waterway they said ought to be made effective in this country had on the whole of it only one-fourth the traffic which travels down the Rhine, it would be a paying concern, and would justify every penny spent in making it effective. This very canal we are dealing with here to-night is one of the feeders of that cross-section of canals which was the subject of the particular recommendation of that Report. Therefore I maintain as long as we have no Waterways Board, and while the Report and proceedings of this expensive Commission which sat for some years are brushed aside, and the Government refuse to deal with the subject, and we have a Bill presented to the House which provides that because a railway enters a certain district the canal is consequently unnecessary, I think no better reasons could be given for rejecting this Bill or any Bill for the abandonment of any waterway in this country or the remains of any waterway until this House decides some practical steps to put us somewhere more nearly level than at present with those great industrial competitors of ours who realises the value of inland water traffic. I beg to second.


I desire to support the Second Reading of this Bill. We have heard from the Mover and Seconder of the rejection that the canal is in a delapidated and practically derelict conditon. It is so dilapidate and so derelict that portions of it are dry land, and no boat has gone along the canal since 1900, or could. The canal is a source of danger to the health of the people of Swindon, and is in a stagnant and filthy condition. Six years ago the people of Swindon spent some £600 in trying to clean the portion which passes through their town, and the condition of the canal is as bad as it was before that money was spent. There is absolutely no through communication along the canal. It is not a feeder. It is true it did once connect the Kennet and Avon with the Thames at Abingdon, but the connection has long been broken off. The Berkshire County Council have run a road right through part of the canal and across it. The bridges have fallen down at Stanley. There is an aqueduct which has entirely broken down and under no conceivable circumstances could this narrow gauge canal ever be made fit for use again without the expenditure of an altogether disproportionate amount of money. We have heard something about the desirability of preserving the waterways of the country. I entirely agree. But where you have alternative routes—the Kennet and Avon Canal, which links up the West of England with London, and the Gloucester and Severn Canal, which also connects the West of England with the Thames at Oxford—it is altogether absurd for this House to take the view that it is necessary to retain a derelict and abandoned canal against the interests and the health of the people of Swindon.

There is another reason why I would urge the Second Reading of this Bill. Under the Consolidating Act of 1821, Section 162, it is provided that if this canal at any time should be derelict for a period of fourteen years, the landowners shall have the right to resume possession of the land of the site on payment of the sum originally paid to their predecessors in title. The Corporation of Swindon maintain that the fourteen years have already elapsed, but there is some little dispute with the Canal Company as to whether the period has quite elapsed or not. It is agreed, I believe, that twelve and a half out of the fourteen years have elapsed; so that in one and a half years automatically the landowners will have the right to resume possession. When the canal was originally built Swindon did not exist. At the present moment the canal passes through a densely populated part of Swindon. The land on which the slimy mess which goes by the name of canal is situated is urgently required for the purposes of making a thoroughfare and improving the conditions of Swindon itself. Surely under these circumstances it is not too much to ask the House of Commons to grant a Second Reading to this Bill, and at all events send it upstairs where its merits can be inquired into. The hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Peto) who has expatiated on the money which is going to be paid to certain large landowners, and has declared that the interests of the people have been neglected, might have considered the interests of the thousands of working men and women who live in Swindon and who are daily being poisoned by the stench which arises from this canal. I earnestly hope the Bill will receive a Second Reading.


I desire to support the Amendment for the rejection of the Bill. We have already been told that a Royal Commission has recommended that certain canals should be enlarged, improved, and amalgamated under a Board, and that these smaller canals should be maintained as feeders for the great canal system when it has been brought into working order. If we begin by destroying the small canals and feeders it will be like destroying the branch lines of a railway which are intended to feed the main line when constructed. A canal can be declared derelict and abandoned by proceedings under the Railway and Canal Act. The Company did proceed in 1899 under that Act to get a warrant from the Board of Trade. The Board of Trade directed an inquiry. [HON. MEMBERS: "Divide!"] That Was stopped. [HON. MEMBERS: "Agreed."] They can if they choose proceed with that inquiry. If they proceed with that inquiry everybody that has a right can be heard in opposition to the abandonment of the canal. Instead of proceeding with that inquiry they choose to proceed by Bill whereby anyone who cannot establish under the rules of the House a locus standi has no voice in opposing the Bill. To proceed before the Board of Trade is a far cheaper, far quicker, and far more efficacious way. They did not do that, because they did not want the Opposition to be heard.

The hon. Member who supported the Bill repeated what was said in a statement circulated to Members of the House, and received yesterday or this morning, and which is absolutely contrary to fact. Why should the promoters of the Bill circulate to the House that statement which is untrue? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, oh!"] Yes, I say so. Some hon. Members here know the facts. What the promoters say in reference to the Thames and Severn Canal and the Kennet and Avon Canal is not true. The Thames and Severn Canal is not working, and has not worked for a long time. No boats have been through it for a long time. Why do hon. Members make statements which are not facts? That shows the drawbacks of proceeding in this way when statements can be made, and seeing that they are not given in evidence, cannot be properly dealt with. The House accepts these statements, whilst opponents are given no opportunity to be heard, and of bringing the real facts before the House. The proper course to adopt, and that provided by the Legislature, is to proceed under the Act, get a warrant from the Board of Trade to authorise the abandonment of the canal. Proper opposition could then be offered if it was thought proper. If that is the desire of hon. Members it could be achieved far more cheaply, and far more expeditiously, and those who oppose the abandonment on public grounds would be entitled to be heard.


I blocked this Bill and I remove the block. From the purely national point of view these waterways ought to be preserved: in that event a Water Works Board would have to be set up at once and a national system of waterways would have to be carried out without delay. That is quite impossible. This particular canal, in my opinion, would not fit into a national scheme. In the meantime it is a serious source of ill-health and is a serious obstruction to county traffic. Last night the boroughs were against the counties. In this respect the only county borough is Wiltshire, and the county council are unanimous in desiring that this Bill should be passed, and for my part I cannot oppose it.