HC Deb 02 June 1921 vol 142 cc1341-63

Order for Second Reading read.

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


In rising to speak on the Second Reading of this Bill, I do so with the object of eliciting information rather than with the intention of throwing out the Bill, as if the Bill was thrown out on the Second Reading the London County Council could not continue its beneficent work in the Metropolis. The London County Council differs from other public bodies in this, that provincial municipalities if they wish to borrow money for any particular purpose or to undertake any large enterprise have to obtain the sanction of the Local Government Board. In the case of provincial municipalities the Local Government Board sends an inspector who holds an inquiry at which all interested parties attend and are heard. That is not the case with the London County Council. The practice in regard to that body is that every year they bring before this House the London County Council [Money] Bill, and the House sanctions the requisitions they make for the purpose of carrying out improvements in the Metropolis or such other works as they may undertake. It throws a great weight of responsibility upon the House to see that this annual expenditure is justified. I have deemed it my duty to raise discussion on many occasions in regard to this Bill not in any spirit of hostility to the London Council, but with the object of meeting that responsibility. In this particular year the demands of the County Council seem to be less open to criticism than they have been in many other years, but it is none the less the duty of the House to look into the items which it is asked to sanction, and to request information upon any points which may appear to be either excessive or out of the ordinary. If this Bill goes upstairs there is nobody to oppose it unless some ratepayer undertakes that duty, and it rests upon the House alone to elicit information from those who represent the London County Council and whose names are on the back of the Bill. I need not remind hon. Members that one must look carefully into all expenditure at the present time. We heard many speeches on economy yesterday, and I do not propose to retail any of them, but particularly in regard to the question of building, all expenditure which can possibly be postponed should be postponed. I will first point out that, despite the increase in the rateable value of London, the effect of the Bill will be to increase the rates by some 6d. in the £ in round figures. In saying that, I am not hostile to the policy of the County Council, and I have no doubt this increase is necessary, but I mention it as a preface to my remarks, in which I hope to show that it is our duty to study very closely and carefully the figures which are put forward. I have already asked my hon. Friends in charge of the Bill for information on one or two points, and in addition there are other matters which I desire to bring under the attention of the House.

In the first page of the Schedule is a sum of £5,500,000 for carrying out a scheme in connection with the housing of the working classes. That is a considerable commitment for building alone to be carried out in one year, but very likely good reasons will be given for it. Coming after that, and in addition to it, in the second page of the Schedule, we find a large number of items coming under the head of the London County Council Tramways and Improvements Acts. We all know that these are really for the purpose of street improvement. When one notices such items as £21,000, £37,000, £18,000, and £39,000, and other items, one recognises the necessity of care in dealing with them. There is one item under the Tramway and Improvements Act of 1920 in reference to Old Street, Kingsland Road, Cable Street, and Brook Street—the purchase of property and execution of works—which represents a sum of £110,000 for the year. I should like to know whether some of that might not be usefully deferred to a future period when the cost of building might be less and money might be more plentiful.

A hardy annual in connection with this Bill has been the matter of the London County Council Hall. I have not asked for information about that. I see there is to be something less than £500,000 spent upon it this year, and that possibly may be necessary expenditure in the case of a building which has not got a roof upon it. Therefore I have not troubled about that this year as much as on other occasions. Those who are not acquainted with the history of that hall may, however, desire to know something about it. I would draw attention to the item for the provision of a new Court House for Quarter Sessions, on which it is proposed to spend £14,500. This is bracketed with an item for the improvement of accommodation and equipment for the Stores Department of the Council, purchase of property and redemption of tithe amounting to £16,000. The two together make an item of £30,000. I should like to know a great deal more about these. I presume there is at present a hall wherein the Quarter Sessions have been held for a good many years. Why is it necessary at this particular time to spend this large sum on a new sessions hall? I am the last person to wish to prevent money being spent in connection with the law, but the department of the law with which I am least in sympathy is the erection of new buildings where the old buildings will suffice, and, before we vote money for building here, we should have some reason given why this large sum should be spent.

I have already dealt with the very large sum of money which is asked for tramways and street improvements in dealing with tramways, but the matter does not rest there, because I come now to Item 20— Acts relating to Tramways: Purchase of tramway undertakings, construction, reconstruction and equipment of tramways, provision of buildings, power stations, machinery and rolling stock, and other purposes, £1,000,000 for this year and £439,000 for the six months after the end of the year. That one item of £1,000,000, in addition to the other very large sum for street im- provements in connection with tramways, is a matter upon which I should like further information from the hon. Member representing the County Council. Surely this sum is too large. I should have thought the competition of the motor omnibuses was sufficiently severe to make investments in tramway enterprises somewhat of a speculative nature, and I should be very interested to know whether the existing tramways pay a substantial return on the very large sums of money which have been invested in them year after year with the sanction of this House. I should like to know in what part of London another £1,000,000 is going to be spent, what tramway is proposed to be dealt with, and if it means buying up existing tramways, and, if so, whether the County Council think they are likely to make a better thing of it than the private companies who own the trams at the present time. Having regard to the expense of every sort of material at the present time, could not these new tramways be postponed to some later date? There are two other small points about which I wish to ask the hon. Member.

In Part II of the Bill there is an item of £200,000 for the purchase of lands for street improvements, and, of that, £100,000 is to be spent this year. I have already pointed out to the House that under the so-called tramways improvements nearly £200,000 is being spent in street improvements, and under this Part II there is to be another £100,000 spent. Is it really urgent that these street improvements should be carried out this year? Could they not be postponed to some more suitable time than the present? Surely no more unsuitable time than the present could be found. The last point I am taking is in Part IV of the Bill, which does not directly concern the County Council. The County Council have the power to lend money to Metropolitan borough councils, boards of guardians, and other public bodies, and before they can do that they have to come to this House and ask leave to lend the particular money, that is, to borrow it for the purpose of lending it out. The item which I venture to ask information upon is Item 24, Loans to Metropolitan Borough Councils, £200,000,000, with another £1,000,000 six months after the end of the year, making £3,000,000 within 18 months. It strikes me that that is a big figure. Does it include in any way money to be borrowed for municipal buildings? There was a matter, which I saw mentioned in the paper, of a town hall at Islington, and I believe the London County Council declined to lend the money for that purpose. If that is so, I think, in fairness to the County Council, I ought to put the question, because it is only right that we should know that this sum of £2,000,000 does not include that item, which I gather to be the case from the fact that the hon. Member representing the County Council nods assent. It is, I think, distinctly to the credit of the County Council that they should have refused to lend money for this purpose. I venture to emphasise the importance of the duty which this House has of scrutinising carefully any money which they allow to be borrowed at the present time, because the more money is borrowed, and the more the rates are put up in London, the more it affects every person in the community, not only the ratepayers, but others who really do not pay rates. I think it only right that we should have a satisfactory explanation before we vote on this Bill, and unless I get a satisfactory explanation I shall record my vote against the Bill. We ought to have a primâ facie case made out before we sanction the large expenditure foreshadowed by this Bill.

Captain Viscount CURZON

I merely approach this Bill from the point of view of the man-in-the-street who knows very little about it, but merely looks at the figures, and when he turns to the end of the paper and sees that it amounts to a sum of £16,000,000 is at once appalled, and a cold shiver goes down his spine at the thought of having to pay a little more in the way of rates. There never was a time when it was so important and so essential that the House should go with the utmost possible care through these Bills, involving expenditure of large sums of money, with the idea of seeing whether we cannot possible save something. I am old enough to remember the time when it would put a feather in the cap of the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he could save on the National Budget of the year or reduce the expenditure for the year by £1,000,000 or £2,000,000. The period to which I refer was only about 10 or 11 years ago, and I wish I knew something about municipal affairs, especially London municipal affairs, in those days, so as to know whether the Estimates were scrutinised with the same care. I take it they were, but I do think a sum of £16,000,000—of course, it is a great City of which we are all proud—is an enormous figure, and I cannot help thinking the House might well be repaid for careful scrutiny of such a figure. It might be that items have crept into this Estimate which certainly would not have been here but for the probability that some candidate or other at the County Council election depended for his municipal existence upon some item. It may be I am in error in thinking so, but that is why I want to go through this with the greatest possible care.

I come to the first item—Provision of stations and plant for the London Fire-Brigade. I would like to ask the hon. Members in charge of the Bill if they can tell us exactly what is proposed to be done here. I believe there is a proposal—I have seen it in the Press—to centralise a large number of fire stations in the West End, and to close other stations. I am not clear whether this item is really for the building of new stations, or whether it is for the adaptation of existing premises. If the closing of certain other stations is involved, I should like to know upon what terms those stations are being closed, and whether the County Council are getting real value for the money; that is to say, supposing the stations are closed, what is being done with the property? As the hon. and learned Member who preceded me has pointed out, there was never a more un-desirable time to launch forward in a policy of bricks and mortar. It costs the country more to do this now than it probably will in a year or two, and there is always the point of view of the man-in-the-street, which I conceive to be that, as we have gone along pretty well as we are, could we not get along for another two years? If the new stations are really necessary, and London expands in all directions and new housing schemes take effect, I have no doubt new stations will be necessary, but there is this rumour about fire stations, particularly in the West End, being centralised, and I would like to know a little more about that particular item of the policy of the London County Council in connection with the Fire Brigade.

I turn to the items in connection with the trams. I know that the tramways are one of the most thorny subjects to which one can possibly allude in London municipal affairs. It has always seemed to me, as a humble student in these matters, that in London municipal affairs you either have to be for trams or against trams, and we have always been faced with the proposition that enormous sums have undoubtedly been sunk in tramways by the London County Council. Of course, when the London County Council first began to spend money on trams, I suppose they were the most up-to-date and efficient municipal locomotion that could be devised. But since tramways were first installed in London, undoubtedly we have witnessed a turn of the wheel of progress, and we have come to something which is certainly considered, so far as traffic is concerned, more adaptable, and that is, of course, the development of motor omnibuses and motor traction. It seems to me that if the London County Council go in for spending large sums of money at this stage upon trams, they may be possibly pursuing a policy of throwing good money after bad. I think they were perfectly right in spending money on trams originally, but nowadays, with the system of locomotion changing, I am disposed to look with a very critical eye upon a proposal to spend more money upon the tramway system. There are six items in the Schedule of this Bill involving a further expenditure altogether of £243,000 by the 31st March, 1922, upon various street widenings, purchase of property, execution of works, and so forth. That is very nearly £250,000. It is true these street widenings may really be very great improvements from the point of view of traffic generally. They may possibly take other forms of traffic than the trams. The trams, of course, are saddled with the responsibility of keeping up the tracks, amongst other things, and I know that tramway advocates always say it is very unfair that the trams should have to keep the track going between the rails, whereas the omnibuses have no responsibility of this sort. I quite agree; and also that the omnibus, which does not require such provision—call it what you like—and is able to use the public highway in any shape or form, is a much more adaptable and elastic form of traffic. I may possibly be the representative of what people may call "the new school." I believe in motor traction in all its forms. I believe we should develop them. I believe the traffic in our streets is as nothing to what it will be in a few years. If the hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill can show that the widenings and the street improvements which they propose under this Bill are likely really to facilitate the arterial road improvements, and such schemes as that which do not only relate to the trams, but help all forms of traffic, I think they will have made out a very strong case for this expenditure. If, however, it is merely a necessary extension to the existing tramways system I do hope the House will keep a very critical eye upon it.

In this connection I should really like to allude to the same point raised by the previous speaker. No less than £1,000,000 is put down for the purchase of tramway undertakings. I beg hon. Members opposite in charge to look upon this matter not only from the county council, but from the ratepayers' and the economical, point of view. Can they make out, first of all, a case that this expenditure is absolutely essential? Is it possible to reduce anything of the amount or spread it over a longer term of years? It is really necessary at the present juncture, when things are hard and difficult for everybody and many ratepayers in London are wondering how on earth they are to find the money to pay their rates, is it, I ask, absolutely essential to go in for such expenditure as this in one lump? Could not we spread the liability over, and go slowly? I really do hope that the House will consider the point of view of the rate payer who has to pay this money, and will look upon it in the same way as, I think, generally speaking, all sections and parties in this House now look upon matters of the kind, for I believe they are absolutely at one about the desirability of saving every penny, whether upon municipal affairs or national affairs. Let us see if we cannot save something upon this £1,000,000, to which reference has been made.

Column 3 is supposed to set out the total estimate of the previous money Acts. There is, however, as I make out, absolutely nothing in Column 3 against Clause 20 of this Bill. That is a very serious omission, because it may mean supplementary Estimates, and I am afraid that the infection of supplementary Estimates is very catching; this is so, I. am afraid, in all walks of life, not only in national and local affairs but even often, I regret to say, in our private affairs as well. It is a very natural and a very human thing, but, at the same time, I maintain that we ought to do all in our power to avoid supplementary Estimates. It is true that there is an asterisk against the column which refers to a paragraph at the bottom of the page, but it does not tell us any more of what the original estimate was, for all this. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill will tell us what was the original estimate, and whether the total sum provided here, or to, be provided, is likely to be sufficient for the purpose?

Take the London County Council Hall. As a ratepayer in this great city of London I look upon that structure with dismay. I do not know how many millions it is going to cost, and I should like to know. What was the original estimate for the London County Council Hall? What is the total expenditure expected to be? Is the figure going to be a final figure? What is the expenditure up to date? It seems to me that it is absolutely necessary for someone to take up the cudgels on behalf of the London ratepayers and to look at the matter from their point of view, and not from the London County Council point of view. There is this tremendous hall going up on the other side of the river. I always understood that the County Council themselves had no idea what the total expenditure involved was likely to be. I know there are great difficulties. I know that" when they started this building it was before the War, and that in those days they had a fairly good idea of what the possible figure would be. I understood it to be anything from one million to four millions. The last figure I got was before the War and was about £4,000,000. I may be wrong; but I agree that the building was started before the War, and the War has introduced other factors, and costs have been sent up in every direction. It is desirable that the County Council should have a building to centralise all their administrative offices, if indeed they can compress their existing administration into this building, and upon that I have doubts. I should like to know if the hon. Members opposite are satisfied that they can get all their staff into this building. I want to be satisfied that this building is really adequate for the purpose.

I do not look upon this from a hostile point of view, but from the point of view of necessity, economy, and the point of view of the ratepayer. If the building is really necessary the ratepayer will be in favour of it just the same as the county council, but let us be assured, and let us have our doubts on these matters set at rest once and for all, and let us be told exactly what was the original estimate, the expenditure up to date, the final expenditure, and, if possible, when the building will be completed? Also whether or not it will hold the staff of the county council, or will it be necessary still to retain offices all over London? There are other items in this Bill I should like to take up. For instance, there is the item already alluded to of £200,000 for the purchase of land for street improvements. What is it, or what can it be, in the London County Council General Powers Bill that necessitates this spending over and above the amount already provided for on page? I only want to see whether it is possible to save anything in this tremendous expenditure. I hope the representatives of the London County Council in charge of the Bill will be able publicly to set at rest some of the doubts which they, as well as we, know have arisen in the minds of many of the ratepayers of London. Think of the poorest of the poor, the people who pay the rates not in the rich West End, but in the poorest districts of London, and in such a constituency as I have the honour to represent. We want to be satisfied that the expense is absolutely necessary and cannot be reduced in any particular, and then I think you will have the support of the ratepayers. The London County Council must disabuse our minds in regard to what is called tramway madness and unnecessary bricks and mortar, and you must try and satisfy and allay the many doubts that have arisen in the minds of the ratepayers.

Major GRAY

If I fail to answer satisfactorily the many queries which have been addressed to me I hope the blame may be placed upon me and not upon the merits of the case which I have to put forward. Let me express my cordial appreciation of the friendly tone which has been adopted by our critics this evening. I have felt in years gone by that the criticism of the House has not always been helpful to those engaged in the difficult task of administering the affairs of this great city, but to-night I appreciate the great friendliness shown by our critics in regard to county council expenditure.

9.0 P.M.

This Bill is one which we are compelled to present annually. Under the County Council Finance Consolidation Act of 1912 this Bill must be presented in order that Parliament may have an opportunity of criticising our expenditure. The Bill provides for expenditure in three different forms. There is the ordinary capital expenditure; there are certain amounts which we may spend, subject to the sanction of the Treasury, in excess of those capital amounts; and then come loans to local authorities and other bodies. The Schedule gives the full details of the expenditure. The existing powers come under Part I. May I point out that the works to which the Noble Lord opposite has referred have already received the sanction of a Committee of the House of Commons, and assuming that the measure reaches the Statute Book then the expenditure expressed in Part II will come up for payment. The loans which I notice received slight criticism are referred to in Part IV. The capital expenditure provided for amounts to about £13,000,000. The general powers expenditure will add another £100,000. There is a provision whereby the Treasury may sanction fresh expenditure to the extent of £350,000, and the amount expressed in the Bill for loans is given at £3,500,000. Let me say at once, in reply to the criticisms of the Noble Lord the Member for Battersea (Viscount Curzon), that these figures are nothing like as bad as they look on the paper. Although the total amount here is something over £16,750,000, which led the Noble Lord to figuratively shudder, yet of that amount no less than £15,250,000 has already been authorised by Parliament, so that the new borrowing powers are to the extent of only £1,500,000. The Bill has to be framed in a most peculiar form. It has to provide not only for a financial year but for a financial period. There is a period of 12 months and a subsequent six months, and in each of these Bill we have to put the estimated expenditure up to the year ending the 31st March, and also for the six months between. March and September following. Before that money comes in course of payment the new Bill comes in, and the figures in the first Bill for the six months' period are again put into the Bill for the next period for a year and six months. It is a little bit complicated, but it is owing to the wisdom of previous Parliaments that they have to be so arranged.

A very large amount of this expenditure has received the approval of the House. The new borrowing powers are something under £1,500,000. It may be a further consolation if I remark that so far as we can see at present there will be no need to go to the money market during the course of this year. We hope that the funds in hand will enable us to meet the expenditure set forth in this Bill. I may perhaps say that probably there can be no keener critic of the action of the County Council than the investing public of London, and our experience in this respect during the last year is of a most encouraging character. We had to float a loan last year of £7,000,000, and it was placed on the market at 95 with interest at 5¾ per cent It was placed there at a most unfortunate moment, because a day or two after our issue events occurred to which I need not refer which made it very awkward indeed to secure the taking up of the whole of the loan, but the underwriters were very soon able to unload it, and it is a significant fact that immediately afterwards we were able to place £1,500,000, not at the old price of 95, but at an enhanced price of 97¼.

In addition to that we have raised during the course of the year something like £3,500,000 for housing bonds, very largely due to the splendid energy displayed by my hon. Friend who is now a Member of this House sitting for Hastings, who had charge of the Department dealing with the finance for housing purposes, and who has materially assisted in collecting this large sum of money. Consequently those people who would be the most likely to criticise us if we were tempted to be extravagant have shown their confidence by placing their money at our disposal at the figures I have given. I realise quite fully the criticism which prevails outside. Some of it is no doubt malevolent, but the greater part of it is due to lack of information.

I am prepared to admit that at one time we had a most unenviable notoriety as a great spendthrift authority. I do not say it was deserved, but there never was a time when that criticism would be so unjust as it would be at the present moment. I have taken an active part on all its committees, and I know that those of us who were keen on the accomplishment of some reform have had a most difficult struggle to get the necessary money sanctioned, first by the Finance Committee, and then by the county council. Here is the Resolution adopted by the council, and our estimates now before the House have been framed in accordance with that Resolution. They decided as far back as December, 1919, that in the opinion of the council the capital expenditure should be restricted during the next few years to such purposes as may be regarded as urgently necessary from the point of view of the health and well-being of the community, and that in consideration of what purposes are to be so regarded the undermentioned be deemed to be of primary importance, generally in the order indicated, namely: The more urgent items in the scheme of flood relief works. No one can delay that work. To deal with the great drainage question of London is one of paramount importance. That is the kind of work which occurs in the Bill. That was to be in the forefront. And then the council's housing schemes received second place, very largely owing to the pressure exercised by this House itself, through the Ministry of Health. Then came urgent works and duties in connection with the education service. So that we have followed the precept often mentioned in this House in putting the health and education of the people in the forefront of our programme. I feel sure my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rawlinson) will not object to that.


I did not mention either of those things.

Major GRAY

No, but perhaps I may be permitted to draw attention to them, because it must not go out to the public that the only items in the measure now before the House are those which have been criticised. It is well that reference should be made to some of the others. Then came the tramway schemes, and here let me add this note. We have been most careful not to embark on schemes which were likely to produce no special return. Then came street improvements in cases of pressing urgency or in which specially favourable opportunities occurred for obtaining properties needed therefor. And it was further provided that proposals not included in the items mentioned should be considered on their merits when they arose. We have acted on those principles in this Bill. There is nothing in it which is not really necessary for the health, the comfort, and the well-being of the community.

If I may now turn from the Bill itself to attempt to answer some of the queries, and if I fail I hope that some of my colleagues on the Council will supplement any defect on my part. May I take that with which I am most familiar? Reference has been made to the Court House. This is one of our old, old troubles in London. I think it was some 14 years ago, when I was chairman of the Local Government Committee of the Council, we were hunting all over London for a suitable site for the establishment of a Central Court House. We were then housed and trying to administer justice at Clerkenwell and Newington. Both buildings were condemned in unmeasured language by every Justice who sat there. No one could defend them. They were unsuitable for the administration of justice; they were in-convenient for the Bench, for counsel, for jurors, for witnesses, and even for the accommodation of the prisoners themselves. The buildings were absolutely insufficient, and there was serious trouble also with regard to records that might be at Clerkenwell when they were wanted at Newington, and when they were wanted at Clerkenwell they were being housed at Newington. There was a strong opinion that we might go for a building somewhere near the Law Courts. There was a great idea of centralising the administration of justice in London, but we turned that down as too expensive. There was then a suggestion we might find accommodation at the New Bailey. We were in communication with the City Council on the matter, but that came to naught. We were assured that large though the accommodation appeared to be there, the authorities were of opinion that further claims might be made even upon those large buildings, and that it would be very inadvisable for us to attempt to house the work of Newington and Clerkenwell at the New Bailey. Then having tried to find a home under any existing roof, and having tried to find accommodation at suitable sites elsewhere, and failed, we ultimately decided to rebuild on the site at Newington, and I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge will be glad to know that the £14,500 mentioned here is the last payment in respect thereof, and that the buildings are not only completed but are being used. Justice is now being administered there, and so far I have not heard a word of complaint.


The £14,500 is to be spent in this year. The hon. Gentleman says this is the last penny. If he looks at the bottom of page 9 he will see he is asking for a payment of £900 in the next six months. Why should that be necessary?

Major GRAY

Beceuse it is retention money. A certain proportion is held over until we are thoroughly satisfied the contract has been properly completed, and although, therefore, this is the final money which Parliament will be asked to vote, some of it will not be paid until the necessary guarantees are forthcoming. Attention has been drawn also to the amount asked for in respect of stores—a sum of £16,270. This is for the improvement of the accommodation for handling the very large amount of stores used by the Council, and is necessary for the economical working of the Council's duties, in view of the continued and continuing increase in the demands made by the various services of the Council in the way of stores. The greater our work, particularly our educational work, the more desirable it becomes that we should purchase in large bulk with a view to economy, and have them suitably stored and suitably distributed. It is a very heavy task, but, after full consideration, the Council have reached the conclusion it is the most economical way of dealing with this material. Our existing buildings have become totally insufficient, and it is absolutely essential we should enlarge in order to accommodate the stuff. If we do not have the stuff housed it cannot be distrubuted when it is wanted, and a considerable amount of delay will occur, particularly in the educational work.

I should like, if I may be forgiven by my first catechist, to deal at once as far as I can with our County Hall. I do not know what he would say if he were familiar with the manner in which the County Council is housed at the present time. I cannot tell him where it is housed. We seem to be scattered all over London. Buildings are rented here, buildings are rented there, heavy expenses are incurred year by year, and we never know whether our landlord will require the premises, making it necessary for us to go and placing us in serious difficulty in regard to finding housing accommodation for some Department or other. The public, too, never know where to go to for necessary information. A London taxi-cab driver is supposed to know pretty well everything about London, but if you ask him to drive you to the County Council he declares that it is not at Spring Gardens but at some place or other where he goes for his licence—a totally different place; and so it is with the public generally. I am glad to say that already a large part of the new Hall is ready for habitation, and a considerable number of our people are now housed there.


Will the Education Department be housed in the new County Hall, or will it remain on the Thames Embankment after the Hall is completed?

Major GRAY

It will be housed in the new County Hall. We intend to have everything we can under one roof, and I believe that the Education Staff is likely to be housed there in September next—certainly during the course of this year. It is the next Department to be transferred, and we hope to be able to dispose, at a profitable figure, of the bulding now inhabited by that branch of the Service. I understand that the Architect's Department is already housed in the new County Hall. With regard to the cost of the building, I am afraid that the story I have to give cannot be regarded, at first sight at all events, as quite satisfactory. We are, however, the victims of circumstances. The bulding was commenced before the War, and it was understood that it might be completed, or at any rate those sections of it which were then contemplated, for some £900,000. I believe that the completed building will cost something over £4,000,000 when furnished. These are the figures which have been given recently at meetings of the Council. The original estimate for sections A, B, and C, now in progress, was £900,000, but when the tender was accepted in 1913 the total was brought up to £1,193,000 by the inclusion of fees and incidentals. As time went on we were faced with difficulty after difficulty—labour disputes, increased wages, difficulties with regard to the supply of material—until the total estimated amount for the complete scheme for sections A, B, and C amounts to £3,316,000; and if the other section D be added at a later date, it is probable that that will cost rather more than another £1,000,000, making a total of about £4,344,000 for the building and its furniture. It must not, however, be imagined for a moment that that means new expenditure. It means the possibility of closing a large number of buildings in different parts of London for which we are now paying annually heavy rents and in which the accommodation is so defective that really efficient work cannot be done by the staff. I can assure the House that in erecting the new County Hall we are not seeking the convenience of members of the Council, but first and last the efficiency of the County Council service. You cannot get thoroughly efficient service from clerks who are working below the level of the pavement; you cannot get it in cramped rooms, badly ventilated and lighted. We were bound to put that staff, which is charged with such large responsibilities, into buildings where they could work effectively. Very little indeed has been spent in costly decoration; our sole object has been the greater efficiency of the London service.


Will the county council pay rates to itself, or will it be free from rates?

Major GRAY

I anticipate that, like most other dwellings, the Hall will be rated by the local authority, and that it will bring a substantial relief from the general county rate to the rate of the borough in which we happen to be situated.

Viscount CURZON

Can the hon. and gallant Member tell us whether all the existing offices will go into blocks A, B and C, or whether there will still be offices which cannot be got into the building?

Major GRAY

I believe that the Tramways Department will still be outside this block. It is in premises somewhat removed from the new County Hall, and, if my memory serves me rightly, the idea is that the Tramways Department may subsequently be brought into the block to which I have referred as contemplated in the near future. The total figure which I gave provides for all the four blocks.

Viscount CURZON

If block D is erected, will there be a further item?

Major GRAY

If block D be erected we shall require for that block about £1,027,000, which will include £67,000 for fees and incidentals. That would bring up the total for the four blocks to the £4,344,000 which I mentioned a minute ago.

Viscount CURZON

Will the county council have to come to this House for that?

Major GRAY

Undoubtedly, and not only once but twice. Further, we could not possibly expend that money in one year, and we should have to come to the House for such portion as we expected to spend in the one year. That has been one of our difficulties. These various figures in connection with the County Hall have been sanctioned over and over again by this House, but we have not been able to get the work completed, owing to difficulties in regard to labour and the supply of materials. In fact, in common with every other patriotic body throughout the country, we suspended all building operations during the War. Hon. Members will recollect that when the War broke out there was a perfect forest of cranes over there The whole of them had to be taken away, and the building machinery was removed, and it goes without saying that that was a pretty costly item for us. We could not expect a contractor to meet that expense himself, and it had to be borne mainly by the county council. It was one of the misfortunes consequent on the War.

Perhaps I may refer to the other items somewhat in the order in which they appear in the Schedule of the Bill. My Noble Friend the Member for Battersea (Viscount Curzon) drew attention to the expenditure on the fire brigade. I am certain that he will not hesitate to grant us every penny we want for the greater efficiency of the fire brigade of London. I look upon the fire brigade and the ambulance service as two of the finest services possessed by any municipal authority, and the public regard the fire brigade as their first line of insurance. There is a proposal in the Schedule to spend an amount of £84,550. Of this sum no less than £74,000 is in respect of the purchase and adaptation of the station of the London Salvage Corps in Shaftesbury Avenue. When that station is ready for use by the fire brigade we shall be able to dispense with three existing stations—one in Scotland Yard, one in Great Marlborough Street, and one in Holborn. There will be a realisation of the effects, which will be a source of income, there will be greater concentration and economies consequent on concentration. I think the whole will prove to the ratepayer a very profitable transaction, both in the way of greater efficiency and of greater economy. The whole policy of the fire brigade lately has been concentration in a smaller number of stations, owing to the fact that we have now motor appliances instead of relying upon our magnificently trained horses, as in the past. Although they were wonderfully picturesque, and no doubt very often added interesting scenes to London life, yet they had their limitations. Now we find that with motor transit we can cover greater distances in the requisite time and get out of the yards quite as quickly as ever. Therefore the process of concentration is continuing. I understand that we have already, in pursuance of this policy, closed about a dozen stations in different parts of London. All that concentration naturally leads to greater efficiency and economy.

Attention has been drawn to the housing proposals. I admit that the figure is a very heavy one, but the greater part of the Estimate is in respect of the erection of cottages on the Council's estates at Roehampton, Bellingham, and Dagenham. The council entered on these schemes at the very urgent request of the Government, as represented by the Ministry of Health. The expenditure, as far as the London ratepayer is concerned is, as the House well knows, limited to the produce of a 1d. in the £; but I hesitate to think what the consequent charge will be on the taxpayer if the whole scheme is in operation. This I can say, however, that in the light of existing circumstances and the changes that have taken place, the Council is now, although completing the work in hand, regarding with some hesitancy any proposals to extend the policy in that direction. I can assure the House that it is a problem which we are watching with very grave anxiety. I recollect very well, when we came here with our original proposals and placed them before the Minister of Health, we contemplated the erection of cottages of certain cost, heavy enough. When our first tenders came in we had a terrible awakening, and that continues. I venture to hope that certainly we shall avoid anything in the way of wild experiment until both materials and labour reach something like the normal cost.

I am asked to give some explanation of the money which is being spent on public improvements. There are improvements which we have to undertake under the Metropolis Management Acts. They amount to about £400,000. No provision is made in the Bill now before the House for any new large improvement. They are all works that are in hand. The largest items are £111,000 and £154,500 for property in connection with the continuation of widenings in Piccadilly and the Strand respectively. Hon. Members who know both thoroughfares will realise that the widening process is one we ought to carry out. So far as the Piccadilly widening is concerned, we are very largely in the hands of the Government. The expenditure there we are bound to undertake, and we have agreed with the Office of Works that the work is to be carried out under certain terms arranged with them. There is also the substantial sum I have mentioned for the widening of the Strand. With regard to the improvements under Special Acts—£243,000 odd—these again are all improvements already partly carried out, with the exception of those at Old Street and Kingsland Road, for which about £50,000 is set aside in the Bill, and Cable Street, Stepney, where £60,000 is set aside. My hon. Friend asked me if it was not thought possible to postpone them. I wish he knew the Old Street corner. I do. I once represented that district on the London County Council, and I doubt whether I ever had a week's peace from the inhabitants there. The congestion of traffic, the delay and the risk of accident which occur every hour at that corner make it absolutely necessary that something should be done to improve that particular area. We did try to anticipate the hon. Member's wish, and our Finance Committee, I think, deleted this particular item. When it came to the Council they insisted on putting it back again, and so on their behalf I have to ask the House to sanction this small beginning for an improvement which has been all too long delayed. It should have been undertaken 30 or 40 years ago, and if we spend £50,000 on it this year that amount of money will not be wasted.

There is one other item, and an important one, that of tramways—£1,000,000. I know very well I have only to mention tramways in certain company to excite criticism instantly, and, on the other hand, just as my hon. Friend remarked a few moments ago, any attempt to criticise tramways meets with a hostile reception. What is the position in regard to this £1,000,000? Two hundred and thirty-five thousand pounds is in respect of the purchase of the London United Tramways, which the Council agreed to buy one year after the conclusion of the War. We are anticipating that the War will conclude before the end of this next year, and, if so, we shall be compelled to give effect to our agreement with this company and to buy the tramways for £235,000. Let me give this further assurance. There is no provision here in respect of any new projects. I have accounted for £235,000, but no less than £226,250 is in respect of half cost of renewing the track where it is in need of renewal. Here, again, we are partly making good trouble which arose during the War. Repairs had to be delayed until in some parts of London these tracks are now positively dangerous both to traffic and pedestrians as well as the tramcars themselves.

Viscount CURZON

What is the condition of the track which you are buying for £235,000 from the London United Tramways Company?

Major GRAY

I am afraid I cannot say. I must ask the Noble Lord to be good enough to give me notice of that question. I have mentioned the main items to which attention has been drawn. I only venture to say, in conclusion, that these Estimates have been framed with scrupulous care. It is not an easy task to administer this great city. It calls for the labour of some of the best of our citizens. They are difficult enough to secure for this work, as we all know. Anything in the shape of petty or ill-founded criticism in this House serves to discourage, not only those who are working, but those who may be induced to undertake this great work. I am glad indeed to-night to find that there has been no evidence of any spirit of that kind at all. Therefore I can say on the part of the Council that we very cordially welcome the very fruitful interest which the hon. Member for Cambridge has always shown in the finances of the Council. I trust that he will always criticise them, and will never have more cause for criticism than he has had this evening.


The hon. Member has dealt with the enormous cost that is down here for housing. I have on many occasions drawn attention to the very huge cost that is being piled up. Here is an evidence of it. Here you find £16,750,000, of which £7,081,000 is the County Council's own expenditure, and in Item 24 there are loans to the metropolitan borough councils, and over £1,000,000 of it will be advanced for houses. Therefore you have practically half of this huge expenditure devoted to housing. I am very glad to hear the County Council is going warily; but it is not going warily enough. In many places they are continuing to build on a very costly method. It is useless to proceed with houses where the rent is more than people can pay. There are many houses at Roehampton for which they are asking 25s. a week and the rates are another 7s., and yet the ratepayer has to find £70 to £90 per annum in addition for each house. That is colossal, and some method must be found of producing houses at rents which people can pay. You will never do it on the principle you have now. Here is an object lesson right in front of us of practically half the County Council's Money Bill being expended on housing alone, and I hope they will take it to heart.


No one knows better than the hon. Member himself that the criticism he has just made of the County Council's housing policy is rather unfair, because all the houses they are carrying out, and also the housing schemes the borough councils are carrying out, for which we have to provide the money for loans, are carried out with the approval of the Ministry of Health. The whole of the schemes for which the Council are responsible have to be submitted to the Ministry, not only for the plans, but also for the laying out of the various estates. The hon. Member's criticism should be addressed to the Ministry of Health and not to the Bill. It is quite true that a large part of the amount for loans to borough councils is required for housing. We provide, in that amount of £2,000,000 for the Metropolitan Borough Councils, £907,000 for houses. The rest of the amount is made up for electricity, sewers, and other municipal work of that kind. I thought it only fair to the County Council, as the hon. Member has made that criticism, to put the case for them fairly before the House.