HC Deb 19 December 1928 vol 223 cc3057-101
The MINISTER of TRANSPORT (Colonel Ashley)

On a point of Order. I wish to draw your attention to the fact that the first Amendment on the Paper in the name of the hon. Member for South East Essex (Mr. Looker)—in page 25, line 26, to leave out from the beginning to the word "urban" in line 28 and to insert the word "every" —takes us to the word "urban". That will possibly cut out a good many other Amendments, and I should like your Ruling whether the third Amendment on the Paper in the name of the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams)—in page 25, line 26, after the word "urban" to insert the words "or rural"—is in order. This Amendment seeks to give a rural district council the same rights in this matter as urban councils, and I submit that it must be out of order as yesterday Clause 27 was approved by the Committee; and it was then decided that as from the appointed day every county council shall -be the highway authority as respects such part of the county as is for the time being comprised in any rural district. In lines 23 and 24, the Clause says: rural district councils shall cease to be highway authorities. I submit for your consideration that it may well be that having ceased to be the highway authority, although the rural district council may carry on delegated work as agents for a county council, it will be impossible for them to be able to claim that a road shall vest in them, and that therefore the Amendment must be out of order.


The right hon. Gentleman suggested that the Committee yesterday accepted Clause 27. Surely he will remember that that Clause was not debated for a single moment. No submission was possible on the whole of that Clause, and consequently the Committee never gave a moment's consideration to it. It is rather curious that the right hon. Gentleman on a point of Order should make a submission on the basis of the acceptance by the Committee of a Clause which was, never discussed. I submit, in view of the operation of the guillotine, which prevented any discussion on Clause 27, that in no way affects the possibility of the Committee having the privilege of discussing Clause 29, since if the Committee felt disposed to change Clause 29, Clause 27 could be put into line with the amended Clause 29 on the Report stage.

Colonel ASHLEY

Whether the Clause was discussed or not is was voted on by the Committee and they passed it. As to the other point raised by the hon. Gentleman, hon. Members opposite took up such a long time on the other Clauses, that Clause 27 could not be discussed.


I submit that it is essential that the Committee should discuss this Amendment for two reasons: First, because of the size of many of the rural districts, many of them being larger than many urban districts; and, secondly, that the word "highway" which has been passed in Clause 27, does not only mean a road, but under the Highways Act of 1835, it may mean a horseway, a bridle way, a footway, a. causeway, a churchway, or a pavement. It is therefore essential that the roads of the rural local authorities should be discussed.


As regards what may or may not happen under the Guillotine Resolution, I have no responsibility, but I have to see that Amendments which are inconsistent with previous decisions of the Committee are not moved. Clause 27 transfers highways from the rural district council to the county council, and it expressly provides that the rural district council will cease to be a highway authority. If the Amendment of the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) were carried, it would in fact vest certain county roads in the rural authorities, or enable them to claim that certain county roads should be vested in them when they were no longer highway authorities. I am bound to hold that, in my view, that point is covered by the decision of the Committee yesterday. With regard to the point of the hon. Member for Leith (Mr. E. Brown), he raised what is largely a question of the merits—the size of the district council. That is not a matter which concerns the Chair. I have nothing to do with the merits or the demerits of any of the Amendments put forward, but I am bound to see that only Amendments are put forward which are in accordance with previous decisions of the Committee.


It would be a convenience if we were allowed a general discussion on the different Amendments on the Paper. If that were allowed, it would be, of course, subject to the undertaking that in moving subsequent Amendments, we did not make any speeches.


It is generally agreed, I think, that a general discussion would be a convenience, and I beg to ask that you will allow a wide scope in order that all the points can be covered.


It is obvious that the great bulk of the Amendments on the Paper are really consequential on the two Amendments in the name of the hon. Member for South-East Essex (Mr. Looker)—in page 25, line 26, to leave out from beginning, to the word "urban," in line 28, and to insert instead thereof the word "Every"; and in page 25, line 29, to leave out the words "exercise the functions of maintenance and repair of," and to insert instead thereof the words "be the highway authority as respects." It would be better, therefore, if we had a general discussion on the first Amendment, and I propose to put it in such a form as to save the Amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Captain Macmillan)—in page 25, line 26, to leave out the word "a," and to insert instead thereof the words "an estimated."


I beg to move, in page 25, line 26, to leave out from the beginning to the word "urban" in line 28, and to insert instead thereof the word "Every."

4.0 p.m.

I am glad that you will allow a general discussion on this Clause, because the Amendment is connected with other Amendments relating to the same subject. The main object of this Amendment is to give effect to the principles which appear in the Report of the Royal Commission, as to the lines upon which district councils should be entrusted with the maintenance and repair of main roads. It is important to bear in mind that in this Clause we are dealing with claimed roads only, that is to say, roads which district authorities are entitled as a right to claim to be allowed to repair and maintain without any supervision or control by the county council. In that respect, such roads are quite different from delegated roads, which are roads which district councils look after, having been delegated the function of looking after them by the county council, for whom they act as agents. In this case they are obliged to carry out the work on the roads in accordance with the wishes of the county council. At present, district councils are the highway authorities responsible for the maintenance and repair of numerous roads of various descriptions and classes throughout the country. Many of these roads are main roads in character. The existing position has lasted for a long time, and district councils of all descriptions and sizes have for a number of years been entrusted with the responsibility of looking after these roads. The proposals of the Bill take away entirely from certain district councils the right that they have had to look after these roads—a right which belongs to them alone—and vests these roads in the county council. It does leave to some district councils the power to claim to exercise the right, instead of the county councils. This Clause, however, goes a great deal further than that. To deprive all district councils of areas under 20,000 population of the rights they have exercised for a number of years, is something regarding which no suggestion whatever was made in the Report of the Royal Commission. In fact, the Royal Commission reported in an exactly different sense. What the Royal Commission said was that if it was proposed to entrust the district authorities with the function of looking after the roads, then it should be open to the Minister of Transport on representations being made that certain district councils ought not to have that function entrusted to them, to give effect to such representations. There was no suggestion whatever in the Report of the Royal Commission that every district council, or any particular class of district councils should have their rights, which they have exercised for a number of years, taken away, as is the case under this Clause.

What we are asking in this Amendment is that the recommendation of the Royal Commission should be carried out, and all these districts have the right to exercise these functions which they have carried out for so long, subject to the provision that some of them may be deprived of it if it is thought fit that they should not have it upon representations made by the county council. The effect of the Clause as it stands is that all district councils in areas under 20,000 population, whether large or small, important or unimportant, efficient or inefficient, no matter how long they have been doing the work, no matter how well they have done it, will have all their powers arbitrarily taken away. The plant they have collected for the purpose of carrying out this work, and the staff they have built up, will be largely useless.

Colonel ASHLEY

All the powers regarding unclassified roads are left to them.


The point I am making is not that they are left without any powers as regards unclassified roads, but that they are being deprived of powers which they have exercised for a long time with regard to their roads, many of them being main roads. I am aware that they will be left with the function of looking after the smaller roads, but they ought to be allowed to continue looking after the larger and more important roads, as they have done for years past. It is in connection with these larger and more important roads that they have, in many cases, built up and added to their staff, got an organisation together to equip them to deal with the problems of maintenance and reconstruction of these main roads. As regards districts under 20,000 population, by the provisions of the Bill a great deal of expenditure involved in maintaining that plant and in establishing their organisation will be thrown away, and it has been public expenditure. It is quite true that, to some extent, their remaining staffs and their remaining plant will be useful in respect to the unclassified roads, but it will mean, I am informed, in a number of instances, that a great deal of plant will have to be got rid of, because it will be no longer required, and possibly a great deal of the staff. In fact, as I say, in many cases of this under 20,000 population a great deal of their past work and expenditure will be thrown away entirely by the provisions of this Clause.

I would point out to my right hon. Friend that many of the main roads which these district councils have been maintaining for a number of years past go right through the centres of their towns, of which they form a most important feature, and I submit that it is not in accordance with the principles of sound administration that where the main road runs through a town in that way, that should be under the control of one authority, and all the roads leading u p to it should be under the control of another. There are many functions which have to be exercised in respect of these roads, main and otherwise, quite apart from the question of construction and maintenance, such as sewers, drainage, gas mains, water mains and other works of that description, all of which have to be carried out, and all of which have to be connected up between those different roads. Yet in the middle of a comparatively large and important town you may find two different bodies doing the same thing.

There is another point to which I would like to draw attention, and that is that under the Local Government Act, 1888, all these district councils of every description, and without any limitations, were given the right to obtain powers of maintaining and repairing main roads. That provision has existed ever since then, and has been taken full advantage of. There was no limitation on them as to population, or in arty other way, and, whether they were big or small, they were all given that right, which is being taken away by this Bill from those in areas under 20,000 population. It is not suggested, or I have never heard it suggested, that there has been any fault in the way the councils have exercised these powers. I have never heard it suggested that there has been any complaint whatever as to the way they carry out their work which renders it necessary that some of them should be deprived of these powers, and unless some ease of that description can be made out, some extremely good ground can be found for it, this Committee should be very 10th to disturb the principle of local administrative responsibility which has worked well for a number of years.

I would like to remind my right hon. and gallant Friend that when he presented the Road Traffic Bill last year, he did not think it necessary to put in a proposal to disturb in any way the existing situation. It was perfectly open to him then, if he had thought it desirable to do so. to have put in the provisions he has put in this Bill, but evidently he did not think it was important enough then to deal with it in that Bill. That makes it a little more surprising why he should now include it in this Bill, although no suggestion to that effect was made by the Royal Commission. What is the reason for departing from the provisions of the 1888 Act? What is the reason for departing from the suggestion of the Royal Commission, and for departing from the principle which my right hon. Friend indirectly recognised in his London Traffic Bill? My right hon. Friend may, perhaps, say to the Committee that it is absurd that these smaller district councils should have these powers, and he may also say that you have got to draw a line, and, whatever line you draw, someone will complain. I quite agree with that, and I would suggest to him that the method which was suggested by the Royal Commission provided a much better and more equitable remedy than the one in this Bill. The Royal Commission clearly recognised that it might be absurd, or even impracticable, for some of the smaller authorities to have these powers, and that is why it is suggested that, in the case of these smaller authorities, it should be open to the county council to represent to the Minister of Transport the undesirability of the work being undertaken by any individual urban authority. I suggest that that is a much better and more equitable way of proceeding than the way which my right hon. and gallant Friend has adopted in the Bill, for the simple reason that it does not shut out all those responsible urban districts under 20,000 population which have been carrying on this work in the most efficient manner for many years, and it leaves open each case to be decided on its merits.

I am informed that the urban districts attach the greatest importance to each case being decided on its merits, instead of a line being drawn, and all districts, whether good, bad or indifferent, being deprived of these powers. The point which we are now making, and the Amendments which we desire, are regarded by the urban district councils as of the utmost importance. They will be profoundly disappointed and discouraged unless this suggestion is met. I would ask my right hon. Friend, therefore, whether he does not consider it better, in view of the fact that since 1888 all this work has been done by councils of this description, to preserve this system, which has worked well, and in view of the fact that it will create great dissatisfaction if his proposals are actually put into the Act, whether he does not think it desirable to give effect to the recommendation of the Royal Commission, under which ample provision exists for insuring that district councils which ought not to do it should not carry out the work?


I have very few words to say in support of the Amendment. The hon. Member for South-East Essex (Mr. Looker) has very well covered the major points on behalf of the very important association of local authorities. I would like, however, to emphasise the point that for 40 years urban districts councils have been empowered to exercise this particular function. As far as one knows, at all events, they have had the privilege since 1888.

Colonel ASHLEY

All the councils that were in existence before 1888.


The right hon. Gentleman corrects what, after all, is a technical error. All the district councils that were in existence in 1888 had the privilege, if they cared to exercise it. As far as one can judge, they have not only justified their existence, but no county councils have had the temerity to suggest that urban district authorities, generally speaking, have failed to exercise to the best advantage the privilege granted to them. There is one great reason, perhaps, which ought to give the Minister deep concern before he makes this very drastic change with regard to the various services which may be done by the local authority, such as the cleansing of the streets, the laying of sewers, water mains, gas mains, electricity cables and so forth. If the county councils have full charge of the main roads it will undoubtedly be the case that the urban authorities will find the roads which run through their towns hacked up for the laying of electric cables or for other purposes without their having been notified previously that the work was to be put in hand. The local officials, who best know the needs and the services of the district, ought always to he acquainted with what is to happen to roads within their own boundaries, whereas under the new arrangement the county council would be the only authority to be notified of any work which was to be undertaken. From that point of view the Minister might very well reconsider the position before he definitely settles that the county councils shall be the only highway authorities.

Another point I wish to raise concerns the limit of 20,000 population. It seems to me that while 20,000 may be a suitable limit for one district, 10,000 would be equally suitable for other districts, because no two districts are identical in character. This arbitrary figure of 20,000 is not even based upon the p resent-day population, but upon the census figures of 1921, and there are many cases in which the position in 1928 is very different from what the figures showed it to he in 1921. To accept a figure of 20,000 will be a gross injustice to many urban districts in which the present-day population is on the border of 20,000, and which, to all intents and purposes are equally as efficient in the discharge of their duties as are the authorities in districts where the population at the last census slightly exceeded 20,000. I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman why, in other parts of the Bill, they make an estimate of the present-day population and on the basis of that estimate decide the financial arrangements between different authorities, but in this case depend upon the census figures in 1921?


As the Amendment of the hon. and gallant Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Captain Macmillan) deals with the question of estimated population, that subject cannot be raised on the general discussion which is now proceeding.


I understood that before the first Amendment was moved it was agreed that there should be a general discussion.


The hon. Member is quite right, but I specifically excepted the Amendment standing in the name of the hon. and gallant Member for Stockton-on-Tees, and I have preserved that Amendment in putting the question; therefore, any questions of estimated population must be discussed when we come to that Amendment.


I have no desire to pursue that point, and I will conclude by suggesting to the Minister that, in view of the need for local officials to be acquainted always with what is going to happen to their own roads, further consideration ought to be given to the question before it is definitely settled that the county councils shall be the one authority for the purpose of making and maintaining these roads. Secondly, I think the Minister might very well consider, if not at this moment, then at a later period during the discussion, whether the figure of the 1921 census should be the determining factor as regards the population.


I have listened with some astonishment to the development of the argument in support of this Amendment. It is more essential to-day than ever that roads should be, as far as possible, under a central management, because of their use in a way which was never contemplated when the earlier Act was passed. It is a most undesirable thing that any attempt should be made to deprive the central authority in a county of the powers which they have acquired since 1888 by introducing these small areas and exempting them from the jurisdiction of the county councils. Some time ago the Minister of Transport introduced a system of classifying roads, and as a result of an important speech made by Sir Henry Maybury, who was then. Director-General of Roads, in June, 1922, county councils made a further material movement towards arranging accommodation with the urban councils. Sir Henry Maybury, who was addressing the Executive Council of the County Councils Association, said: I urge you, Gentleman, as representing the county governing authorities, to take into consideration the advisability of taking over all the classified roads as main roads. They would not have been classified if they were not important. They have been put up to us by yourselves as being the important roads in your several counties, and I submit with some confidence that their cost should not be a charge on a district rate. You have agreed the importance of these roads by putting them up for classification, and they do, in fact, support a traffic other than purely local traffic. It would help these smaller authorities with their low rateable value and appliances which are sometimes inefficient for dealing with the work, and it would assist them very much and equalise the burden if you, gentlemen, would consider the advisability of accepting responsibility for those roads. We will gladly help you in making the course easy for the minor authorities. We would make grants towards the reconstruction or improvement of such roads so that they may meet the requirements of your surveyors, and we would help further by enabling the highways authority to spread the burden which would rest upon them in meeting your requirements. I would urge you to take a hill-top view of that position, and to take over, as I submit it is your duty, and I hope it will be your pleasure to do, and maintain all the important roads of your counties. Acting upon advice, the county councils approached their urban and rural councils with a view to arranging an accommodation with them. I can speak for the metropolitan county of Middlesex, which is in an exceptionally difficult position to-day. The provisos of this Clause, and the following Clause, are such as to destroy the agreement which has been made over a period of years: many of them date back to 1888, and certainly since that recommendation was made to the county councils a very large number of bodies have come in. Members of the Committee who are not motorists would hardly credit what the position would be if the proposals of this Bill were adopted. The metropolitan county of Middlesex, with its dense population, has become urban in a very remarkable way, and there are now 36 urban district councils in the county and only some eight or nine very small districts are left. Through the population flowing in and forming new districts, there has been such a creation of urban districts within the county that if this Bill were to be passed as it is drawn the county council might be left with control of the main roads over only a very small margin on the western side of the county.

Obviously, it is not in the interests of the motoring public or of the road traffic combinations that there should be otherwise than the most perfect and uniform service of roads that it is possible to have. Hon. Members may not realise that the Great West Road, which runs from Chiswick to the junction of the Bath Road with the Staines Road, passes through the districts of six different urban authorities. If the Bill passes in its present form, that road will not be under one general control and supervision, as it is now; we shall not have one method of road-making to preserve the continuity of type in that road. Then there is another road, 120 feet wide, which is being made for the purpose of accommodating the docks traffic and avoiding congestion of traffic in central London. The road commences near the Thames on the west and makes a circuit through the county of Middlesex, connecting up with the docks. That road passes through the area of 13 different urban district authorities. Is it reasonable to have 13 different authorities responsible for one large arterial road? That will only make confusion worse confounded, and therefore I hope that before the Bill passes from this House its provisions will be very considerably curtailed in this respect, so that in the interests of the public we may have one authority ruling such a road throughout its whole length. The same observations would apply to arterial roads in Cambridge-shire, and to others which are similarly situated.

In 1898 a private Act of Parliament was passed to assist the administration of the county of Middlesex, and that gave power to authorities which had claimed to maintain their roads under the Act of 1888 to reconsider their position and to give up their right. Not a few of them did so. Here, then, we find that this Clause will interfere with what was practically a Parliamentary bargain under which various authorities—and very large authorities—have been content to allow the county council to take over the maintenance of their roads. We contend that the charges in respect of them should be borne as is indicated by Sir Henry Maybury in his speech. So many authorities have availed themselves of the permission granted by the Act of 1898 that I think only nine out of 36 urban councils now claim and have the power of maintaining all kinds of roads in their districts. This Bill in its present form would tear up this arrangement, under which district councils are perfectly content.

The same considerations apply in the case of the rural districts. The county council has maintained the main roads which run out of London through the rural districts without any objection from the rural district councils. The county council have established depots in various places, with materials and men working under gangers; these are ready at any moment to deal with emergencies which may arise in connection with the maintenance of the roads. What is to become of them? If this Amendment were carried out, these depots would be useless from the county's point of view, and if they were not purchased by the local authorities—which is very unlikely, as the latter have their own staffs for maintaining their local roads—the county council would be involved in considerable loss. If this goes through, the county will be responsible not only for that expense but also for the superannuation of their own staff. Middlesex has been accustomed to assume these liabilities in respect of the urban districts in the county. There are in Middlesex 27 such districts and they have borrowed money at the rate of £4.16 per cent., whereas the urban councils and district councils pay 5¼ per cent. Surely those are points of material importance in considering whether any alteration should be made. I would like to call attention to the White Paper which has been issued in relation to this Bill. First of all, there is the White Paper, issued in June 1928, which states, in paragraph 14: (i) The counties will assume complete responsibility for the maintenance of all roads in rural districts, and the substantial existing differences in the highway rates payable in individual rural districts in the same county will disappear. Surely that is a point worthy of consideration. Paragraph 14 (ii) says: The responsibility resting upon the counties for the maintenance of through communications will be extended by the transference to them of the financial charges in respect of all Class I and Class II roads in boroughs and urban districts outside the county boroughs. (iii)The counties will become highway authorities in respect of all roads transferred to them, but consideration will be given to the question whether, and if so, on what conditions, certain of the other authorities should not carry out the actual work on their class I and Class II roads and ether 'main' roads, where it is clear that such a course is justified by considerations of efficiency and economy. That is the practice to-day and that obligation is almost universal. In the larger districts the counties are accustomed to delegate to the local authority the powers of maintaining their roads, and before payment is made there must be a certificate issued that the work has been properly executed. Who can say that that is not a wise provision? The central authority is able to buy its material in large quantities, and thus get all the advantages accruing from large dealings, and yet they can place the local authority in the position of being their authority with delegated powers. Paragraph 14 (iv) says: Boroughs and urban district councils will continue to be responsible for the maintenance of the roads in their areas (mainly residential 'streets') which are not already maintainable by the county or which would not be transferred to the county as classified roads under paragraph (ii). I have quoted those paragraphs from the White Paper issued in July. After that there came the evidence given on behalf of the Ministry of Transport before the Royal Commission on Local Government, and I want to draw attention to some answers given by Mr. Piggott, principal assistant secretary to the Ministry of Transport, who appeared for the Ministry of Transport. He was asked: Q. Is there anything in the scheme to prevent the county council using the district council as their agents for doing some if not all of their roads?—That would be an agreement under the provisions of Section 11, sub-section (4), of the Act of 1888. Q. Is there anything in the Government scheme which would prevent that?—There is nothing in the Government scheme which would prevent that being carried out. It is clear that the evidence given before the Royal Commission shows that their recommendation would leave the Council in the same position as they were before. Now I come to what I think is an inconsistency in the provisions of this Bill. The Minister of Health in his speech on the Second Reading said that the provisions of this Measure mainly carried out the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Local Government. That Commission reports, in paragraph 158, as follows: We were asked to consider the question of delegation by county councils to the councils of county districts in regard to the maintenance of roads in the event of the proposals being put into effect. The following suggestions are necessarily subject to this hypothesis and we express no opinion upon the proposals generally. With this reservation we have come to the following conclusions: County councils should be empowered to delegate the maintenance of classified and main roads to councils of county districts if they think fit; but it is observed from paragraph 14 (iii) in the Proposals for Reform in Local Government that consideration will be given to the question whether, and if so, on what conditions certain of the other authorities (i.e., county district councils) should not carry out the actual work on their Class I and Class II roads and other main roads. No doubt the larger authorities will he entrusted with such work. The Minister of Health in his speech on the Second Reading said that the provisions of this Bill were founded on those conclusions but I submit that it is nothing of the sort. The Second, White Paper issued by the Minister of Health, in November, 1928, paragraph 27, on page 15, reads as follows: Under the Local Government Act, 1888, when the county councils became responsible for main roads, any urban authority had a right to claim to maintain a main road within 12 months, either after the appointed day under that Act or after the 'maining' of the road. It is intended, in accordance with the unanimous recommendations of the Royal Commission on Local Government, which included representatives of the principal associations of local authorities. and whose Report has recently been published, that this right should be exercisable by the larger urban authorities in relation to main roads in their areas, whether or not they have already made a claim under the 18,8 Act. That is not so, as I have already pointed out. This is a matter of great importance to my county, which has the fate of dealing with the traffic leaving London on the north side and the north-west side. In order to bring about the creation of these large roads and widenings those powers have been exercised by the district council, and I think it is a grievous thing that this Bill should rip up that arrangement and again set district councils by the ear when they are perfectly content to go on under the arrangements I have mentioned. I hope the Committee will reject this Amendment and do what is necessary when the time comes to insist that the public users of these roads shall receive the first consideration.


I think in matters of this kind some attention must be paid to the people who have to administer this particular local government work. In my constituency there are two urban district councils and both of them have asked me to speak against the 20,000 population figure being retained in this particular Clause. This attitude is not due to political bias. Certainly one of these councils has a Labour majority and the other has not, but both of them are emphatic in asking that some alteration should be made in this particular Clause. At the last census one of these urban district authorities had a population of 138 short of 20,000, but if the census were taken now it would be found that the population of that district is over 20,000 and surely they ought not to be barred on that account.

This particular urban district argues that they have carried out this work efficiently in the past, and there has been no trouble whatever between them and the county council and seeing that is so they cannot understand why the Minister of Health should attempt to alter the existing conditions. When the Minister of Health spoke on the Second Reading of this Measure he said that he did not draw a hard and fast line in regard to any particular Clause, and if representations were made to him giving good grounds for making alterations he was quite willing to listen to them. This afternoon there seems to be a concensus of opinion on all sides on this question, and I ask the Minister to take back this particular Clause and remodel it in time for the Report stage. I ask him to give close attention to the representations which have been made to him in view of what the representatives of the county council authorities have asked for, and I hope he will be able to alter the existing figure.


I am sorry that on this occasion I find myself in disagreement with the view expressed by the hon. Gentleman the Member for South-East Essex (Mr. Looker) and the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams), as we are all three members of the executive committee of the Urban District Councils Association. As chairman of an urban district with a population under 10,000 I have come to the conclusion that the Government is right in their treatment of this matter and that the Amendment we are discussing would not be to the advantage of the smaller urban district councils. I think it is perfectly obvious—and certainly it will be the case in my own county of Lancashire—that the county council will inevitably delegate its authority on these matters to the urban district councils who have had much experience of this particular kind of work and can do it efficiently. In the long period which I have devoted to the work of an urban district council I have discovered that many of those councils seem to enjoy being at loggerheads with their county councils, and I have been able to preserve my own urban district council from getting into that unfortunate position. I find that the Lancashire County Council behave to the urban district councils extremely well in these matters, and I have not the least doubt that my own urban district council will have these powers delegated to it because it has done the work efficiently in the past.

For these reasons, I hope the Committee will reject this Amendment. I cannot help feeling that the Government scheme will be very greatly to the advantage of those districts which are efficiently managed and to the disadvantage of those which are not efficiently managed. That is to say, the Government's scheme is protecting those urban district councils which do their work properly for the county, and depriving the inefficient ones of the opportunity of squandering the joint fund on which the county council depends. That is really my reason for expressing the hope that the Government will hold firm on the matter, although the Urban District Councils Association as a whole has taken the opposite view, as expressed in the Amendment of the hon. Member for South-East Essex. I am a little afraid, from what I have seen of the controversy which has arisen on this matter, that in many cases it is exaggerated care for the dignity of the individual councillors that has made them so strong on this point. My experience of urban district council work has been that that position is so undignified to start with, and involves so many kicks and so few half-pence, that one's dignity is hardly worth bothering about. I suggest that it is the outraged dignity of councillors as much as anything that has instigated this Amendment, and, although the hon. Member for South-East Essex put forward various reasons for his Amendment, they must appear so extremely flimsy to anyone who has had experience of looking after the highways department of an urban district council that I think my suggestion is amply justified.

For example, the hon. Member talks of the vast amount of road plant and machinery that the urban district councils will have to scrap under this scheme. But any urban district council with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants, which keeps more than one tar boiler, possibly a stone breaker, and, if it is very progressive, a concrete mixing machine—if it spends its ratepayers' money on providing more plant than that, it is in my opinion a most extravagant urban district. Therefore, the hon. Member's idea that the amount of plant to be scrapped by urban district councils with less than 20,000 inhabitants is an important matter may be disregarded. It is not going to amount in any case to more than £200 or £300 at the utmost. It is well known to hon. Members that, if a contractor is doing this kind of work, he buys plant for the work, and, when the work is finished, sells it practically as scrap; so that to plead that immensely large quantities of valuable machinery are going to be scrapped because some inefficient little urban district is deprived of the right to carry out work on the roads for the county is an argument which is quite beside the point, and such circumstances are not likely to occur in actual practice. The main point is that those urban districts which can manage to keep on good terms with their county councils will, in my opinion, be perfectly content with the provisions of the Government's scheme. But in the case of those urban districts which spend their whole time in picking quarrels with their county councils, and in asking for more money for the maintenance and repair of the roads than the county council thinks it is justified in spending, the Minister will probably find that in the future, as in the past, they will continue to keep these vendettas going with their county councils, and they are very properly, under the Bill, to be deprived of the opportunity of fighting their county councils on this matter.


As the Minister of Transport knows, the urban district councils of the country are feeling very unhappy with regard to this Bill. I am not referring so much to those which have a population of over 20,000, as I think it will be agreed that they will be able to look after themselves; but I do want, in company with other Members on both sides of the Committee, to put in a plea for those urban districts which have a population of less than 20,000. I take it that there is general agreement in the Committee that the plan for road snaking and for road repairs and maintenance on a wider system of large-scale planning is sound, and in the best interests of the country. There is no quarrel upon that point; the point of quarrel lies in the fact that no real place is left, as there ought to be, in the actual administration, for some of the authorities which it is proposed in practice to cancel out under this Bill. I want to put the view of my own constituency, which happens to be almost exclusively built up of urban district councils. I cannot claim, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) is able to claim, that it includes any urban district whose population is nearly 20,000; the whole of the urban district councils in my constituency are well below 20,000. I think, however, that the Minister appreciates that all of them who are exercising road powers under the Local Government Act, 1888, are feeling very sore about the removal of those important powers that is in prospect under this Bill.

With regard to the financial argument which has been put forward, if the Minister will turn to page 5 of the Memorandum drawn up by the Urban District Councils Association, he will find that they say specifically that, if Clause 29 of this Bill be applied, the nation will be involved in increased charges for roads. The words that they use are: Increased expense will undoubtedly occur if the maintenance of the roads is transferred to the county councils. I should like the Minister to deal with that point, because I am quite sure that he would never wish to cancel out important powers of local authorities if the practical consequence was an increase in the general road charges of the country. From that point of view, I would like to submit a particular case from my own constituency, namely, that of the Thurlstone Urban District Council, where, in addition to other objections, the financial objection is raised in relation to this proposed deprivation of highway powers. The clerk of the Thurlstone Urban District Council writes: My council's district is situated at one of the extreme boundaries of the district of the West Riding County Council, and, if the county authority were to have to repair, etc., it would involve the bringing of the necessary road material, staff, etc., long distances, and thus increase the cost. This is not a mere opinion on the council's part, hut they have found that the cost of repairing main roads in immediately adjoining districts having similar roads which the county authority have in recent years taken over and repaired by direct labour, greatly exceeds that incurred in my council's district. That is the general point of view of the Urban District Councils Association, implemented by a particular case taken from my own constituency. I would ask the Minister to be good enough to reply, in relation to Clause 29, particularly from this financial point of view.

I should also like to ask the Minister, partly in the light of that criticism, whether he cannot see his way to establish some other criterion with regard to highway administration than the mere population figure. It does not seem to me that there is any necessary causal relation between the number of people living in an urban district and their capacity and fitness for continuing to be the highway authority. I would ask the Minister whether he does not think it would be worth while to have some alternative line of division, some alternative standard of value, other than merely the population, when he is carrying out such a drastic and sweeping reform. I observe that, in Part II of the Second Report of the Royal Commission dealing with this subject of local government, it is suggested, with regard to urban district councils whose population is less than 20,000, that the Minister himself should retain certain vital powers in his own hands. So far as I understand the Clause in question, those powers are now to be removed, and I would ask the Minister if he is not prepared to insert in the Clause a provision making it possible for urban district councils, and possibly lesser authorities also, to have a right of appeal to him before these important powers are taken away. The population test does not seem to me to be an adequate one to meet the situation, and I think that, if the right hon. Gentleman would consider the possibility of using his powers in this direction, he would go a long way towards meeting what seem to me to be very real and widespread grievances among urban district councils which have not yet a population of 20,000.

Colonel ASHLEY

It may, perhaps, be well, as the discussion has ranged over a good many points, major and minor, if I bring the Committee back to the actual Amendment which we are discussing at the present time. Clause 29 of the Bill provides that an urban district council with a population of more than 20,000 shall have the right to claim from the county council the privilege of maintaining, repairing and improving any or all of the county roads in their urban area. That is a very considerable privilege and a very considerable asset, and it is, naturally, appreciated, because the county council has the privilege of paying to the urban district council the expenditure which they are incurring on these main roads during the financial year. The Amendment starts on the supposition that, instead of 20,000 being the population limit for an urban district council, every urban district council, whatever its population, should have this very considerable privilege, but two of my hon. Friends have proceeded to suggest qualifications.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Essex (Mr. Looker) suggests that the privilege should be abolished if the population falls at any time below 10,000, and the Minister of Transport of the day approves of the suspension of that power; while my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Sir D. Newton) and his Friends say that the privilege may be taken away if the population falls below 20,000. Therefore, in essence, the Amend- ment that we are taking now is in the nature of a joint discussion as to whether the population shall be 20,000, or 10,000, or some other figure, the Government, of course, favouring 20,000; and, in consequence of this, there are several Amendments on the Paper—


The right hon. and gallant Gentleman keeps talking about "this privilege." Why does he describe it as a privilege?

Colonel ASHLEY

I describe it as a privilege because all the urban district councils and their members seem to be asking that it should be given to them. Whether it is a privilege or not must be a, matter of opinion; I can only judge from the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Essex and the hon. Member for the Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams), who are members of the Executive of the Urban District Councils Association. If my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Essex will allow me to say so, I have seldom listened to a speech with greater pleasure than to his on this occasion, but I have also seldom listened to a speech in which there were more, not inaccuracies, but glosses on the meaning of what has actually happened and the recommendations of the Royal Commission. I am quite sure: that they were unintentional, but, really, they were not quite in accordance with facts.


I assure my right hon. Friend that I have studied with the very greatest care what the Royal Commission said, and I did not intend in any way to put a gloss upon it. Indeed, I am not capable of putting a gloss on anything. I stated what I believe to have been the effect of the Report of the Royal Commission, and my opinion is shared in quarters which I know are most intimate with the procedure and findings of that Commission, so that I am not alone in my opinion.

5.0 p.m.

Colonel ASHLEY

Of course, the hon. ember is entitled to his opinion as to hat the Royal Commission really recommended, as I am o mine. Perhaps the reason why we do not see exactly through the same spectacles is that, as the Royal Commission's Report was unanimous, naturally it must be rather vague. Coming to the history of the question, the power to claim was given by the Act of 1888 to all urban district councils who claimed it within 12 months of the passing of the Act. In the last 40 years great anomalies have grown up. Small urban councils with three or four thousand inhabitants have this very important power—I will not call it a privilege any more—and many urban councils with 35,000 population have no such power at all. Therefore, it is obvious that something has to be done. You cannot leave it in this position that there are urban councils with 30,000 inhabitants who have not these powers and small ones with 3,000 or 4,000 who have. The only question that arises is where shall you draw the line. I do not think anyone would put forward the contention that all of them, however small, should have them in view of the changed position of to-day. The only question is where the line should be drawn.

Lieut.-Commander BURNEY

What is the point of giving the power to all these urban councils, however big they are?

Colonel ASHLEY

After all, an urban district council with 30,000 inhabitants is a responsible body. It is a question merely of population limit. My hon. Friend suggests 30,000 or 40,000. The Government have come down quite definitely with a limit of 20,000. Those Members who support the case of the urban district councils say, "Give it to as many as possible." My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Mr. Somerville) says, "Give it to everyone, whether they have two or three thousand or whatever the number is." On the other hand, there is an Amendment on the Paper in the name of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Sir E. Turton) to leave the Clause out. Ho speaks with authority. He is the chairman of the County Councils Association Executive. He is a very prominent member of the association and I presume he speaks for it with full responsibility. His Amendment is in accord with the evidence given by the County Councils Association before the Royal Commission, and they say, "Keep everything, in all circumstances, however large the urban council, in the hands of the county council." The Government equally propose to ask the Committee to reject that proposition, just as they wish to reject the proposition that three or four or 10 thousand should be the limit. If you walk in the middle of the road you go the safest way.


Is that based on the Royal Commission?

Colonel ASHLEY

My answer to that is that I cannot find in the conclusions of the Royal Commission any reference to claiming at all. On that point I submit that the Royal Commission is silent. It says: County councils should be empowered to delegate the maintenance of classified and main roads to county district councils if they think fit. Delegation does not mean claiming. Delegation means handing over certain duties to bodies as agents for the county council. Therefore anything that is recommended by the Royal Commission as regards the delegation of powers to urban and rural district councils has nothing to do with the matter we are discussing. The only point that is really relevant to this discussion in section 18 of the Report is that the Royal Commission very clearly take 20,000 inhabitants as the dividing line between the major and minor authorities, and in this we have absolutely followed the recommendation of the Royal Commission. So that I think I can legitimately say that in this proposal we have not departed from the recommendations of the Royal Commission, and we have in one important respect, namely, population, followed it exactly as they have suggested. I appeal to the Committee to look at this question, not from a parochial point of view, not from the point of view of the Urban District Councils Association or the County Councils Association, but from the point of view of what is really going to be for the benefit of the country, what is going to be the most economical way and what is going to help us to solve these very important questions. It must be obvious that, within limits, the more you can centralise your administration and your finance, the better. On the other hand, the more you can decentralise and devolve the actual work on the local bodies, subject to the control and financial direction of the major body, the better. This we have done in this proposal and I hope now my hon. Friend, having heard the explanation, will withdraw his Amendment.


I should like to press the point of the Royal Commission a little further. I think it is true that the Minister has departed from the recommendations of the Royal Commission, and it is a fair question to ask why he has done it, because in so many other particulars, in other parts of the Bill, the Government has accepted their recommendations. As I understand it, the departure that has been made is this. It is quite true that the Royal Commission suggested the figure of 20,000, but they never suggested that all local authorities with a population of less than 20,000 should not enjoy rights with regard to the maintenance of roads.

Colonel ASHLEY

They never mentioned it.


As I understand it, their view was that the duty should not be undertaken if the Minister of Transport thought they were not fit to undertake it. I think that is the meaning of the Royal Commission Report.

The MINISTER of HEALTH (Mr. Chamberlain)

That is delegation.


I am not on the point of delegation at all. I am on this point, that the Royal Commission visualised local authorities with a population of less than 20,000 as highway authorities. Many of us are under that impression from our reading of the Report. If we are wrong we ought to be shown where we are wrong, because it is certainly the view of the Association of Municipal Corporations that the Bill departs from the proposals of the Report.

Then there are two questions which I should like to ask the Minister of Transport to answer. One has been put already but not answered. The first is, suppose a local authority, whether by growth of population or extension of its boundaries, reaches 20,000 population, will it thereafter exercise the powers of an authority which at the time of the passing of the Act has a population of 20,000, and would they in those circumstances claim to take over from the county the roads hitherto held by the county? The next question was raised by the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) and it seems to me a very important one. In an urban district authority whose roads pass under the control of the county council, you may well have half a dozen different authorities—the gas committee, the water committee, the electricity committee, the committee that deals with sewers—al] engaged in work under the road, whilst the road is dealt with by the county council. What is to be the position?

I dare say it is a matter for co-ordination between the major and minor authorities, but what safeguards are there going to be to ensure that the road authority and the authority whose works, whether it be gas mains or electricity cables, that pass under the road, shall not be at cross-purposes? What powers are the urban districts going to have to take up the roads in order to repair cables, and what powers are the county councils going to have to order the alteration of cables under the road belonging to the urban districts? Some arrangements ought to be made between the major and minor bodies if there is to be proper co-ordination between the two and between their services. I hope the Minister will deal with this question of the Royal Commission, because Members opposite, as well as on this side, are apparently under the impression that there is some difference between the recommendations of the Royal Commission and the proposals in the Bill.


I do not want to say anything that may seem to conflict with the pleasant and harmonious relations that exist between the county councils and the minor local authorities. I do not want it to be understood that the county councils are a grasping body that wish to take over all these powers. They are only concerned, in the interests of good government, to carry out their duties most economically and efficiently. But I hope the Committee are not going to perpetuate the very great mistake that was made in the Local Government Act of 1888. At that time very much the same arguments were put forward as are being put forward to-day. "You have all these authorities. They have done their work well. They have plant, they have surveyors, and they have men. Why not let them continue?" So they were allowed to continue, and the result has been that the county councils ever since have had to put up with this position, that any urban district council, no matter how small, how extravagant, or how inefficient, could claim the right to the main road that went through its areas. Even a small urban district council of 230 inhabitants had that right. They could do the roads entirely in their own way and they could spend what money they liked, and the county councils had to foot the bill. Does anybody at this time really desire that that condition of things should continue?

I think, if I may say so with great respect, that Members always look upon urban district councils as towns and streets and as roads going through towns. To-day, as was proved before the Royal Commission, there are many urban district councils that are absolutely rural in character, just as there are many rural district councils which are absolutely and entirely urban in character. I can speak from experience of the North Riding of Yorkshire, where there was an urban district council which had a very large area of grouse moor. The county main road going through this grouse moor for a distance of five or six miles was claimed by the urban district council. I think that we shall all be agreed that this sort of thing does not tend towards either efficiency or economy. There is not the slightest desire on the part of the county councils to curtail delegation in any shape or form. With regard to the non-county boroughs and the urban district councils which have had this authority in the past —and I quite admit that some have had it for 40 years and have done their work well—the county councils will be only too ready and desirous that they should continue. Therefore, this harrowing picture of plant being scrapped and men being thrown out of work cannot possibly have any effect upon an intelligent audience who have any knowledge whatever of local government.

The right hon. Gentleman in his speech, quite rightly said that the county councils do not see any point whatever in the 20,000 limit, or in any limit whatever. If you have the power of delegation, you can give it to an urban district council whether it has a population of 5,000, 10,000 or 20,000. You will never satisfy hon. Members upon the exact figure. In regard to this figure of 20,000, we have already had one or two hon. Members quite rightly ask, in the interests of their own constituencies, why the figure is not 19,000, or 9,000, and so on? The only logical conclusion is, to sweep out altogether the number of 20,000 and leave all non-county boroughs and urban district councils to be under the county councils as far as the main roads are concerned. We do, indeed, say to these minor local authorities; "Hands off our county main roads!" Leave us in order that we may take a broader and a big view. You are going to give us town planning because everybody is agreed that you cannot conduct town planning on a small scale. You would never dream of giving town planning to urban district areas. I was on the Royal Commission on London Government, and on that Commission we were unanimous that you must take a very broad and wide view. How can you possibly have this patchwork selection of roads? After all, the small authorities could improve the roads according to their own ideas because the roads were vested in them. It is not merely a question of the maintenance and repair of the roads; it is a question of the actual vesting of the roads. My right hon. Friend has given instances of what would happen in Middlesex. There are plenty of other instances.

The hon. Member who moved this Amendment and who is the Member for one of the Divisions of Essex did not inform the Committee what would happen in Essex under this 20,000 limit. There you have a very good road called Eastern Avenue extending for 7¼ miles. In regard to that road no less than four different authorities can put their noses in and say how it is to he repaired, and, above all, how it is to he improved. It ie not so much the maintenance or the repair but actually the right to say how it could he improved. In Surrey there is a very lengthy road in respect of the care of which there are no less than five different authorities. I could multiply these instances all over the country. In Lancashire, the West Riding of Yorkshire or anywhere, one finds exactly the same state of affairs, and one which certainly does not lead to economy or efficiency. Are we not all aiming at making the fewest possible number of authorities in regard to this matter? Do we not aim at simplicity? I do not like troubling the Committee with figures, but there are 61 county councils in England and Wales. There will be, if you have your 20,000 limit, no fewer than 179 minor local authorities who can butt in and claim this privilege. Surely, for that reason, it would be much wiser that county councils should have entire power over the main roads and of these other roads?

With regard to the Royal Commission of which I was a member, the two right hon. Gentlemen who have quoted our report have done so absolutely accurately and have, I think, interpreted our opinion. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman says that in order to be unanimous we were discreetly vague. Nevertheless, I do not think that there is any vagueness in our language. What we said was that the county councils should be empowered to delegate the maintenance of classified and main roads to county districts if they thought fit. There is not a word in the Royal Commission's Report which deals with the vesting of these roads in the local authorities. There is not a word which deals with the question of claiming. All we were concerned with was that there should be absolute delegation of these roads. We were absolutely unanimous, and there was nothing vague or incoherent at all. We were absolutely unanimous that main roads and classified roads should be under the county council. On that let there be no mistake and no doubt. It will he seen by any hon. Members who take the trouble to read our Report that we never referred to, and had not in our minds for a moment, the question of perpetuating the claiming of these roads.

The evidence was overwhelming. I am not referring entirely to the county council evidence. Hon. Members may say that it was tainted evidence and put forward in order that we might get our own way in regard to this matter. The evidence throughout, the independent evidence, was entirely overwhelming that these large arterial roads, which are so absolutely necessary for the commerce, trade and the enjoyment of our people, should be put under as few bodies as possible, and that they should be put under the county councils. I am very glad, indeed, to see the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) in his place, and I hope that; he will support our view in this matter. Leave us and trust us. That is what we are asking you to do. You can trust us, and, indeed, you should. For that reason I hope the Committee will reject the Amendment, and that when we come to the Clause they will also reject it.


I have listened very attentively to this Debate, and to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill. When I first read the Clause I was surprised to find how inconsistent was the principle embodied in this Clause compared with the principle contained in the Bill in general. Throughout the Bill there is a desire to make the county council the authority. This Clause deviates from that principle in the sense that it confers on the urban authorities the right to make a claim or, rather, the power to claim the right of administration in connection with these roads. I think that this is a deplorable feature. I think that the principle should have been retained, and that the county council should have been the authority concerned in reference to all the roads. An instance has been given this afternoon by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Ealing (Sir H. Nield) in respect of the manner in which the principle of the delegation of powers to the local authority operates in connection with the Middlesex County Council. I hoped that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman who spoke from the Front Bench a few moments ago would at least have been prepared to give the Committee some idea as to his views, or as to his intentions in regard to the proposals advanced by the right hon. and learned Member for Ealing. I have had some experience in the Middlesex area in connection with the Urban District Council of Willesden. I have served for some time on that body. I know that the Middlesex County Council delegates powers to the local authority. When in 1898 special powers were conferred upon the Middlesex County Council, 22 out of the 36 local authorities in Middlesex willingly assented to the principle of the Middlesex County Council delegating its powers to the local authorities. Until now that principle has worked quite smoothly, and I hoped that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman would have been prepared to suggest, by way of meeting local authorities throughout the country who are making demands which are more extreme than the proposals in Clause 29, proposals somewhat on the lines of those operating in connection with the Middlesex County Council.

I feel convinced that local authorities would jump at such proposals, and that we should smooth out a great number of the difficulties with which we are confronted at the present time. I think it is advisable that this Committee should be prepared to take a wide rather than a. parochial view. It is beyond question that the county council should be the authority. Take the question of the building lines in connection with the main roads. There should be one authority responsible for those building lines; otherwise you are going to have very much wider roads in some areas than you have in other areas. Stress has been laid on the economies which would be effected by permitting the county council to be the authority for raising loans for road improvements and for the construction of bridges. That is a point which should be carefully considered by the Minister in charge of this Bill. If you permit the various urban authorities to have the power or the right to determine their building lines, that will in no sense follow the lines of economy but will follow the lines of the greatest lack of economy. No case has been made out this afternoon for the proposals suggested in this Clause. The right hon. Gentleman advanced no reason for it. His argument was that as certain conditions obtain to-day it is desirous to meet the case by endeavouring to follow the line of least resistance. That is not statesmanship. The House ought not to face the problem in connection with roads by following the line of least resistance. I hope that before we take the vote on the Clause, we shall have a statement from the right hon. Gentleman that he is prepared to reconsider the Clause in the light of the arguments which have been advanced, and endeavour to meet the situation more in respect to the position that obtains in the County of Middlesex, and the counties immediately adjoining the County of London or the Metropolitan area.


May I on behalf of the non-county borough which I have the privilege to represent support the Amendment of the hon. Member for South-East Essex (Mr. Looker). My right hon. Friend said that we ought to take a national view of the matter. I agree. I take it that the national view of the matter is contained in the question as to whether the necessary work is well and efficiently done. We are told that a large number of these small urban districts and non-county boroughs are doing their work inefficiently. I maintain that the contrary is the case, and that all through the country the work done on their highways and main streets by urban districts and non-county boroughs is efficiently done. The non-county boroughs feel very strongly the withdrawal by this Bill of the rights which they now possess. Why is the arbitrary number of 20,000 population fixed? It is well known that there are boroughs with over 20,000 population who do not do their work efficiently. With respect to the desire to see the county councils in control, I agree that the county councils ought to have general supervision over the highways in the counties, and I suggest that a way out of the difficulty would be the acceptance of the Amendment which stands in the name of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Sir D. Newton)—In page 26, line 24, at the end, to insert the words: Where an urban district has a population under 20,000 according to the last census for the time being, the county council may represent to the Minister of Transport that it is undesirable that the council of the district shall continue to perform the functions of maintaining and repairing the county roads in their district, and shall at the same time transmit a copy of their representation to the district council. On any such representation the Minister of Transport, after considering the observations of the district council, may make an order that as from the first day of April next after the date thereof the district council shall cease to discharge the said functions, and those functions shall vest in the county council in like manner as if the district council had made no claim under sub-section (1) of this Section. Provided that, if the population of the district is found by the Registrar-General's preliminary report on any subsequent census to exceed 20,000, the district council may claim to exercise the functions of maintenance and repair of the county roads within their district and thereupon the foregoing provisions of this Section shall apply as if the claim had been made thereunder. There seems to be some doubt as to the interpretation of the recommendations of the Royal Commission. Putting aside the doubt as to the recommendations, would not my right hon. Friend consider with favour the proposals contained in the Amendment which stands in the name of the hon. Member for. Cambridge? If that Amendment were accepted, the county councils Would be left in the position of supervisors of the roads in the counties. If a small authority in the county was known to be doing its work inefficiently that Amendment, if accepted, would give the county council power to interfere and to apply to the Minister for an Order. I suggest that that is the best solution of the difficulty. I strongly protest against the withdrawal from the small authorities and non-county boroughs, who are doing their work efficiently, of the powers which they now possess.


Like most hon. Members representing county constituencies, I have received the customary letters from the urban district councils in my constituency. I have an open mind upon this matter, and I listened to the Minister of Transport with great interest while he was trying to give the reasons why the Amendment should not be accepted. I had not the advantage of hearing the observations made by the Mover of the Amendment, but I was very disappointed when I heard the Minister of Transport give his reasons why the Amendment ought to be rejected. The only point as far as I could gather was whether the small authorities of populations of under 20,000 were truly representative bodies. I should have thought that the Minister of Transport, being interested in the roads, would have made the test as to whether the authority is efficiently carrying out the work delegated to it in respect of the roads.

One would almost imagine from the statements made by the Minister of Transport that the efficient authorities were authorities of over 20,000, and that the inefficient authorities were the authorities with populations under that number. I have the advantage of knowing very efficient authorities of under 20,000, and inefficient authorities of over 20,000. According to the Clause, it is not a question of efficiency but purely a question of numbers. I should have liked the Minister of Transport to have laid it down quite clearly that if the respective authorities are doing their duty he will permit them to carry on with their work. I am not satisfied, and I am sure that other bon. Members are not altogether satisfied, that the only efficient body in local government is the county council. I recognise that there must be some limit somewhere, but when we some to the point of discussing whether we are to permit authorities with a certain population to maintain certain functions, I should have expected the Minister of Transport not to place too much importance upon numbers but, first and foremost, to have decided the matter on the test to the efficient discharge of the duties which the authorities are called upon to perform.


There is a great deal in what my hon. Friend has said. I wish we could get the discussion back to the basis of efficiency. Where is there any case of inefficiency in regard to a large number of the urban districts which are now managing these matters? No case was made before the Royal Commission on that ground. These people are, naturally and properly, jealous of their local management of local affairs, and I cannot see why there should be any disturbance of the present arrangement, unless there is a real reason for that disturbance. The Minister of Health knows perfectly well that one of our greatest difficulties in trying to bring about harmony is the impression which prevails in large sections of the country that the Minister of Health is rather anxious to submerge the smaller local authorities. There is no doubt about that impression. A recent incident like the Rural Housing Act, 1926, and the way in which the Ministry of Health have dealt with it, has strengthened the impression that the Ministry of Health is intent, as far as it can, on putting the smaller local authorities into a position of less importance.

It would be a thousand pities if that policy were adopted, because the strength of the local life of England lies in the widespread impression among those who take part in the work of these small authorities that they are doing some real service to the country, and they should be encouraged to do it as well as they possibly can. They have the local knowledge. I should like to know the view of the Minister of Health on the Amendment of the hon. Member for Cambridge. In a case of inefficiency, an urban district council or a council of any other district ought not to manage roads or anything else; the power ought to be taken away from it, and the same condition ought to apply in the case of a county, although I do not know how it could be applied. If we are to get this Bill working with any sense of harmony, we ought to have regard to the desire of the urban districts to retain the power which they have already, and not to regard it as unreasonable if that desire is based upon the question of efficiency.

Lieut.-Commander BURNEY

I cannot speak as the chairman of a county council or as the chairman of an urban district council, but I desire to put forward the views of the man in the street and in the interests of economy and efficiency to congratulate the Minister on hardening his heart and not listening to the pleadings on behalf of the urban councils. I was, however, astounded at some other portions of the speech made by the Minister of Transport. That speech seemed to indicate that the Government at the present time have no real policy in so far as road matters are concerned. In the last few years the trend of development has been towards the grouping of the actual control of the roads in the hands of the county councils, and the delegation of the execution of that policy to the urban district councils, thus following out the recommendations of the Royal Commission. The Royal Commission recommended the delegation of the execution of the work to the urban councils, and not the control of policy.

Therefore, I suggest to the Minister that he may not perhaps have realised the full import of the matter as reflected in Clause 20, because I am certain that the Government do not wish to reverse their present policy in regard to the roads. I am sure that I am expressing their real intention when I say that the Government wish to concentrate the control and development of roads in as few hands as possible, and to delegate the execution of that work wherever it may best be done. If they study Clause 29, I am sure that they will find that they are, in fact, reversing that policy. The Clause, as drafted, allows the urban district councils to claim for a main or a classified road, and to have those roads vested in themselves. The effect if this will be to deprive, not only the county councils, but the Minister himself of a considerable amount of control which he now exercises, not only on the classified and main roads, but also upon the arterial roads and county bridges. The Bill gives permission to the urban councils to obtain the vesting of these roads in themselves. Hitherto, although they have had that right they have not exercised it, because it has not been to their advantage to do so. But this Bill, as it is now drafted, will make urban district councils want to get the roads into their own hands, and if they obtain their wish, there will be many different authorities operating on quite short sections of our main and arterial roads. On the Uxbridge Road, in which I take some interest, one authority is operating, but if the Bill passes there will be no less than 10.

The reason why urban district councils will want to get the roads into their own hands will be found in the definition of improvements clause. Previously in the improvement clause the question of widening a road came under the head of improvements, and if an urban district council wished to widen their road, they have had to get the county council to agree and obtain a grant of money from the county council, but never more than 50 per cent. The remainder the urban council had to find itself. If they gave up their road to the county council, then the county council provided the whole of the money. Now under these provisions the whole of that money will be given by the county council in any event, and the reasons which previously urged urban district councils to allow the county council to take over the development of the roads will actuate in the opposite direction, and you will obtain, not only 61 local authorities we have to-day, but 240. I am perfectly certain that it cannot be the right hon. Gentleman's intention to split up the control of our main and arterial roads in that fashion, when we have such a record of accidents as we have to-day. In the last six years the number of motor cars on the roads has doubled, and it is likely to double again in the next six years. It is necessary to develop our roads for the through traffic, and surely it is unwise to introduce a Bill at this stage which will multiply the number of authorities controlling these roads.

The Minister may say, what does that matter. It matters in this way. If an urban district council obtains the control of the roads in its own hands they can prevent the widening not only of the main roads but of the arterial roads as well. The Minister would not have the power to force an urban council to widen a road beyond the width which the urban council thought fit if the power was vested in urban councils, and I suggest to the Committee that we are taking a somewhat grave step if we pass the Clause in its present form. I think the Minister might consider deleting the last four lines of the first sub-section of the Clause when we get to the Report stage. If he did that he would obtain what the Royal Commission recommended—namely, the delegation of the duties to urban district councils but he would retain in his own hands, and for county councils, the question of the vesting roads. I suggest that it is to the advantage of the Bill that the last four lines of the first Sub-section of the Clause should be deleted.


I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman can give us any evidence that urban district councils have been inefficient? The best argument the Minister could bring in support of this Clause would be evidence that the urban district councils are not competent to do this work. I suppose most hon. Members will speak from the point of view of their own district. I can speak from the point of view of the West Riding of Yorkshire, where there is very heavy traffic; and I suggest that in a district like that that the local authority is the likeliest body to know what kind of road is needed in a particular district. In the division I represent there are a number of local authorities and they are all efficient. They have all the necessary machinery and tools, the men, and the surveyors, all trained men, to do this work, and why in the name of all that is wonderful the right hon. Gentleman should take away from these people the right to do work, for which they have local knowledge and local experience, I cannot imagine. I can imagine the West Riding County Council saying to a place like Yeadon: "You must have a macadam road." The local people are quite certain that the district does not need a macadam road; that its requirements would he met by a road paved with setts.

There are several places I know where the county council has come right into the centre of the area of the local authority and taken one strip of road of about a quarter of a mile, all the other roads being looked after by the local authority. The county council look after this one strip of road. That is uneconomic and I feel that where a local authority is doing this work economically and well they ought to be allowed to continue to do it. Unless the Minister can give some evidence that local authorities have mismanaged this work, have not put down the proper type of roads which the locality needs and the industries in the locality desire, he has no right to take away from them the power to do work which they are best equipped to perform.


Although I represent a constituency in which there are several urban district councils with a population of under 20,000 I hope the Minister will not accept the Amendment. It is true that these urban district councils have been increasing my postbag during the last few days advocating that some Amendment on these lines should be accepted; I believe it would not be for the good of the country as a whole, or make for efficiency and economy. It would only lead to much greater friction between local bodies. Everyone is agreed that, so far as the county main roads are concerned, the fewer authorities there are the better. I know that the right hon. Gentleman had a difficult task in deciding exactly upon the population of 20,000 as the area which should be allowed to retain the management of its own roads. After all, no other figure would have pleased everybody, and although he has given this concession, which I have no doubt has been well considered, I am doubtful whether in the long run he is wise to fix it at 20,000.

The main consideration which seems to have animated those who have taken part in the Debate is the idea that county councils are most unreasonable: that, on the one hand, they are grossly extravagant or, on the other hand, that they are extremely mean. County councils, I believe, are as much interested in the efficient and economic government of the county as we are in the efficient and economic government of the country, and the point of this Clause is that it gives to county councils the chance of eliminating those urban districts which are inefficient. I have no doubt that county councils will be reasonable. Take the case of Somersetshire, where to-day the county council delegates to rural areas the duty of maintaining not only rural roads but main roads as well. I see no reason why county councils will not decide that where an urban district or a borough has proved itself efficient that it will continue to delegate to it exactly the same rights as they have exercised in the past. The urban district councils in my own area are efficient and I see no reason why the county council should deny them the same rights over the roads which they have exercised in the past. I do not believe the county council in my constituency, or in any other county, will prove itself unreasonable in this matter.


The remarks of the last speaker might lead one to imagine that the objections taken to this Clause by bon. Members on this side reflect on the county councils. I want to assure him that that is not the basis of our opposition at all. We are prepared to pay tribute to county councils whenever necessary, and there are occasions when we do. Our objection is because we believe that the Minister will be well advised in the case of efficient councils, who are operating now, to let well alone. Their efficiency cannot be determined by the arbitrary figure submitted in this Clause.

I want to submit one point in relation to this definite figure of 20,000, which is very important in this discussion. I do not know how it is going to operate in the area in which I live. There is an urban district council with 18,000 inhabitants on one side of the main Chester Road and on the other side another urban council with 8,000 inhabitants. These two councils are monuments of efficiency in local government; they are second to none in the whole country. They are not urban in the true sense of the word. The 18,000 area is mostly of a residential character, and they are so up to date that they have provided themselves with all the amenities of life, baths, library and town hall, and enjoy the tramway system of a neighbouring large town. Their work cannot be questioned, their efficiency cannot be questioned. The roads over which they have responsibility are some of the finest in the country, carrying the heaviest traffic which passes into the county of Cheshire, and I submit that the right of an area to control the highways within the district ought not to be determined in the simple arithmetical way laid down in the Bill. I think the right hon. Gentleman should pay a little more regard to the arguments which have been submitted to him than apparently he has up to the moment.

6.0 p.m.

There is another point which has been emphasised already by others. Because of the importance of the work that this area has been compelled to do in days gone by, they have provided themselves with an equipment that is equal to doing all the work that the county council can do. That aspect of the question certainly ought to be reviewed. But the main objection that we have to the statement that even in these well-equipped areas the county council can delegate to them the power to carry on the work that they have been doing, is that in the Bill the option lies with the county council. It is all very well to tell us that the county council can do this, but our main objection is that the county council can say that the smaller authority shall not do the work. There has not been a sufficient case made out to justify the Minister in asking the Committee to support the Government upon the very arbitrary figure of 20,000.


We have had a somewhat long discussion, which, however, has been a useful one, because it has covered a very wide field. It has covered not merely the particular Amendment under discussion, but has ranged over the whole principle of the question of what authority should be responsible for these main roads. We have had two distinct and opposite currents of thought in the Committee. One is the current of thought of those who are taking their stand upon the dignity of the Poor Law authorities, and who claim that those authorities should not only not be deprived of any rights which they have now, but that they should be given further rights which would enable them to have the control practically of these main roads.


It is not their dignity, but their efficiency.


There is the other current of thought which says that the nature of the traffic has changed very materially in the last generation, or less than that, and that the roads which we are now discussing are no longer roads merely of local interest, but are through roads which carry a great deal of traffic that does not concern only the people who live along the route itself, but is destined for some place. a long or short distance away. They say that, these being through roads, it is only reasonable and logical that there should be some sort of standardisation of their width and method of construction. I must say that, so far us the logic of the case goes, my sympathies are entirely with those who take the larger view. It seems to me very clear that the argument that where you have a through road carrying through traffic, you do not want to have it, if you can avoid it, in the hands of a great number of local authorities. At one time I took a great interest in the question of inland waterways. One of the points that were continually impressed on me in any study of the position of inland waterways was that the thing which more than anything else caused their stagnation was the extraordinary multiplicity of ownership. This is 'an analogous case.

If we were starting right at the beginning with a clear field and no authority had demanded any rights before in the matter, I think there would be a great deal to be said for the point of view put by the hon. Baronet the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Sir E. Turton). But we are not starting with a clear field. We are starting with a field which is occupied by the Act of 1888, and I would point out that there are really two forms of authority with which we are concerned. One is the form of authority which arises out of the claim made under the appropriate Section of the Act of 1888, and if the claim could be substantiated then the authority would be the highway authority. But the other case is the case of delegation. In that case it is the county council which remains the highway authority, but it hands over the actual execution of the work to another authority. It really is not a question here of efficiency. A good deal has been said about that. It has been suggested that if an authority is efficient, it ought not to be deprived of the right of doing the work. That is not the point. The point is whether it should be deprived of the right to be the highway authority. It is not deprived of the right to do the work; on the contrary the power of delegation still remains, and if the authority is really efficient, the county council will delegate the work to it. Therefore all the arguments which have been addressed to the Committee on the basis that the Bill would deprive the urban district of the power of carrying out the actual work of maintenance and repair, is based on a misapprehension.


On a point of Order. Where does the option lie?

The CHAIRMAN (Mr. James Hope)

That is not a point of order, and if it were it should be addressed to me.


I was under the impression that I was addressing my question to you. Will the Minister say whether the option lies with the county council?


That is not a point of order, but if the hon. Member will look at Clause 31 he will see where the option lies. Provided it is agreed that you are not going to deprive all the urban districts of all the rights that they now have under the Act of 1888, where are you to draw the line and how are you to draw the line? "Urban district" in this connection includes non-county boroughs, and therefore includes some important places which will have a population approaching 75,000. Whatever might be the logic of the case or whatever might be the case with a clear field, it is apparent that the taking away of a right that they now possess, from great bodies of that kind, is something which is practically beyond the range of our consideration. A good deal of criticism has been directed to the figure of 20,000. The criti- cism is a criticism which might apply to any population. If you have the line at 20,000 you might have the case of a district with a population of 19,999. Of course it is very ridiculous that a difference of one person should mean so much. But why did my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk sign a report which did draw the line at 20,000?


For the purpose of unanimity and vagueness.


My hon. Friend secured unanimity, but not vagueness, and he destroyed the arguments he has used to-day by signing that report. The figure in the Bill is that which was picked out by the Royal Commission. There are urban districts which now possess these powers and ought not to possess them. I am not talking of efficiency. There are urban districts which are far too small to be able to carry out the duties. You have to draw the line somewhere. Everyone agrees that some of the authorities are too small, and if we take 20,000 it is because that is the recommendation of the Royal Commission. You might have a figure of 30,000 or one under 20,000. Since we have had a figure upon which all those gentlemen on the Royal Commission, who represented all the various classes of local authorities, agreed, I do not see what is the use of protesting that we ought to take some other figure. I hope that the Committee will now come to a decision for I think -we have pretty well exhausted the subject. I would finally call attention to the fact that we have done something to guard against the difficulties mentioned by one hon. Member and have done so in an Amendment which he will see on the Paper—in Clause 29, page 26, line 24, at the end, to insert the words: Provided that as respects such county roads as may be declared by the Minister of Transport to be roads towards the construction and improvement of which advances have been made to the county council under the Development and Road Improvement Funds Act, 1909, as amended by any subsequent enactment, and to be roads the maintenance and repair of which should, having regard to the best means of promoting economy and efficiency in highway administration, remain vested in the county council, the date as from which the right of maintenance and repair claimed under this section shall be exerciseable shall be deferred until such date as the Minister may determine.

Lieut.-Commander BURNEY

Will urban councils who have already given up their right and vested it in the county council be again able to claim that right?


In the case of any urban district having population of more than 20,000, it would be able to claim under the Bill.


Will the right hon. Gentleman reply to the question put by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Greenwood) as to amalgamations that might take place between smaller urban districts with a population of less than 20,000? Will they come into the scheme afterwards?


There is an Amendment on the Paper which deals with that point—in Clause 29, page 26, line 11, at the end, to insert the words: (c) in the case of an order being made constituting a new urban district or adding an area to an existing urban district, in consequence whereof the urban district becomes an urban district of which the population exceeds 20.000 according to the last census for the time being, within 12 months after the date when the order takes effect.


I hope we shall be able to get away from parish pump politics in considering this matter. Transport is becoming more and more a national question and road transport under modern conditions is particularly important to the whole country. A revolution has taken place similar to that which took place on the inception of the railways, but if every little local district which considers itself "the only pebble on the beach" so to speak, is to have the right to claim special privileges, then the development of transport is likely to be retarded by their selfishness. London has its special interests as well as the country districts. West Ham has its own peculiar interests and it will be a county borough under the new dispensation. But I think that those of us who represent that district, would be not only selfish but unpatriotic if we sought to place our case against the case of the whole country. We hope that eventually we shall get the new dock scheme through. We have been trying for 30 years and we are now promised the possibility of the scheme reaching fruition. I trust it is not a case of "living in hope and dying in despair." As long as we have you, Sir, in the Chair, we can still say that we have hope—


I do not see the application of this argument to the question of whether this provision should apply only to certain urban districts, or to all urban districts.


It was a personal transgression for which I apologise. What we want in this matter is a national scheme and any local authority which seeks to stand in the way of a great national development of this kind, is adopting a selfish point of view. Let us, by all means, consider any objections which they may have to offer but we ought to deal with the matter as a national scheme. If, as we are told, this Bill effects a revolution in local government, let us make the best we can of it, and, if we all do our best, then the best can do no more. But we do not want to see road transport development being hindered by a mere handful of people in a certain county—

Whereupon, the GENTLEMAN USHER OF THE BLACK ROD being come with a Message, THE CHAIRMAN left the Chair.

Mr. SPEAKER resumed the Chair.

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