§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ The MINISTER of TRANSPORT (Colonel Ashley)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
This Bill, although having only 16 Clauses, is of more importance than would appear on the surface. It is a Bill which in my opinion is urgently needed, and fortunately it is one which has no suspicion whatever of political bias. It is a Bill which on its merits I put before the House, and I hope that it will receive the support of all sections of the House. It seeks to facilitate the reconstruction and improvement of bridges which are not in the custody of a highway authority but are in the ownership of private individuals or of companies which are responsible for their maintenance. The Bill has already been through another place, and there it met 2330 with no opposition at all, though certain small drafting Amendments or Amendments to meet individual hard cases were inserted. As far as I know this is an agreed Bill. Of course there may be hon. Members who will raise points and suggest Amendments, as they are entitled to do, but as far as the associations which are interested in bridges are concerned, I can assert that they are entirely in agreement with the proposals of the Bill.
I have consulted the Railway Companies' Association, the Canal Association, the Dock and Harbour Authorities' Association, the County Councils' Association and many other bodies. The Bill represents the negotiations carried on over a period of no less than three years. That may seem a long time for evolving so short a Bill, but, as hon. Members know, when many important associations have to be consulted and agreement reached between them, a long time is always taken before a final decision is reached. What is the position at the present moment? The owners of these weak bridges prohibit the use of the bridges to locomotives and motor vehicles over a certain weight. That they are perfectly entitled to do, because their only liability is to maintain a bridge at a strength that will carry the traffic which the bridge was originally designed to meet. Consequently there are many highways, first-class roads, in this country, which are forbidden to heavy traffic. Take the Midlands and the industrial area of Lancashire. There you have a network of canals and railways over which and up to which there are first-class roads on which vast sums have been spent, and yet you come upon a bridge which can carry only comparatively light traffic. Heavy traffic is absolutely held up, to the great loss and annoyance of the industrial community and to the detriment of the trade of the district. It is a disgrace to our road system in this country that such a state of things has been allowed to go on for so long a time.
Then take Cheshire and Staffordshire, where there are many bridges which will not carry heavy traffic. Access for heavy goods vehicles is almost denied to Liverpool and Birkenhead. In the Eastern counties also there is quite a number of bridges belonging to drainage boards, and these are in the same state, with 2331 the result that the agricultural industry is hindered. I have received in the last two years a growing volume of protest from all sorts of interests, from transport associations, from chambers of commerce, from automobile associations and other organisations. The House will ask, why has nothing been done or why has so little been done? The reason is this: I cannot at the present moment, under the powers vested in me, make a grant from the Road Fund to a railway company or a canal company to reconstruct its bridges. Again, unless the canal or railway company gets express sanction it cannot divest itself of the responsibility resting upon it to reconstruct and maintain its bridges. Because of those two facts the number of bridges which it has been possible to reconstruct is ludicrously small, and quite inadequate to meet the situation.
Consequently this Bill has been brought in as a useful piece of machinery to enable the pace to be greatly accelerated and to do away with a blot on our road system. I shall read a resolution passed last year by the Joint Committee of both Houses which reported on the Bills, now Acts, that the railway companies brought in to enable them to carry out road transport operations. The Committee reported:During the hearing of the evidence and arguments on these Bills, the question of the construction and maintenance of bridges has frequently come before the Committee, and they are impressed with its importance. A Bill dealing generally with the question of bridges has been read a First time in the House of Commons, and the Committe consider it advisable that some Measure on these lines should be presented and proceeded with at the earliest possible opportunity.The provisions of this Bill are very short and simple. Clause 2 enables highway authorities and the owners of these weak bridges to enter into agreements whereby the bridges may be reconstructed, and it does away with the express statutory sanction now required in each case for this work to go through. Clause 3 enables the owner of one of the bridges, or a highway authority, to apply to the Minister for an order of reconstruction or for an order which would vest the maintenance of the roadway in some other hands than those in which it exists at present. Clause 6 provides that the 2332 owner of the present bridge shall not contribute more than he is at present liable to contribute under the existing conditions.
§ Colonel ASHLEY
I am dealing with the main principles of the Bill. Clause 7 provides for arbitration in the event of disputes between the parties. The House will ask, quite legitimately, what part the Road Fund is going to take under this Bill. Up to now, owing to the inadequacy of the machinery and the state of the law, I have not been able to get rid of the money that I have allocated in the past for this purpose and for doing away with level crossings. I think I am right in saying that in the present financial year I shall have got rid of only about one quarter of the money that I have allocated to these purposes, owing to the difficulties that I have outlined. Next year, in the next financial year, I hope to allocate a very considerably larger sum for these particular purposes.
§ 7.0 p.m.
§ Colonel ASHLEY
Yes, the year beginning 1st April. Anyhow, these allocations will be made before the General Election. I shall allocate a considerably larger sum. If the House gives a Second Reading to this Bill and it passes into law, I hope and trust that the pace will be very much accelerated and that considerable progress will be made. The practice two or three years ago was to give assistance from the Road Fund for reconstruction of bridges on the same basis as other grants; that is to say, in the case of first-class roads we gave 50 per cent. and in the case of second-class roads 33⅓ per cent. or 25 per cent., or whatever the allocation was for the year. Lately, in the last 18 months, in my earnest desire to get something done I have given 60 per cent. and even up to 75 per cent. according to the nature of the scheme. The policy will be, if at all possible, for the Road Fund to find three-quarters of the cost of this reconstruction to the highway authority and thereby to induce and bring pressure upon the local authorities to do away with this blot on our transport system.
§ Colonel ASHLEY
Clause 9 says that I may hold inquiries. Of course, I may need to hold inquiries in order to inform myself.
§ Colonel ASHLEY
It is the usual procedure in this House, namely, that the Minister may make Rules preliminary to the making of Orders, and these Rules are laid before the House for 21 days.
§ Colonel ASHLEY
No. They lie on the Table of the House, and, unless reversed by an Address by either House of Parliament, they are automatically considered to be effective. If the hon. Member is ever in a position of responsibility, he will realise that, if we were to proceed on the lines he suggests by his question, we would have no time for anything else. I have now briefly explained the Bill, and I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading. It has nothing to do with politics, but it is intended to do away with the restrictions to traffic over these bridges which exists at the present moment.
§ Mr. A. V. ALEXANDER
The House will generally agree with one sentiment uttered by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, namely, that this Bill is very much overdue, or rather that the solution of the problem with which it deals is very much overdue. When we discuss bridges at this hour of the lifetime of the present Government, I cannot help thinking of the famous bridge at Venice, the Bridge of Sighs, which leads from the palace to the prison, and which is the only bridge in which this Government will be interested for a long time to come. The object of the Bill, as avowed by the Minister, is to make conditions on the roads much easier for our general motor traffic. The growing difficulties experienced—in the last 10 years especially—by our commercial 2334 traffic are well known. We in the trade with which I am familiar have been served with injunctions and all kinds of notices to prevent us from using by our commercial transport various bridges right throughout the country. In consequence, the whole range of commercial motor transport has had to be diverted again and again to a mileage sometimes double and sometimes treble what would be necessary if there were efficient bridges on the main roads of the country. The ultimate cost of that additional ton mileage is of course a very severe burden on the industries affected. I have made calculations with the business with which I am familiar and as they have about a thousand heavy motor vehicles, the loss owing to the extra ton mileage that has to be run is very considerable indeed.
The handicaps to commercial road users are well known, and I agree with the Minister that the fact that the remedy for them has been so long delayed is a disgrace. There is not only the question of the extra ton mileage to commercial users, but there is the extraordinary danger to life of many of the bridges. Some of the approaches to the bridges over the main roads are a continual menace to public safety and ought to have been removed long ago. While one agrees as to the great desirability of the object of this Bill, I confess I cannot see any rapid transformation coming about in our road system by the operation of this Measure in respect to bridges over railways and canals. There will be some change, but, if the need is as great as has been indicated by the Minister, both in regard to the commercial road users and to the public safety of the users of the roads in general, then surely it would have been possible to have devised a Measure which would have brought about far more rapid results than are likely to arise from this Bill.
The Minister has not given us anything like a detailed examination of the clauses of the Bill. Clause 2, for instance, makes it possible for certain sections of railway and canal and other Acts to be abrogated and permits these companies to enter into agreements with highway authorities. How rapidly are such agreements going to be made? It is a perfectly voluntary arrangement. Neither the highway 2335 authority nor the railway or canal company is compelled to enter into an agreement. They go on year after year, and there may be no change at all in the position so far as these bridges are concerned. There is nothing compulsory about that clause. We on these benches feel that there is nothing in that clause which is likely to lead to what we desire, namely, that the bridges over the railways, canals, and tideways should be as much publicly-owned as the rest of the roads of the country. There is nothing in Clause 2 which will make it a rule that there shall be public ownership of that portion of the roads which is carried over bridges. I submit that to leave to voluntary agreement between these various authorities the main burden of removing the difficulties caused by these bridges is not getting a move on at the rate at which we ought to advance. There are powers in Clause 3 by which the Minister by Order-in-Council may take certain action. The Minister was very anxious not to say too much about Clause 4. If you take Clause 4 in conjunction with Clause 3, you will find that in reality the powers of the Minister are very much watered down. Clause 4 makes it possible for any railway company, canal company, or dock company to be exempted from Orders made by the Minister unless they agree to the proposals which are in the Order and if they carry out the work themselves.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
Taking Clause 3 and Clause 4 together, there is nothing on the surface of the Bill which gives final power to the Minister of Transport to say to a railway or canal company: "You have got to do this." If that is not so, then the Minister has been strangely wanting in his explanation to the House. Anybody reading the Bill at first sight would have great difficulty in understanding that he has such powers. As that is an important part of the Minister's scheme, surely the Minister should have treated the House to a more detailed and more intelligent explanation of his own Bill. If one looks at Sub-section (7) of Clause 3 my case with regard to the slowness with which this Bill will operate is maintained. Under that sub-section: 2336The Minister may postpone the date of the operation of an order made under this section in any case where it appears to him that, owing to the number or nature of the orders and applications affecting the same highway authority or bridges belonging to the same owner, the making of an order which would be immediately operative would work hardship to the authority or to the owner.It will be very easy, indeed, if one is dealing with a large number of bridges owned by a railway company or a canal company, to say: "We must agree to delay. We must give them a right to postpone these works for an indefinite period, because they have so many of these bridges under their control to tackle." In consequence, instead of getting a real move on in this very great and complex problem and dealing with some of the most dangerous situations in the country, you may have quite unnecessary delay. That delay will be justified mainly on the ground of financial hardship, either financial hardship to the railway or canal authority, or to the higher authority. We are therefore in the position of dealing with this grave and important problem in such a way that the work can be held up indefinitely because of financial hardship. Yet the Government have taken £26,000,000 from the Road Fund in order to relieve taxation in other directions. If they had not done so, they could at the present time be giving very much larger grants from the Read Fund which has been accumulated from the users of the road for the specific purpose of maintaining, improving, and developing the road system of the country. They could now be taking from that Fund and giving to this important object sufficient money to enable the work to be put in hand much more rapidly. I understood from the Minister that he had consulted various people about the Bill and that he intended the House to understand that the Bill was entirely an agreed Bill.
§ Colonel ASHLEY
No, I consulted all the associations, the Railway Companies Association, the Canal Association, the Harbour and Docks Association, and the County Councils Association, and a number of others. All those associations agreed with the Bill as it stands. I cannot guarantee that some individual local authority or some Member of this House may not disagree. To the best of my 2337 knowledge, I have consulted all the associations representing the various interests, and they have all agreed to it.
§ Mr. HANNON
Is it a fact that the Birmingham Co-operative Society are strongly in favour of the Bill?
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
I do not say that they are not anxious that something should be done for a solution of the problem, but I do not think the hon. Member is entitled to say that the Birmingham Co-operative Society are in favour of the detailed particulars of the Bill.
§ Mr. HANNON
I did not say the detailed particulars, but are they not in favour of the Bill generally?
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
As I have already indicated, we are in favour of taking steps for a solution of the problem. On this point, I have a communication from a prominent member of the Municipal Corporations' Association from which I understand that they are not at all satisfied that the amount of Government grant which is to be available in support of the scheme, would meet their wishes. I understand, further, that they are going to ask the Minister to receive a deputation in order that they may submit their case as to the finances of the Bill, and I should like to know if the Minister is going to receive that deputation and discuss those details with them.
§ Colonel ASHLEY
I have not heard of any communication from this body, but naturally, I shall be very pleased to see them if they desire it. The only communication of any sort which I have received from a local body is one from the Middlesex County Council.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
Then, obviously, the Municipal Corporations' Association is not one of the bodies which has been consulted. It is a very important body, which will have to deal with a large amount of highway work inside the area of boroughs and county boroughs.
§ Colonel ASHLEY
They were not actually consulted, but there were negotiations, and they made no comments adverse or otherwise.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
Then I understand that if they have any criticism to offer 2338 of the finances of the Bill, the Minister would be prepared to meet them and to consider their representations?
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
There is another point. If, inside county boroughs and boroughs, there is going to be a widening and improvement of bridge communications, then you must have the powers and the finance to acquire property and to deal with street widening. I am not clear from what the Minister has said as to the exact position in regard to finance. He mentioned in regard to second-class roads a figure of 33 per cent. and also, I think, indicated that in regard to certain of this bridge work he was prepared to give as high as 60 per cent. or even 75 per cent. But a local authority will have to deal, not only with the bridge itself, but with the approaches to the bridge, and they will need to be assured that they are going to get from the Road Fund assistance for the whole of the work and not merely for the work of dealing with the actual bridge itself. For these reasons, I feel that the Minister has been somewhat lax, and has not given us a sufficiently detailed explanation of the Bill. I feel, too, that the Government have not been quite respectful to the House of Commons in the way in which they have presented this Bill. Nearly half of it is bracketed and underlined as being outside the scope of the House of Commons. It has been introduced in another place almost at the end of the Session. We are being asked to pass it in a very short time, and, although the Minister did not say so in actual words, he hinted that he hoped there would not be much discussion on it.
§ Colonel ASHLEY
A Minister naturally hopes, when he brings in a Bill, that he will get it through without much discussion.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
I should not have thought that such a hope would come from a Minister who has proved himself so able in debate in such bodies as the Anti-Socialist Union. I should have thought that a Minister, with that kind of experience, would be only too willing 2339 to engage in debate any time and anywhere. I feel that the Bill is of such importance that it requires a thorough examination and that, in view of the financial commitments of local authorities under the Bill, we ought to have had a much wider explanation. Indeed we ought to have had a White Paper dealing with the whole scheme contemplated by the Government, and we ought to have sufficient time for the adequate discussion of these proposals in Committee. Finally, while it may not be possible in this Parliament, because of its composition and the general circumstances, to achieve what we would desire, I think it most undesirable that the country should be committed to a large expenditure from public funds and that we should at the same time be in the position of retaining private ownership and control of these very important links in our national road system. If we are to be committed to this large public expenditure, we ought to have the ownership, as well as the responsibility of maintenance of the bridges which form so important a part of our internal communications. The Minister ought to understand that whilst we may not have very prolonged Debate on the Second Reading of this Bill, he may expect it to be examined carefully and thoroughly when it goes to Committee.
§ Sir H. CAUTLEY
Nine-tenths of the speech of the hon. Member for Hills-borough (Mr. A. V. Alexander) was directed towards proving the urgency of this matter and the remaining tenth of his speech directly contradicted that point of view. I agree with the hon. Member as to the nine-tenths. My reason for intervening in this Debate is that I was a member of the Joint Committee which sat for 37 days considering this matter, and during that inquiry we were constantly hearing statements by local authorities in all parts of the country emphasising the urgency of the need that provision should be made by Parliament to deal with what was stopping the development of motor traffic on our roads, namely, the impossibility under the existing law, of dealing with the widening, strengthening and maintenance of bridges. It was owing to the constant reiteration of this point about urgency that we made a special request 2340 that the matter should be taken up at once by the Government and a Bill on these lines brought before Parliament.
I assure the House that it is a most urgent matter and that great road widening schemes are being held up all over the country because there is no machinery in the existing law by which a railway company which owns a bridge can make a bargain with a local authority. The local authority which wishes a bridge to be widened and which will get the advantage of the widening of the bridge, cannot contribute towards doing so, and cannot make any arrangement. It is not only a matter affecting commercial traffic; it is a matter affecting passenger traffic as well. In my own constituency passengers going from Tun-bridge Wells, when they reach a certain bridge over the Southern Railway, have to get off the omnibus in which they are travelling, and walk across the bridge and get into an omnibus on the other side. That is an intolerable state of things. It is not a question of public ownership, but it is a question of an urgent need for the development of our traffic. I took some little part in bringing this Measure as far as it is to-day. It had to be introduced in another place because at the time of its introduction it was anticipated that the Debates here on the Local Government Bill would have taken very much more time than they did.
This Bill, as far as I can see, meets the necessities of the case, and provides machinery which will enable the necessary improvements to be carried out. In Clause 3 there is power, in spite of existing Acts, for highway authorities and bridge owners to make bargains by arrangement for the widening and strengthening of bridges. Clause 3 is realty the most operative part of the Measure, and it is limited to cases where the owner of a bridge or a highway authority considers that a bridge is, or may be, by reason of its construction, position or state of repair, dangerous or unsuitable for the requirements of road traffic as then existing. Wherever such a case arises, and wherever that owner or highway authority desires to have the bridge improved, they can go to the Minister, and the Minister having made inquiry—and in most cases it will 2341 probably be done by agreement between the parties except on one or two points which may be left to the Minister to settle—may make an order, and that order has to be carried out. Clause 4 is not as the hon. Member for Hills-borough represented. Clause 4 only provides that where a railway company owning a bridge desires to continue the ownership of the bridge in order to perform its statutory duties, it shall do so, but the order of the Minister has to be carried out. Reading these provisions, I cannot see any machinery necessary for the purpose which has not been provided. The Minister will also have power to facilitate these works by making grants under the Road Fund. It is a beneficent Measure and as it is practically an agreed Measure, I hope the House will have no hesitation in giving it a Second Reading.
§ Mr. CRAWFURD
I am not going to follow the hon. Member for Hillsborough (Mr. A. V. Alexander) in the figure of speech with which he began his remarks. If, indeed, the hon. Member intends to send the Minister and his friends to gaol, then the Government of which the hon. Member, no doubt, hopes to be a member, will evidently be even more drastic than we expected. Nor am I able to understand why the hon. Member was so reluctant to give the figures of losses sustained by the co-operative societies in regard to the sending round of goods. I understood the hon. Member in another connection was an advocate of publicity of accounts in business, and this would have been a very valuable figure. As the hon. and learned Member for East Grinstead (Sir H. Cautley) has said, what is the relevance of bringing in questions of public ownership into this Bill? It seems like dragging King Charles head into a company that is sick of the subject of decapitation. The real criticism of this Bill is to be seen in Subsection (2) of Clause 3, where it says that—
§ It being half after Seven of the Clock, and there being Private Business set down by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means, under Standing Order No 8, further Proceeding was postponed without Question put.