HC Deb 13 February 1933 vol 274 cc659-66

The powers of the London County Council under the Thames River Steamboat Service Act, 1904, with respect to the provision of a service of passenger vessels on the River Thames shall be transferred to the Board, and the Board, in execution of their general duty under Section three, shall consider and take such measures as they may think fit to utilise the River Thames for the purposes of passenger transport, whether with steamboats, motor-boats, or other vessels.

Provided that if the Board shall not think fit to provide a service themselves under this Section they may from time to time enter into arrangements with private persons willing to provide such a service or services under conditions to be approved by the Board.—[Captain Crookshank.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

3.47 p.m.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander), in whose name this new Clause stands, is unfortunately unable to be present, it falls to me to move the Second Reading of it. It is rather curious that this proposal, which affects, to so large a degree, the passenger transport of London, falls to be moved and seconded by two hon. Members who do not represent any London constituencies at all. Last week we had a Debate on the amenities of London in which not a single London Member found time to speak. Therefore, I think we, who are considered to be somewhat rustic, may claim that we have the real interests of the transport of this great city at heart.

The object of the Clause, as probably hon. Members realise, is not the handiwork of either the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton nor of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank), but it is the handiwork of one of the greatest humorists of our time, who spends his spare moments in rooting out public scandals with great effect; in fact the Clause might be described as a Haddock Clause. It was devised by a certain Mr. Haddock of whom Mr. Herbert is always telling us, who has conceived the idea that London wastes its river from the point of view of transport. I know perfectly well that the history of river transport in London is no new one. I also know that something has happened within the last 20 years to make it go entirely to sleep.

London must be the only capital city in the world which has a great river which it does not use in any sense for ordinary purposes. It is not a sufficient reply to say that there are tides, or that it is sometimes cold or sometimes foggy in London, because nature is no more kind to many other cities in that respect. One has only to think of great cities like New York, where a tremendous amount of traffic has to be carried by ferry, or San Francisco, where the railway station is reached from the main part of the city entirely by ferry, to realise that in London there is ample opportunity for making better use of the Thames. Anyone taking a map of London who had never seen it before, seeing the great river going right through the middle, and using, not only a little imagination, but just a few measurements, would realise that there is great scope for use of the waterway. It is no sufficient answer to say, as probably some hon. Members might say, that 20 years ago the experiment was tried by the county council and failed, because the problem of to-day is not the problem of 20 years ago. Let the House bear in mind the statistics. Within the last 20 years the motor traffic of this country has more than doubled, and there are 1,000,000 more motor cars on the roads to-day than there were in 1922. That is the problem with which this authority will have to deal when it is set up.

All that the Clause seeks to do is to provide that the county council's existing powers should be transferred to the board, that the board should consider and take such measures as they think fit to utilise the river, and that, if they do not think fit for some reason or other themselves to provide a service, they may from time to time enter into arrangements with private persons who might be willing to provide such a service or services under such conditions as they approve. It seems to me to be a perfectly innocuous system to suggest, and I shall be surprised if anyone objects in the sense of saying that by these proposals we should be extending the powers of the Traffic Board. We only want to make quite sure that it is possible for someone, if they wish to do so, to provide river transport services under the board. The difficulty to-day seems to me to be that everyone is always trying to say, "It is not my business; someone else had better do it," and nothing gets done. Therefore, we suggest that we should definitely put into the hands of the board all the powers that exist to-day in the London County Council, if they still exist, and let the board deal with the matter. If and when the board is set up, they will be the only people who can have a real conspectus of the traffic problem of London, and, whatever we may say about the value of the London Passenger Transport Bill, we must recognise that the board will be the one authority which will have the power to take a big view of the whole problem. That is why I suggest that the board should be given these powers. If they do not want to exercise them, they can delegate them.

I see that there is another Amendment on the Paper, put down by certain Liberal Members, to Clause 19, and, incidentally, if this Clause be adopted, that Amendment will have to come out. It is to a slightly different effect, in that it says that nothing should prevent the London County Council from exercising such powers if they wish to do so. There has been nothing in the world to prevent them from doing so, as far as I know, for the last 20 years, but the thing is that they have not done it, and, because they have not done it, I want to see such powers as there are transferred to the new board, in order that they may consider the matter and act as they think right.

3.55 p.m.


I beg to second the Motion.

I have been so impressed by the eloquence of my hon. and gallant Friend that I feel obliged to support this proposed new Clause. I do so with great pleasure, because I think that, if the London County Council had anything to do with river transport, they probably would not do it very well. I have grave doubts as to many of the dealings of this board, but the last part of the Clause contains a provision enabling them to devolve some of their passenger traffic duties, even if only in regard to the river, and I think that that is a good precedent, which might very well be inserted in the Bill. I feel sure that the Government, if they use that discretion and knowledge which they almost always—except in connection with this Bill—do use, are bound to accept this very excellent Clause.

3.56 p.m.


As a London Member, I support this Clause, which has been moved by a rural Member and seconded by a nautical Member. I think that anyone who has read Mr. Herbert's eloquent book, "No Boats on the River," will agree that it is high time that some body should take in hand the proper utilisation of the River Thames. I remember very well the previous attempt to put steamers on the river, and I utilised those steamers with great pleasure on many occasions some five and twenty years ago. Unfortunately, however, as everyone knows, the whole idea of steamers on the river was taken up as a political stunt by the London Municipal Society—which is, of course, an anti municipal body—a great outcry was raised, the whole matter was shelved, and the steamers were laid up. Since that time, efforts have been made by private individuals to get leave to run motor boat services, but the London County Council turned the proposal down.

The hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) is quite right in saying that a big authority is needed to deal with these river services, and I think that, if this Clause be agreed to, other Clauses should be added to give to the authority adequate powers so that any running of steamers shall not be hampered by the rival claims of other authorities, such as the Port of London Authority and so forth. While these powers are in the hands of the London County Council, objections are likely to be raised by other riparian councils, and an authority is needed with powers extending, as regards river transport, not only right down the river towards the sea, but a good way up as well. It certainly ought to go right up to the boundary of the London Transport area. I hope, therefore, that the Government will accept the Clause. The entire absence of passenger transport on the River Thames is a disgrace to the civic authorities of this country. Anyone who goes to Paris or to any other country is amazed at what they can do and what we cannot do. Let us remember that in the days of Samuel Pepys there were 40,000 watermen plying for hire on the river. That was mainly because the river was a much better means of transport than the roads at that time. Road transport to-day is getting so congested that it is obvious that the river would afford very great relief. Therefore, I have much pleasure in supporting this proposal.

4.0 p.m.


Perhaps I shall be able to assist the House if I say at once that I have every reason to believe that the London County Council will be quite willing to accept this proposed new Clause. We realise that if the Board is going to take over the whole passenger land traffic within the area, it is certainly not convenient that the water transport should be left, possibly, in the hands of another authority. There is another reason. It is not fair to those interests who are very desirous of running a service on the river—and I am sure all would be delighted to see an efficient service running—not to know where they stand. Rather than first have to negotiate with the county council and then not to know if the Board is going to take over these powers, it is much better to pass them over to the Board at once, and that they should take the whole powers under the Steamboats Act, 1904. I was anxious to explain the attitude of the London County Council with regard to the matter.

4.2 p.m.


In considering this Clause we have taken steps to ascertain whether the London County Council is prepared to agree to the powers of the Thames River Steamboats Act, 1904, being transferred to the Board. I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Greenwich (Sir G. Hume) say what he did, and if the London County Council formally agreed to this proposal, we should be sympathetic and would be prepared to propose an Amendment in the Second House. Following the words of the hon. Member for Limehouse (Mr. Attlee), I feel bound to make reference to Mr. A. P. Herbert. I am in a little difficulty in making up my mind as to how much of the enthusiasm for this service of steamboats on the River Trames is the result of a genuine demand on the part of travellers, or how much is due to the charm, inspiration and enthusiasm of that famous publicist. A predecessor of mine in the Harwich Division, Samuel Pepys, wrote in his diary: But Lord! What a sad time it is to see no boats on the River; and grass grows all up and down Whitehall … There are still some pessimists who feel that if a scheme were publicly financed, and proved unsuccessful, there might still be some connection between boats on the river and grass in Whitehall; but, as I have mentioned, in the event of the London County Council agreeing to this proposal, we should be prepared to put down an Amendment in the Second House.

4.4 p.m.


I am sorry we did not get a more definite lead from the Minister.


May I say that I accepted the Clause.


I congratulate the Minister on his wise step. I am sure he will earn the undying gratitude of London. I put down an Amendment to Clause 19, but, on the whole, I think this proposed new Clause is more likely to achieve the purpose than merely amending a Clause. I hope that another place will not weaken the Clause. The real trouble is that we may have in the new board a rather timid authority. Somehow or other, whenever the River Thames has been in question, even the London County Council are timid. For a quarter of a century some of us have been endeavouring to sway the authorities of London to utilise this great broad highway. I agree that there is a certain amount of risk and a certain amount of speculation, but, after all, life is an adventure, and this country has been renowned for its enterprise on the high sea, and it is not at all unreasonable that London should prove its greatness by using this great, broad highway, the river. I entirely agree that this board is the right authority, because if this service is really to be financially successful, it should be co-ordinated with other traffic facilities—trams, tubes, omnibuses and trains, because then the various piers, the various approaches to the river can be met by these other agencies.

All that I want to say to the Minister is, be of good courage; do not be weak in this matter; if there is to be an amendment in another place, see that it is strengthened, see that it is likely to be so framed and so worded that the new authority shall have to face the responsibility, and not run away from it. If the new authority is not prepared to take the responsibility, all hope of using the river for traffic facilities in the future will be taken away. Therefore, I say to the Minister, in accepting this Clause, I hope he accepts it not only in the words but in the spirit, and understands that the House is behind him in making it an operative Clause.

4.7 p.m.


I have a dual interest in wishing to say a few words in regard to this Clause. I happen to be a relative of Pepys, although not in the direct line, obviously, because he left no children; but I am a collateral relative. I can speak also in another capacity, because over 25 years ago I was a member of the very Highways Committee whose task it was to take the steamboats off the Thames after we had given them a fairly long trial. I am not going into the controversy of the county council 25 years ago, but we found that on the average every passenger who went on one of the steamers paid 2d. and the ratepayers paid 4d., in the way of subsidy, in order that passengers might travel, and when the receipts were only one-third of the expenditure we thought the service was not worth continuing. I am very glad that the Minister is accepting this Clause, although I do not think it possible to make the thing pay from the point of view of municipal enterprise. But if, owing to the fact that we now have fast motor boats instead of the paddle steamers of those days, or for any reason of that sort, a private service can be found to run these steamers, I am only too glad that they should do so, but I do hope that the authority to be given these powers will consider the matter very carefully before saddling the rates of London with the very heavy expense we had 25 years ago.

4.9 p.m.


I wish the Minister would make a little more clear what the position is. In his speech he said that the matter would be dealt with in the institution which he described as "the Second House." I suppose he meant when this Bill was in Committee in another place. Then later, in answer to a question, he said that he was accepting the new Clause. I hope if the right hon. and learned Attorney-General speaks he will tell us definitely what is the purpose of the Government—whether they accept this new Clause, or they themselves are to be responsible in another place for moving in Committee a new Clause, I hope, personally, that an Amendment or new Clause in this form will be passed, so as to remove from the London County Council in future any temptation to repeat the folly of the past. I also hope that the board which takes over these powers will not commit the folly of the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) and his colleagues 25 years ago, because, like other members of his body, they never seem to learn anything. It is manifestly impossible to ran a commercial service on the waterway in the existing circumstances, and the only reason I rose was because I want to express my view against any encouragement being given to this new board to run an unsuccessful undertaking. They are going to take over such a lot of unsuccessful undertakings, that they do not want to burden themselves with any more responsibility.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Clause added to the Bill.