HC Deb 07 May 1934 vol 289 cc821-36

Order for Consideration, as amended, read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill, as amended, be now considered."

7.30 p.m.


I beg to move, to leave out from "be," to the end of the Question, and to add "re-committed to the former Committee," instead thereof.

I am a little sorry we are passing from the business of the Empire as a whole to that of a comparatively small parish in Sussex, but the Bill raises certain issues of general principle and my concern is solely with them. I have never visited the parish of Chailey, and, as far as I know, I am not acquainted with anybody living there, but this is the first of probably a great many Bills likely to come before the House dealing with rural water supply, and the Committee which considered this Bill has prepared a special report for the information of the House. Their last words are : Your Committee are unanimously of opinion that the House should be informed of these facts before it is asked to take a final decision on the Bill on the Third Reading.

My Amendment will have the effect of enabling the House to take account of the facts in the Special Report, which no doubt many hon. Members have read, but I should like to draw attention to the more essential features. It is proposed, for example, that the maximum water rate for domestic supply should be 20 per cent. of the gross annual value of the premises. I think in London we pay 6 per cent. and, if my memory is correct, that is on the net annual value, so that this rate of 20 per cent. on the gross annual value is about four times the rate that people pay in London for their water supply. If we are to solve the question of rural water supply, it seems to me that methods somewhat different from those proposed for Chailey Rural District Council will be necessary. It is not as if this maximum charge represented the whole cost. Of course, I recognise that in practice later on it may be possible to reduce the charge, but the maximum is the very high level of 20 per cent., and that would not be all the expense to which users of the water would be put, because it says that in addition there is to be a maximum charge of 10s. for each water closet after the first, and 20s. for each bath, not excluding the first. So if anybody in that parish has a bath installed in the premises, in addition to the charge on the rateable value, there will be a further charge of 20s. That is a rather heavy burden which will fall in many cases on people not very well off, and even with these charges it is apparently not contemplated that it can be run successfully, because the Committee in the second paragraph on the top of the second page say : Accepting the Council's estimate of gradually diminishing loss, an estimate based on the somewhat speculative anticipation of an increase in the number of consumers, the loss would entail a special rate varying from 8.34d. in the £ in the first year to 1.03d. in the £ in the fifth year if the whole loss is to be borne by the part of the district supplied.

There are further paragraphs which hon. Members can read. This seems to me a very extraordinary proposal. Here are people experiencing difficulty with regard to the supply of water for their houses, and the local authority brings forward a scheme with charges which seem to me abnormally high, and yet they will involve a loss. Those of us who live in a great city where we turn on the tap and the miracle is performed of an ample supply of the best water in the world, fail to appreciate the position of those who do not enjoy the modern miracle of tap water. Here is a proposal to introduce the miracle in a village in conditions which seem to me so oppressive that I think it is of the utmost importance to consider whether this Bill should be allowed to go through as it is or whether, having regard to the fact that Parliament has recently had under consideration certain legislation of a general character, the Bill should not go back to a Committee. I raise it as a matter of general public policy, and I hope the House will give careful consideration to my Amendment.

7.36 p.m.


I beg to second the Amendment.

I do not propose to go over the ground my hon. Friend has touched upon, but in the Report it will be seen that this Bill raises a question of general policy in relation to water supply in rural districts. There is no doubt that the water supply of rural districts is a vital matter, and it is evidently considered a very vital matter in this particular rural district. I am told that when they raise all the capital that is necessary for supplying the water, only one-third of the inhabitants will have the benefit of it, and the other two-thirds will not be receiving any benefit in the way of water supply, although they are to have their rent raised in order to provide the capital for their neighbours who are to receive this water. In another portion of the Bill, to give the House some idea of the charges, in the rural district council houses let at 7s. per week to farm labourers earning from 30 to 40 shillings, the house is to be supplied with water with the exception that a bath, which is to be an extra, is to be 45s. per annum, and I understand that the maximum charge in the ordinary way for water supply is only 10 to 15 shillings per year. It shows quite conclusively that rural water supplies are depending to a substantial extent upon the county council, because where the county council refuse to contribute to any such scheme, they obviously will be seriously impeded as in this case. Now the Report says that there was no evidence available as to whether the East Sussex County Council would help, but I am informed that it will not, and therefore the whole of these charges has to be borne by the local authority. I further understand that the Treasury cannot help if the county council does not. It may be that this rural authority has not made any special application for a grant and for the reason that it would be no use, as I understand it, for them to make an application which would be refused, provided that the county council refused to consider it. In short, the county council has the virtual power of final veto in any of these rural water schemes which cannot be carried out without its help. The Government have thus given away a power of initiative which they ought to possess themselves in making a grant to the rural district.

This particular district is a typical example of rural areas throughout the whole of the country, and what applies to it will obviously apply to all rural areas. I ask the House to recommit the Bill to the Committee, so that it can be re-examined in order that water shall be supplied to the whole area on an economical basis. I think I shall not be contradicted if I say that water is more vital to public health than any of the other amenities which are supplied, some nationally and some with grants to the various rural and urban areas of this country. Therefore, I hope that the House will agree with me and say that this Bill shall be recommitted so that it can have further consideration.

7.41 p.m.

The DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN of WAYS and MEANS (Captain Bourne)

I am grateful to the hon. Members who moved and seconded this Amendment for giving me as Chairman of the Unopposed Bills Committee before which the Bill was considered an opportunity of explaining why we have taken the unusual course of submitting a Special Report to the House. As hon. Members doubtless know, a great many statutory undertakings as regards water bring forward Bills each Session which come before the Unopposed Committee, and in the course of years a general practice has grown up on what we regard as a maximum permissible charge. In the case of the ordinary local authority or company we regard 15 per cent. of the net annual assessment as a maximum which ought to be charged as a water rate. In pursuance of the recent policy of this House of providing baths in all houses erected under public powers we have made it a rule in all cases that no charge shall be made for the first bath in any house, and I must say that in my experience, now of three years' duration as Chairman of the Committee, the vast majority of cases of undertakings have come before us proposed charges considerably below the scale mentioned to the House tonight.

This case is quite peculiar. It is a case of a water Bill promoted by a very small rural district council to deal with only one portion of that Council's area. To the west of the Council lies the country served by the Burgess Hill Company, and to its south lies the Borough of Lewes. Neither of these has any surplus water at present, and part of the finance of this Bill depends on the supply of water to the Burgess Hill Company. We are not informed definitely that an agreement has been come to, but it was hoped by the promoters that agreement on these lines would be reached. The Borough of Lewes has not too much water, and if the need is urgent—and on the evidence the Committee has every reason to believe it is—there is nothing to be done but for the rural district council to produce its own supply.

An additional complication was the fact that the area of the rural council under a recent order of the county council has been largely extended and it is not proposed that the new area which has thus been brought into the Chailey rural district and which cannot in any conceivable circumstances benefit from this water supply, should have any burden plaed upon it. In those circumstances the Committee had to look at the finance of the Bill as it stood. Under the proposals which are placed before us there would be an estimated deficit of over £900 in the first year on the scheme, diminishing by degrees to a point at which there would possibly be a slight profit or, at any rate, only a very small loss at the end of six years. Looking at all the aspects of the scheme we felt that we could not in fairness to the ratepayers, who, after all, are principally concerned, put any further burden on the finances of the scheme by reducing the charges proposed by the promoters. At the same time, from our experience in other cases, we could not regard the position as satisfactory and at a time when many proposals are coming forward dealing with water supplies we thought it right that the House itself should be aware of these figures before the Bill received a Third Reading.

If the House agrees that the Bill ought to go forward—and we do not recommend that it ought not to go forward—we are very anxious that these figures shall not be quoted as a precedent by the promoters of future Bills. It is my experience that if for any special reason a certain power is granted to a local authority, the Clause embodying that power is brought forward by every local authority promoting a Bill in subsequent Sessions, irrespective of whether the conditions are in the least degree similar or not. As regards the charges proposed in this Bill, the hon. Member for Elland (Mr. Levy) has pointed out that in the case of an agricultural labourer inhabiting a council house and paying 7s. a week for it, with wages varying from 30s. to 40s., the maximum permissible charge under the Bill would be 45s. per annum, which is three times as great as has been allowed in the case of any statutory undertaker up to now. I am authorised however to say that the promoters are prepared to consider a reduction in the charge for the first bath from £l to 10s. which would reduce the maximum permissible charge against the council house in a case such as I have mentioned to 35s. a year. That, in all conscience, to a man whose total earnings may be 30s. a week is heavy enough when he has to pay 7s. a week including rates for his house at this moment. I think that offer of the promoters however is one which ought to be investigated carefully with regard to the general structure of the finance of the scheme.

Although I do not think the House could be recommended to accept it on Report stage, I think it is a matter which would deserve careful consideration in another place. If, there, it is agreed that it could be done without putting an undue burden on the rates, or on the rest of the locality, perhaps an Amendment could be accepted there and agreed to by this House. The other problem which arises concerning this Bill—and this touches more closely the question of recommittal—is whether we ought to insist on the reduction of the water rate all round and the placing of a heavier burden on the general rate. The view of the Committee was that out of the 16,000 inhabitants of this rural district it is unlikely that more than 2,000 can possibly benefit from the scheme. Under such a proposal as I have mentioned they would have to bear a much heavier rate and the rates are not too low in this district. They run in some cases to 9s. 6d. in the £. The people to whom I refer would not only have to bear the heavier rate, but would have to find the cost of getting their own water.

There is a further point. This scheme, as has been indicated, deals only with a small portion of the district. Some other part of the area which cannot be supplied from this scheme and which at this moment is equally without a water supply, may desire to promote its own scheme. If we place a heavy burden on the rates in respect of this Chailey scheme we should be handicapping seriously any possible development in the other part of the area untouched by this scheme which might need some assistance to the ratepayers there. On the general evidence given to us, we felt it our duty to make the scheme as far as possible self-supporting and accordingly we did not amend it in the way suggested. We deemed it to be our duty to bring these facts before the House in order that hon. Members might realise that these water schemes, if the cost is to be borne by the inhabitants of the localities without any assistance, are going to prove almost prohibitively expensive.

As to the Amendment before the House, I can only say this. Should there be, in the course of this Debate, any indication that assistance may be granted to Chailey under recent legislation, then I should recommend the House to accept the Amendment for recommittal. In that case, obviously the evidence on which we came to our decisions would no longer cover the whole ground and it might be desirable that the financial provisions of the Bill should be reconsidered in the light of the fresh evidence then available. If, however, no fresh evidence is forthcoming I do not see what useful purpose can be served by re-committing the Bill. We spent a longish time on this Bill. We listened patiently and carefully to all the evidence which the local authority could produce. Speaking for myself, and I believe for the other hon. Members who served on that Committee, I say that should this Bill "Be re-committed and the same evidence come before us in the future, we could come to no other decision than that which has already been announced.

7.52 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel HENEAGE

Although not a resident in the district concerned, as one who has had some experience in connection with rural water supplies and the general question of estimates I feel very much alarmed at the report which has been made on the finances of this Bill. I wish to ask the Minister of Health whether he could not make a grant to put the finances of the Bill into proper order. The House has recently passed Measures dealing with water supplies in the hope that local areas would assist themselves in that respect. Obviously, this particular area, while wishing to run its own show, is financially incapable of doing so. I have known of districts which have suffered heavily from rates put on for water supplies from which they got no benefit whatever. The system of putting burdens for water schemes on ratepayers in neighbouring districts is unfair and there is nothing which more disgusts the rural ratepayer than having to subscribe to water schemes from which he gets no benefit.

Is it not possible to make a grant in a case of this kind under the Measure recently passed allocating £1,000,000 for these schemes? It might be possible to make such a grant even if it were repayable, and so to ease any burden which might fall on the people who are not directly to benefit from the scheme. We should have regard to the amount expected from an agricultural labourer living in the type of house which has been mentioned in connection with a scheme of this kind. If the Minister of Health has not power to make a grant under the Measure I have mentioned, perhaps he has other powers, or perhaps a grant could be made from some other Department. I am glad that this Amendment has been brought forwarded and I shall support it.

7.55 p.m.


As a Member of the Unopposed Bills Committee I wish to say at the outset how much we owe to our Chairman both for the manner in which he presided over our proceedings when we were going through the evidence on this Bill, and also for his speech this evening. I support what he has said. The evidence placed before us was gone into most thoroughly, and I agree with him that if the Bill were re-committed on that evidence the Committee could not come to any conclusion other than that of bringing it down to the House. If there is any fresh evidence, especially with regard to the finance of the Bill, of course it would be useful, but I suggest that, whatever decision the House may take, they ought to pause before rejecting altogether the proposal of the Bill.

During the past 12 months an immense amount of sympathy has been shown all over the country for areas which have suffered from water shortage. The difficulties in the rural areas have been very great. In previous years of drought the same difficulties have arisen, there have been the same complaints and the same expressions of sympathy, and yet nothing has been done. Here we have a rural district authority taking its courage in its hands and producing a scheme which, as far as we could see, if all the provisions were carried out, would be a successful scheme, although applying only to one-eighth of the inhabitants. We should not stand in their way. It is a question of how much we value those doctrines of cleanliness and the use of water to which we so often give lip service. Do we value those doctrines at the amount mentioned in the Bill? If we do not value them so highly, perhaps the inhabitants of Chailey place that value upon them.

Here we come in contact with the principle of local government. The Chailey Rural District Council stands to be shot at by proposing this tremendously high rate—up to 8d. in the £, and going down in five years to the point at which solvency for the scheme will be reached—on a small part of a comparatively poor area. They are prepared to stand the racket. They believe that they have the ratepayers behind them. They do not want us to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for them. If they, as representatives of the ratepayers of the district, believe it worth their while to have this high rate in order to avoid future water shortage, the House ought to consider seriously before refusing to allow this local authority to exercise that right. It is not only in cases of acknowledged success that we ought to give these powers. We ought to give them occasionally even when they do not succeed, in order that the ratepayers may be a little more attentive to the question of their representation when it comes to local elections. It is by such proceedings that ratepayers learn to value their power and to exercise their responsibility, which as a rule they do not exercise at all.

There is another point about which I am not clear. We hear a great deal as regards development towards the south coast, and obviously there is a very big tendency towards such development, which will naturally fall between here and the sea. I do not think this is the ideal place for development, but undoubtedly there will be a great deal all round that area, and if there is such development, obviously a water supply is essential. If we are retarding the process of providing a water supply, we are retarding the development there, and I, living in a rural district that hopes to remain rural and not to be developed, am only too delighted that places like Chailey, if they want to be developed, with suburban villas and so on, should have a water supply to attract people there. In that case they would soon ease the ratepayers' burden as regards a water supply. I do not know what bounty may be given out of the hands of the Minister of Health when he comes to reply, or what other possibility there may be in that direction, but I feel very strongly that we should go a very long way before opposing the wishes of the elected representatives of the people in the Chailey rural district in this matter, while at the same time recognising, as the Deputy-Chairman of Committees has already said, that undoubtedly this will be taken as a precedent, and we must recognise that it is a most important precedent that we are establishing or refusing.

8.2 p.m.


I do not see the point of re-committing the Bill. Apparently it has been gone into most thoroughly, the local people wish to have it, and I cannot see how at the moment we can lay it down as any advantage to re-commit the Bill to the same Committee that has already been into it with great thoroughness. I think it is very wrong indeed as a general principle that you should have a water rate of the extreme height that there is in this case, and I think it ought to be said by a private Member that it is not to the advantage of the locality as a whole that this should be used as a precedent, but that we do this as an exceptional case. I am convinced that there are authorities who may lay an abnormally heavy water rate on particular people for this, that, or the other reason. Members of the House of Commons are often accused of interfering or otherwise with local authorities, and when one or two of these very high rates have been made, you will find that people will turn round and say, "Yes, you allowed that to go through the House of Commons, and why did you not protect the normal interests of the locality and see that expenditure was kept within reasonable limits?" For that reason, I hope this Bill will not be regarded as a precedent for the future.

8.5 p.m.

The MINISTER of HEALTH (Sir Hilton Young)

The House will, of course, apprehend in the first place that this Bill is a private Bill promoted by a rural district council, and that the Government are in no way responsible for it and have no case to make upon the Bill. If I take a Ministerial interest in the matter at all, it is only that it is most desirable that there should be a scheme for the supply of water in this particular neighbourhood, and, of course, there is a Ministerial interest in seeing that a proper scheme, if approved by the House and its Committees, shall be carried through in the interests of public health, a point put very well by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle). I think we owe a debt of gratitude to the Mover and Seconder of the Amendment for enabling the House to deal thoroughly with so important a matter as this legislation in regard to water supplies, and I am confident that the House will be most grateful too to the Deputy-Chairman of Committees for the assistance which he has given the House in the matter. As I understand his very clear statement, the points to which he wishes to call our attention are principally two—the magnitude of the charges and the charge for the first bath—and if I have followed the advice which he gave to the House also with so much clearness, it was that the real point for us to observe was to enter a caution against our regarding these charges as a precedent, but that his advice was not that it would be useful under these conditions to re-commit the Bill.

With that point of view, so clearly expressed by the Deputy-Chairman of Committees, I am, if I may say so, in entire agreement. It appears to me that it is right and proper that on this occasion we should formally observe that these charges are not to be regarded as a precedent in other cases. The Deputy-Chairman of Committees referred to one matter which he said might be taken as a ground for re-committal, and that would be if there were to be a pronouncement by myself in this Debate as to the possibility of grants for the assistance of the scheme. I am sure the House will understand that such a pronouncement on my part would be quite improper and indeed impossible for me to make. I cannot make pronouncements as to my own intentions in the discharge of Ministerial responsibilities as regards an application for a grant that has not yet been made, and in those circumstances I think the best help that I can give to the House in response to this point that was taken by the Deputy-Chairman of Committees is that we ought to leave entirely on one side any question of grants and consider the Bill simply as it comes before us. In those conditions, as I understand the analysis of the Deputy-Chairman of Committees, there would be no ground for re-committal.

There are one or two circumstances that I should mention in order to emphasise, on the question of the magnitude of the charges, the exceptional nature of the proposals in this case in order to emphasise that these charges are not to be taken as precedents in future cases. The first is this, that we are here dealing with a very exceptional Measure, namely, legislation proposed by a rural district council. The very great majority of private water Bills are on behalf of urban district councils, and those charges to which the House and its Committees have become used in this respect are charges of the order which are possible in urban districts. Rural district charges are, of course, normally higher than that. Usually schemes for rural districts are not dealt with in Bills, and that is why these charges seem to us at first sight unfamiliar. That also serves to enforce the note that this is not a precedent. The House may ask why this particular scheme was put forward by a rural district in the form of a Bill and not in the ordinary form. I have informed myself on the subject, and I understand the reason was this, that there was a desire to make a bulk supply to a neighbouring authority, the Burgess Hill Water Company, and that at the time could not be done without legislative powers.

The second circumstance which I think explains the exceptional nature of the charges which appear in this Bill is this : I am informed that when the Bill was introduced there was imminent a change in the status of the rural district. Its area was to be enlarged under the review of boundaries now in progress. The rural district council in its original form thought it would be improper to commit the rural district council, in the enlarged form which was about to be established, to any rate contribution towards the water charges. It, therefore, put in the whole water charge in the form of a consumers' charge, whereas the regular course would have been, of course, to distribute the cost between the consumer and a rate contribution. There has been some comment in the House this evening upon that method of financing water schemes. I should point out that that is a perfectly usual method of financing schemes for rural districts—the distribution of a charge over a wider area in the form of a contribution from the rates of a rural district council or even of a county council; and not only is it not unusual, but it is actually expressly authorised by Sections 56 and 57 of the Local Government Act, 1929. In rural schemes, such provisions are indeed quite normal. I just mention this in order to show the House the exceptional circumstances which emphasise the fact that we are not establishing a precedent for future Bills.

I turn from that to the second point taken by the Deputy-Chairman of Committees, and that is as regards the charge for the first bath—that is, the first bath of two baths in a house, not a sequence per person. If I may say so, I entirely associate myself with the Deputy-Chairman of Committees in establishing the rule against such a charge in Water Bills before the House. I also commend to the House, if I may do so without assumption, his recommendation that this should be made the subject of consideration in another place. I understood that the promoters had a tender mind upon this subject, and I should like to say that I think that it should be taken into very careful consideration whether this charge should not be omitted altogether. It needs to be considered in relation to the general finances of the scheme, but if it can be reconciled with the general finances of the scheme that the charge for the first bath in a house should be omitted altogether, I think it would be more satisfactory from the general point of view. In these conditions I believe that the course recommended to us by the Deputy-Chairman of Committees is that which we may with advantage follow—to allow this Bill to proceed on its further stages subject to that undertaking for reconsideration in respect of the charge for the first bath.

Lieut.-Colonel HENEAGE

Could the Government make a contribution to the rural district council in the event of the county council refusing to make any contribution itself?


I think it would be useful that I should make that point plain. The hon. Member for Elland (Mr. Levy) is not quite accurately interpreting the Bill when he suggests that a contribution from the county council is a condition precedent to a grant. A contribution from the county council will be required in all cases in which it is proper, but it is by no means a necessary condition of a grant.

8.15 p.m.


We on this side have listened with great interest to the proposals contained in the Bill, and we are particularly desirous that everything should be done to facilitate water supply to the people of the rural parishes. I was born in a village and I have had the experience of having to travel many hundred yards from the house to a well. The winding up of the water and carrying it to the home and the necessary conservation of the water there subsantially limited the supply, and rainwater had to be gathered for various domestic purposes. If there is anything that the Minister can do to render assistance, I hope he will do it. I think I heard him strike a sympathetic note. I understood him to say that if representations were made it would be possible for the Minister to render some assistance in this case. We think, if it is necessary for the general health and well-being——


I ought to correct the hon. Gentleman at once. I never used any expression of that sort. On the contrary, I said it was impossible for me to give any undertaking or enter into any form of discussion on the possibility of a grant for which application had never been made.


I understand that, but I was trying to give the local authority some encouragement to ask for a grant. On the question of the local authority and the county council being asked to make a subscription, if it is necessary for the general health of the people, it would not be such a terrible burden to spread the cost over the area. Some disease like diphtheria might break out in consequence of the absence of a water supply, and the cost of that would fall on the whole area. Very often in establishing services that are substantially lacking in certain places it is necessary to call on a wider area for contributions. I am not sure what the Minister meant in regard to the question of one bath. I understand that if more than one bath is established in a house, the first bath will not be charged for.


I am afraid the hon. Member is not correct. Under existing practice, where there is more than one bath the first bath is free, and the house having one bath is not charged. Under this Bill the house having more than one bath will be liable to a maximum charge of 20s. in respect of one bath and 20s. each in respect of the others.


I gather that the first bath installed has to be paid for. I understood from the figures which the Deputy-Chairman of Committees gave, that in the other instances the bath would cost 35s.


What I said was, that I was authorised on behalf of the promoters to say that they would be prepared to reduce the charge of 20s. per bath to 10s., and in the case of a council house which is let at 7s. per week, they would make a maximum inclusive charge for water to the house and to the bath of 35s. a pear instead of 45s., as was mentioned in the special report before that suggestion had been made by the promoters.


We are glad that some effort has been made to promote the water supply in this district, and we are anxious that it should be extended over the country. Anything that can facilitate the supply of water to the rural districts in adequate proportions will receive our endorsement. I hope that, although in this instance the charges appear very high, a sufficient public pronouncement has been made to guard against this Bill being quoted as a precedent. If it were, it would not receive much encouragement here.


The purpose which I had in mind in moving the Amendment has been achieved by the statement of the Minister and the Deputy-Chairman of Ways and Means and of the hon. Member speaking for the party opposite; and therefore I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill, as amended, considered accordingly; to be read the Third time.

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