HC Deb 21 April 1943 vol 388 cc1785-91
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Assheton)

I beg to move, That the Order, dated 25th March, 1943, embodying the War Damage (Highways) Scheme, 1943, made by the Treasury under Section 41 of the War Damage Act, 1941, a copy of which was presented to this House on 30th March, be approved. The House may remember that when the War Damage Act was being considered it was realised that neither the payments nor the contributions scheme of the Act could be applied to highways. Section 41 of the Act of 1941 laid down the outlines of the special arrangements to be made with regard to highways and they left the details to be filled in by a scheme to be made by the Treasury. This is the scheme which we now have before us. It has been prepared after consultation with the various associations of local authorities concerned.

I should like to take the opportunity of thanking those associations for the help they have given to us at the Treasury in framing this scheme, and I have every reason to believe that the scheme as it has emerged is acceptable to them. I hope very much that the House will think that it provides a fair settlement of a rather difficult problem. The payments structure, which is covered in the first part of this scheme, is quite simple in principle. The highway authority is paid the cost of restoring the highway to the state in which it was before it was damaged. On the contributions side, it is laid down in Section 41 of the original Act that these contributions are to be paid by county councils and county boroughs.

The only important point which is left open in the Act is how the total contributions are to be shared between individual councils. This point has been the subject of long discussion and consideration, and the conclusion has been reached that the only basis which is fair and practicable is that the shares of the individual county councils and county borough councils shall be in proportion to the rateable value of the property in their areas. All sorts of other plans were considered, but after full discussion the conclusion was come to that that was the only plan which was fair and equitable. I think the House will recognise that the ratepayers are being treated very fairly, and for two reasons. In the first place, their contributions will attract a 50 per cent. grant from the Road Fund, and, secondly, the cost of repairing the war damage to highways in London, which is no inconsiderable amount, will be left out of the account. The reason for that is that in the early days of the blitz there was no War Damage Act in existence, because it had not been passed by this House, and the highway authorities had not any very clear prospect of help from the taxpayer towards the repair of their highways. At that time London, as hon. Members will recollect, was the principal target of the attack, and the Government made special arrangements at that time for dealing with the effects of the blitz in London, including amongs other things war damage to the highways in the London Civil Defence Area. The Government met the whole cost of this scheme without any contribution from the rates, and when the general war damage scheme, on the contributory basis was introduced, these special arrangements in London were continued.

The effect is that the highway authorities in London will be paid just the same as if the scheme now before the House applied to them. The cost of dealing with war damaged highways in London will be left out of account in arriving at the highway contributions of ratepayers throughout the country generally. Therefore, as the House will appreciate, the benefit of the scheme in London, instead of being concentrated and confined to London alone, will be spread over the whole country. I think that is clear, and I think the House will agree that that is the right way to approach the question, and that it is right that the country as a whole should have the advantage of this arrangement. Although the scheme may look a little complicated on the face of it, I think the House will agree that it is really not such a complicated scheme, and I therefore ask the House to accept it.

Mr. Gallacher

When consideration is given to the payment of compensation for property that is lost, is any consideration ever given to the payment of compensation for a livelihood which is lost, or is property of more concern than the livelihood of a worker? Just tell us that.

Sir Harold Webbe (Westminster, Abbey)

I cannot answer the question of the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher), even if it were fitting for me to attempt to do so. I rise only to express the hope that the House will accept this Motion, because I am sure that in general the scheme which is now before us for approval will be welcomed by the local authorities. The Treasury have fully discharged the obligation which was placed upon them to consult the local authorities in framing this scheme, and I think that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary and his advisers have earned the gratitude both of the local authorities and of this House for producing a scheme which provides a fair, reasonable and workable solution of a difficult and quite complicated problem. My own personal enthusiasm for the scheme is somewhat tempered by the fact that the London County Council, of which I have the honour to be a member, and other local authorities in the London region appear to come into this scheme only on the contribution side. They are obliged under the scheme to make certain contributions but they are not entitled to receive payments.

Mr. Kirkwood (Dumbarton Burghs)

I thought there was a snag.

Sir H. Webbe

The hon. Member must not suspect the Treasury of any evil intention. Those authorities are at the moment receiving payments under the Warren Fisher Agreement. I admit that I am a little puzzled by what the Financial Secretary said about that Agreement in relation to this scheme. I had the impression that this scheme aggregated the damage over the whole country and aggregated over the whole country the contributions to be made by the local authorities towards the cost of this damage, and then apportioned that total contribution among the various authorities. I had not realised that the cost of war damage in London is to be met 100 per cent. by the State and not taken into account in arriving at the global figure of contributions towards which London must pay its share. Certainly the Warren Fisher Agreement as it now stands appears to me to be less favourable to the London authorities than is the arrangement in the present scheme, because it is limited to the cost of restoring highways to a usable condition, whereas under this scheme, the Government will pay the cost of restoring highways to their pre-war condition, with the full pre-war surface, and so on. In that respect it seems to me that the Warren Fisher scheme is not as favour- able to local authorities as this one, but I am reassured by what my hon. Friend has said, that the intention of the Government is to place the London authorities on exactly the same footing, ultimately, as the other authorities of the country, and I gladly accept that assurance.

There is one other point in regard to the Warren Fisher scheme which I think I ought to raise in this connection. In the scheme before us, there is derived from the main Act a definite obligation on the Government to make highway payments, just as there is a definite obligation on the authorities to pay contributions. Under the Warren Fisher scheme, there is no legal obligation on the Government to make any payments whatever. I cannot see how there could be, or whence the Regional Commissioner, as such, could derive the power to impose such a legal obligation on the Treasury. I hope that, when the arrangements are made to bring London into line with the rest of the country, this point will be borne in mind. I am not greatly disturbed by it myself, because I have discerned no intention on the part of the Treasury to "bilk" the local authorities, but some of the more nervous local authorities would like to be satisfied that just as there is a legal obligation on them to pay contributions, so there is a legal obligation on the Government to make highway payments.

Damage to the highway almost invariably involves damage to one or more of the underground services—sewage, gas, water, electricity or telephone—which run beneath the highways. In the time of the blitz in London, it not infrequently happened that because of the urgency of restoring those services, the public utility organisations and others had to effect temporary repairs to give emergency services. I would like to pay my tribute to the magnificent work not only of the General Post Office but of the public utility companies in that direction, in conditions of extreme difficulty and serious shortage of labour, particularly of skilled labour. Those temporary services are well below the peace-time services, both in character and in extent. Many of them have been covered by roads, which have been rebuilt over them and completely surfaced. The highway has been completely finished, but it must happen that, sooner or later, perhaps in a year or two when the roadways are fully in use and the properties abutting on them are fully occupied, those temporary services will have to be replaced by permanent services suitable to carry the full load, and the replacement of those temporary services must involve further breaking up of the roads and further road works. I therefore ask my hon. Friend to give me an assurance that in any scheme which he brings forward in the future to deal with damage to public utility property, he will make sure that this point is covered, and that no consequential expense can fall on the local authorities as a result of that work.

In regard to contributions, the Minister has explained the basis of the contributions and the basis of the apportionment which has been decided. He described it as the only arrangement which was fair and workable. I agree. It may well be the only arrangement which is practicable, but I feel bound to point out that to make the apportionment on the basis of the 1939 rateable value must lead to fairly serious inequalities. It is well-known that the basis of assessment varies very widely from one authority to another in this country. Indeed, the natural and obvious difficulty in arriving at anything like uniformity of the system is actually aggravated by the fact that many local authorities adopt a deliberate policy in regard to the basis of assessment. Some prefer definitely to have low assessments with righ rates, and others to have high assessment with low rates. There is no doubt whatever that it does lead to very serious variation in standards of assessment between one authority and another. Therefore, an apportionment based on those rateable values may well prove seriously inequitable.

I admit the difficulty and the need to correct it, but I would ask my hon. Friend whether the Treasury have considered trying to measure the extent of this inequality, by perhaps comparing the rates in the pound levied by different authorities to provide some service which reaches a reasonably uniform standard throughout the country. One example which occurs to me is the cost of elementary education, after deducting teachers' salaries, which are, of course, determined by the Burn-ham scale. Examination of those figures might give some indication of variation in the standards of assessment which would affect the rate of contribution. If my hon. Friend can find some way of ironing out those inequalities, either by weighting the rateable value which is to be used under this scheme, or by making some provision under the grant-in-aid, he will earn the gratitude of a great many local authorities. I know it is an extremely difficult problem to solve, but that must not blind us to the fact that it exists.

That brings me to the question of the grant. I was very pleased to hear the Financial Secretary refer to grants of 50 per cent. although paragraph 13 of the scheme has the delightful vagueness which many such paragraphs have. It speaks of grants and says that the Minister may, with the approval of the Treasury, make grants up to 50 per cent. of the contribution.

Mr. Kirkwood

Does that provision apply to Scotland as well as to London?

Sir H. Webbe

I think it applies to Scotland quite definitely. It applies to everyone. The point I am making is, that first, there is power to make a grant; secondly, the Minister has to have the approval of the Treasury and thirdly, the grants may be up to 50 per cent.

Mr. Kirkwood

In this Cave of Adullam over here, the rumour is very prevalent that London is to receive 100 per cent. against Clydebank's 50 per cent. Is that the case?

Sir H. Webbe

I can assure the hon. Member that we are not as lucky as that in London, and in any case there are sufficient Scotsmen looking on to make sure that we do not get anything of the kind. The intention is that they shall be given not "up to 50 per cent." but shall be given actually 50 per cent. That fixes one figure. Can the Minister enlighten me on the conditions under which the Treasury will consent to those grants being made? Perhaps I ought to say, rather more optimistically, under what conditions is it likely that the Treasury would refuse their approval of such grants? I think the local authorities should have something pretty definite in regard to the grants.

There is one final, small point in connection with the grant. The scheme provides that local authorities pay the contributions in full and then receive grants-in-aid from the Ministry of Transport. It would be a very great administrative convenience to the authorities, as well as a little solid comfort, if, instead of paying the whole contribution and then doing the best they can with the Ministry of Transport, they were allowed to pay the net contribution, leaving the Treasury to collect the grant from the Ministry of Transport in one lump sum. I understand that the suggestion has been accepted, but there is difficulty in meeting it, arising from Sub-section (5) of Section 41 of the original Act. But if that is a purely legal difficulty, I ask my hon. Friend to see whether there is not some way round in these days which would make the actual transaction very much simpler than it is under the present arrangement. That is all I wish to say by way of comment, and I would end on the note on which I began, by congratulating my hon. Friend on producing a scheme which, even though it may require modification in some detail later on, is certainly well worth trying, and expressing the hope that the House will now give this scheme the blessing it is called upon to do by Statute.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Order, dated 25th March, 1943, embodying the War Damage (Highways) Scheme, 1943, made by the Treasury under Section 41 of the War Damage Act, 1941, a copy of which was presented to this House on 30th March, be approved.

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