HL Deb 21 January 1878 vol 237 cc234-45

rose to call the attention of their Lordships to the Report of the Select Committee of last Session on Conservaney Boards, & c, and to ask the Lord President, Whether it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to introduce in the present Session a Bill founded upon the recommendations contained in that Report? The noble Lord said that the Blue Book which had been laid upon the Table containing the Report of the Committee was full of evidence collected from many parts of the country of the evils which resulted from the present state of things, and the magnitude of the distress which had followed recent floods would justify him in calling their Lordships' attention to the subject. He did not propose to read many extracts from the Blue Book, but there were two cases which stood so prominently forward in the evidence taken by the Committee that he could not refrain from referring to them. The first case was that of Lincolnshire. Mr. Tweed, the Town Clerk of Lincoln, stated that last year between Lincoln and Boston there were 25,000 acres of land flooded and 15,000 more above the City of Lincoln. This was, of course, very injurious to the owners of property, to say nothing of its effect upon the health of the inhabitants. Some of the streets of Lincoln were like canals, with the water running through them. So serious were these floods that he (the Marquess of Ripon) and his tenants had had to pay in respect of them between October 1876 and October 1877 no less than 14 per cent upon the gross rental of the whole property; and, indeed, 30 per cent upon the lands on which the rates were actually levied. To go from Lincolnshire, which was mainly agricultural, he would take the case of Nottingham. The engineer to the Corporation of Nottingham was examined as to the state of that town during the prevalence of floods, and he said "they were drowned out completely," and immense damage was done although it would be impossible to estimate its amount. The evidence went to show that the evils which he had referred to had not passed away; but that they might be expected to occur again from time to time unless some effectual measure should prevent them. The prevalence of floods appeared to be greater at the present day than formerly, and, without entering into the scientific question, he might mention to their Lordships that, with one exception, the witnesses were unanimous in declaring it to be their opinion that the recent rapid floods were due to the great improvements which had been made in subsoil drainage, and also, to some ox-tent, even to surface drainage. Every year that effectual legislation was postponed would increase the danger to the districts which were afflicted with these floods. He would now shortly explain to their Lordships what the state of the law was upon this subject. The first Statute passed to regulate this question of drainage was the 23 Henry VIII. c. 5, under which Commissioners of Sewers were appointed, not universally, but upon applications from particular localities. These boards, however, had no representative character either derived from property holders or from ratepayers, the Commissioners being appointed simply at the will of the Crown. The mode of appointment in the time of Henry VIII. was scarcely suitable to these more modern times. The powers of the Commissioners were very vague, and from their haziness were of little or no use. The next general Act was the Act of 1861, which was intended to facilitate the appointment of Conservancy Boards for rivers, and which gave to these Boards a more representative character; but the restrictions which that Act imposed had been found such as to prevent its operation. The owners of one-third of the land where a Board was to be set up possessed an absolute veto upon the adoption of the Act, and with respect to the carrying out any improvement works, there was also an absolute veto possessed by the owners of one-half of the land in the district. The mode of rating, also, was unsatisfactory, and the Act of 1861 was found to a very great extent to be inoperative. Whilst there were, however, only these two general Acts, there was a very large mass of private legislation, there being between 2,000 and 3,000 private Acts upon the subject. Their Lordships could easily conceive what must be the result of this enormous amount of private legislation applied at all sorts of times, under all sorts of circumstances, and setting up bodies whose jurisdictions overlapped. One great difficulty in the way was—the jurisdiction of the same river was often vested in several different bodies. For instance, of the rivers with which he was more par- ticularly acquainted, the River With am was under the management of the general commissioners, of whom he himself was one; but, besides these commissioners, there were all along the banks other bodies of parochial commissioners who were not under the control of the river commissioners. The City of Lincoln was not under the control of the river commissioners at all, and above that city there existed at least two sets of commissioners of sewers having independent jurisdiction. The Nene also was under the jurisdiction of six or seven different bodies, and it was impossible for Parliament to deal with the subject until those parties were agreed as to what should be done. Last year an hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick (Mr. Arthur Peel), called the attention of the House of Commons to the subject, and on that occasion the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary stated that he thought that as a preliminary proceeding the best course that could be adopted was to appoint a Select Committee to investigate the matter, and that as the time of the branch of the Legislature to which the right hon. Gentleman belonged was very much occupied, he thought the Committee should be composed of Members of the House of Lords. In consequence of that suggestion, the noble Duke opposite (the Duke of Richmond and Gordon) moved for and obtained a Select Committee of their Lordships' House, over which he himself (the Duke of Richmond and Gordon) presided, and in due time a Report was laid on the Table of the House. That Committee made several important recommendations. In the first place, it recommended that a single Board of Conservancy should be appointed for each river, and that, with a view to carrying out that suggestion, the powers possessed at present by various and conflicting jurisdictions in regard to the same river should be merged in one single body; that on the application of any district a local inquiry should be granted, and that the officers by whom the inquiry must be held should prepare a provisional scheme, which would be laid before Parliament in the usual way, and which, if approved, would have the effect of an Act of Parliament—the intention being to have a local inquiry for the purpose of re- conciling contending interests, and to decrease the expense of legislation. The Committee also recommended that extended powers should be conferred upon the new Conservancy Boards, and that general provisions such as those contained in the Lands Clauses Act should be embodied in a public Act of Parliament; and its last, but by no means its least, recommendation was, that the area of taxation should be extended to the whole watershed, and that towns and houses, and not land alone, should be liable to contribute to the assessment'. This last recommendation was one of an extensive and important character, for unless the area of rating could be extended there could be no hope that works of the requisite magnitude would be carried out; but he was confident it would be impossible to deal with the matter except by means of a general Act of Parliament. He did not mean a general Act laying down iron rules for all parts of the country, but a Statute based upon certain distinct principles upon which each local scheme should be founded, and providing machinery by which those principles might be applied according to the requirements of each locality. It was quite impossible that individual localities should be able to deal with questions of this magnitude; nor was it desirable that such questions should be left to be settled by Select Committees on Private Bills. He had already stated that the noble Duke the Lord President of the Council had presided over the Committee of last year. The noble Marquess the Secretary of State for India (the Marquess of Salisbury) also sat upon it. The Report, he might also mention, had been drawn up by the noble Duke. Under those circumstances, although there was no mention in the Gracious Speech from the Throne of any Bill on this question, he should be indeed surprised should it appear that Government had no intention of bringing in a measure to carry out the recommendations of the Committee. There were, no doubt, many points of difficulty connected with it; but if it should not be the intention of the Government to bring in a Bill upon it, their determination was, he thought, one which was very much to be regretted. He wished to impress upon the Government this, that if they intended to bring in a Bill, they should do so at the earliest possible date, because the action of localities would be arrested while they were waiting to see what would be done by the Government and by Parliament, and if no measure was passed this Session, the present state of things would continue for another year at the possible cost of thousands of pounds, and of very much suffering. The question was one of vital importance, and therefore he confidently trusted that the Government would take it up.


who was indistinctly heard, was understood to say that he agreed with the noble Marquess who had just sat down upon the danger of dealing with this question on account of the difficulties which attended it. He, however, wished to add to what had fallen from his noble Friend a few observations on the question of rating. Although it seemed very equitable that land should be rated for any benefit which might be expected to accrue from any new drainage scheme, yet it was clearly proved by the evidence given before the Select Committee that this would not be always the case. He said that although it sounded very well that they should tax the lands for the benefit to be derived from a new scheme, yet if the assumption failed, and the land was not improved, it would be an injustice. He called attention to this point because it was an extremely important one. It appeared, for instance, from the evidence of Mr. Percival, Mayor of Peterborough, that in the valley of the Nene, the lowlands, instead of being drained, were flooded by the present system of drainage, under which they became the catchment basin of the drainage of the higher grounds, which the river, at the time of the floods, was unable to draw off, and yet they were rated at 15s. an acre; whereas the rate of the high-lying grounds was only 1s. per acre. As the uplands, therefore, gave the river more to do, it seemed only fair that those lands ought to bear the cost of its being rendered capable of drawing off these floods. Formerly the dues derived from the navigation kept the main channel of the river free and deep; but since the railways had absorbed the whole of the goods traffic of the country, the navigation works had been neglected, and the locks allowed to get out of repair, and hence the main channel of the river had become choked up, so that the waters were thrown back upon the low-lying lands. In his opinion, the Conservancy Boards should have their jurisdiction increased, so that they might be enabled during the summer months to store water for irrigation purposes. They should also be the authorities to carry out the provisions of the Act for the prevention of pollution. Sir John Hawkshaw in his evidence considered that every river should be treated upon its own particular merits, because the case of one river might materially differ from that of another. What he would advise the Government to do in dealing with this matter would be this—that they should not require that the opinion of the district should necessarily be unanimous; but that if a movement for a scheme was got up, the Government should be able to move on the opinion of the majority, and send down Inspectors to inquire into the case. It would be very difficult, however, for any Inspector to frame a measure to suit the district, and therefore he thought they ought to have a general Act of Parliament passed, and when the district decided to adopt the Act, Commissioners should be appointed to hear, and adjudicate upon, all conflicting claims. The interests concerned were so important that he trusted the Government would without delay take the matter up. He would give one strong additional reason for their doing so. Since the Committee of last year made its Report, the subject had been agitated in the country, and the various Boards who managed these affairs in each district had been put on the qui vive. The question having been thus mooted, the sooner something was done the better. Parliament having been called together at an earlier date than usual, there would be ample time to discuss any Bill the Government might think fit to bring forward, and he hoped the noble Duke the Lord President of the Council would be able to give them such assurances in regard to this matter that they might trust to see a measure passed into law during the present Session.


said, he hoped that in any legislation which might be attempted, their Lordships would not overlook the fact that there were rivers in Ireland which did great damage in wet seasons to the low-lying grounds, and which required, though it might he on a smaller scale, similar treatment to that which had been recommended in the case of England. There would not be any such difficulties in the way of carrying out such a measure in Ireland as existed in England, as the watersheds had been all accurately surveyed, and there was a central authority—the Board of Works—which might control the different Conservancy Boards formed under the new Act. There were not in that country any of those competing jurisdictions referred to by the noble Marquess.


said, he hoped that prompt action would be taken by the Government on the important subject. The damage done by the Ouse was daily on the increase, and that meant an increase in expenditure on remedial works. It was high time something should be done in the matter, and he thought that, considering the Select Committee concluded its labours last July, a measure founded upon their Report might have been prepared in the meantime. He hoped there would not be any further delay in the matter, but that there would be speedily a wide and comprehensive scheme introduced dealing with the whole subject, otherwise the result must be further damage, suffering, and complaint.


said, that he had nothing to complain of in the course which the noble Marquess (the Marquess of Ripon) had taken in calling attention to this matter, and still less fault to find with him in regard to his propositions, as since the appointment of the Select Committee the noble Marquess had rendered very able assistance in eliciting much of the valuable information which was contained in the Blue Book laid upon the Table last Session. His noble Friend had, from his great local experience, and from his knowledge of the damage done by floods in Lincolnshire, been able to obtain that information, and he had pointed out the state of the law upon this subject—the first Statute having been passed in the reign of Henry VIII. — and which had been brought down to the change that took place in it in 1861, which change had certainly, according to the evidence obtained—notably that of the hon. Member for Warwick (Mr. Arthur Peel)—not worked satisfactorily; on the contrary, it had in many instances been entirely unworkable. It was not necessary for him (the Duke of Richmond and Gordon) to admit that this subject was one of very considerable importance, as if it had not been thought to be one by the Government he should not on the part of the Government have asked for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into it. Nor would he deny that it was a subject of great magnitude, there having been, as his noble Friend reminded their Lordships, between 2,000 and 3,000 private Acts of Parliament passed which dealt with drainage throughout the country; and in addition to that he might point out that some parts of the Report showed that many interests would be affected, and that great care must be taken in dealing with them, and how difficult it would be to find a remedy for all cases. There would be questions of rating, and the removal of obstructions without serious interference with the interests of millowners and others. The noble Marquess opposite (the Marquess of Huntly) had pointed their attention to the evidence of Sir John Hawkshaw and the conclusions at which he had arrived, and from which he differed—


No; I said that I agreed with him.


The noble Marquess agreed, then, that any scheme would be a very large undertaking, and that it could not be carried out without great care and consideration, however urgent the remedy might be, and any remedy proposed ought to be effectual. One important part of the remedy to which allusion had been made was the rating of lands and houses in towns, and that certainly could not be entered upon lightly, or without great consideration. His noble Relative (the Earl of Sandwich) had expressed an opinion that a great and comprehensive scheme ought to be brought forward, and that there had been plenty of time since the Prorogation for the Government to prepare and undertake to pass such a scheme. He (the Duke of Richmond and Gordon) wished that his noble Friend would have tried his hand at framing such a comprehensive scheme, and he would have found that it was not so easy as he seemed to think. He would remind their Lordships that, be- sides having had to devote considerable attention to a number of domestic measures since last Session, Her Majesty's Government had been much engaged with that great question which had occupied the mind of the country. His noble Friend behind him (the Earl of Longford) considered that it would be an easy matter to deal with the drainage of the country—


In Ireland.


It might be an easy matter to pass an Act, but the difficulty would be in applying its provisions. However, he preferred that any legislation should be made as applicable to England first. He could assure his noble Friends that the Report and the evidence given before the Committee had been under the consideration of the Government, though they had not yet been able to frame any measure upon a subject which affected such vast interests—namely, those of rating; setting up a central authority; dealing with the prescriptive rights of owners of property, fixing the areas of ratability, and distinguishing between uplands and lowlands. These matters the Government had not yet been able to put into a satisfactory shape, so that a Bill could be framed for discussion in Parliament. The subject was still under the consideration of the Government, and he hoped that they might be able to deal, if not with the whole, with a part of it this Session. He did not despair of being able to do so. The noble Marquess opposite thought that the subject was one which ought to have been mentioned in the Speech from the Throne.


said, he had not made any complaint on that point.


said, he thought it was not always necessary that there should be an extensive bill of fare presented to Parliament at the commencement of the Session; on the contrary, the Government thought it was more satisfactory to promise little in the Speech from the Throne and do a great deal, rather than to promise much and do little. However, he would repeat that the subject was under the serious consideration of the Government; and that he did not give up the hope that they would be in a position to bring in a measure in suffi- cient time to enable both Houses to consider it before the close of the present Session which would carry out some of the proposals of the Select Committee. In conclusion, he would thank the noble Marquess for having brought the question before their Lordships.


expressed his great regret at the announcement which had been made by the Lord President of the Council on the part of the Government, as he had hoped that the Government would have been prepared with a Bill dealing with this important subject; but he was very glad to hear that something was being done, and hoped a measure would be brought forward during the present Session.


pointed out that the question of rating would be a serious one, as the subject affected so many separate interests and different Conservancy Boards throughout the country. He thought it would be found impossible to deal with the question as a general one in this country, even if that were possible in Ireland. Let them look at the case of Nottingham, and the distance of that town from the outfall. How far was that town from the sea, and how many districts would the drainage pass through, and how numerous were the conflicting interests? Would the Board at Nottingham have power to deal with the other Boards throughout the districts to the sea? If not, how could they frame a general measure which should deal with all cases?


said, the natural design for a line of demarcation was the drainage area, as indicated by watersheds; but the fact that many private Bills had been presented from different parties in the same district, some taking an enlightened view and others looking at their interests from an entirely different standpoint, had caused a great deal of confusion, and showed the necessity of some general legislation. A general Act could not, of course, deal with a great variety of interests in detail; but at any rate it might ensure something like unity of principle in the measures taken for carrying off the water in the area between Nottingham and the sea, within which there were many Conservancy Boards.


said, he would exceedingly regret it if the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Redes- dale) thought he supposed that any general Act of Parliament could be passed which would deal with all the details connected with this subject. He was the most strenuous opponent in Committee of such a scheme. All he wished was, that having laid down general principles in a Public Act, they should leave them to be carried out by the local Conservancy Boards. He had hoard with much regret that the Government held out very small encouragement to them to expect that the subject would be dealt with this year. He trusted that the Government would do something at the earliest opportunity. If the matter was not now considered, a repetition of floods, with consequent loss and damage, might be looked for; and therefore he begged to urge upon the noble Duke (the Duke of Bichmond and Gordon) the necessity of prompt legislation in order that the fears of those interested in the matter might be allayed, for while the idea that a general Bill would be introduced existed, all persons would feel that it would be useless to bring in private Bills; and, therefore, it might be that if the Government did nothing this Session another winter would pass by before any legislation was undertaken.

House adjourned at half past Six o'clock, till To-morrow, a quarter before Five o'clock.