HL Deb 23 June 1879 vol 247 cc404-12

Order of the Day for the Second Beading, read.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."


rose to move— That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Bill, that they have power to alter the Bill so as to charge to the rates of the Metropolis the cost of all works carried out on public property and the expense of works of exceptional character and cost that may be ordered to be executed on private property. The noble Lord said, the Bill deserved special consideration for three reasons. Its leading principle was that the owners of river-side property wore to be legally bound to prevent tidal overflow; and that was a reversal of the Common Law, as laid down by the High Court of Justice in 1876. The indiscriminate application of that principle would operate unequally upon private owners; and its application at all, in respect of public streets and places, to local vestries and district boards, would operate very unjustly, because so large an extent of river frontage was already protected by em- bankments which had cost millions, and which had been paid for out of taxes and rates levied upon the whole Metropolitan area. Assuming the principle to be maintained, it ought to be applied so that no injustice was done either to individuals as owners, or to parishes and districts as parts of the Metropolis. The Bill introduced by the Metropolitan Board in 1877 went upon a different principle—that of throwing the responsibility for all property on vestries and district boards, and the cost on the local rates, unless the vestry or district board chose to lay a special rate on the property liable to be flooded, whether on the river-side or not. The Bill was opposed before a Select Committee of the other House, which, after an exhaustive inquiry, resolved that the works ought to be executed by the Metropolitan Board at the cost of the whole Metropolis. The Metropolitan Board refused to accept that conclusion, and sought to throw both responsibility and cost on river-side property, whoever might own it. If the compulsory execution of any works was a permanent injury to any owner, he might claim compensation, and whatever was awarded the Metropolitan Board would pay. It was, however, exceedingly improbable that compulsion would have to be resorted to on valuable property where heavy claims for compensation could arise; while it was certain that the cost of the works would be heaviest where the property was least valuable. The offer of the Board to pay compensation for permanent injury was, therefore, a shadowy, rather than a real acceptance of the Resolution of the Select Committee of 1877. The present Bill had passed the ordeal of another Select Committee; and that Committee had not thought it right, considering the changed character of the Bill, to support the finding of the previous Committee. But, except before the Committee, no attention had been directed to the new principle of the Bill, which was obviously capable of application to every tidal river in the country. Whether it was expedient or not to adopt that new principle, it was certain that so important a change ought not to be made in the law without a word being said on the subject in either House of Parliament, and the Members of that House would be glad to hear what noble and learned Lords had to say on the subject. So recently as January, 1876, a judgment was delivered by the Lord Chief Justice and Mr. Justice Mellor in " Hudson v. Tabor," which was an action by an occupier against a proprietor of adjoining lands fronting to a creek communicating with the sea, and in which the tide flowed and re-flowed. A high tide occurred in March, 1874. The water flowed over the defendant's wall upon the land of the plaintiff, which was on a lower level, doing considerable damage, and it was to recover compensation that the action was brought. The question was whether the defendant was bound to maintain the wall, not only for his own protection, but for that of his neighbours. There was no evidence of prescriptive obligation; and the Court held there was no obligation upon a proprietor to maintain a dam for the protection of the occupier at Common Law. If that judgment be right, this Bill must be wrong; at all events, it ought not to be silently reversed in a Private Bill affecting the frontage of the Thames in the Metropolis. It was, of course, open to contention that, in some parts of London, there was a beneficial occupation of the-river bank for the purposes of trade, and that the improvement of the navigation increased the value of river-side property. That argument was assumed as a possible justification for imposing a new obligation by statute. It was, perhaps, a consideration which weighed with the second Select Committee in accepting the principle of this Bill. Assuming that House to endorse the principle, the arguments of the Lord Chief Justice against it were equally strong as against its indiscriminate application. As was well known, property liable to be flooded had been in many places protected by Commissions, and the Lord Chief Justice said— Under those Commissions everyone is to contribute who may receive benefit or suffer loss, obviously a very different thing from throwing the whole burden on the frontager and making him liable for all the damage that may result from his own omission to keep up the sea wall. The equitable principle on which the assessment under such a Commission is made is in itself a strong argument against the position that the frontager is liable at Common Law. He may have only a narrow slip of land of comparatively little value; while behind him may be a proprietor having much more land and of greater value lying on the same, or on a lower level, and liable to be overflowed if the sea wall is imperfect. It is obvious that the last owner ought, to some extent at least, to bear his share of the cost of maintaining defences against the sea. I think, therefore, the fact that the owner of land fronting the sea might bo made liable under a Com-mission, by no moans shows that, independently of a Royal Commission, such liability existed at Common Law, and we see nothing to warrant our holding it to exist. The proper remedy in such a case as this is to procure the issuing of a Commission in which, by an equitable adjustment, the interests of all parties may be secured."—[Hudson v Tabor.] This judgment had a most important bearing on the questions raised by this Bill, even assuming the judgment itself to be set aside in respect of the majority of private owners. The practical issue was, who was to stand in the place of a Commission in respect of public property? Who was to undertake whatever exceeded private obligation? The Metropolitan Board said — Itself for compensation; the local vestries and district boards for everything else. The Metropolitan Board relied on a judgment of the Court of Queen's Bench of June, 1877, in a case between one of these Commissions for Kent and the Plum-stead District Board. The judgment was that, under the Local Management Act for the Metropolis, the district board might be held to have superseded the Commission in the district of Plum-stead. The Committee of 1877, knowing of this judgment, and also of that in "Hudson v. Tabor," and conscious of all that had been done in London since 1855, and of the causes of the higher tides, said, substantially, by its Resolution, that the time had come when the Metropolitan Board must regarded as the Commission for the Metropolis. The Board admitted that it ought to be for compensation. Then, on what principle could it make a distinction between compensation and any other charge in excess of private obligation? The words of the Lord Chief Justice had a special application to private owners in the districts of Fulham and Wandsworth, and still more to the districts themselves, where the works required were costly out of all proportion to the value of the property as compared with the cost and value in the centre of London. It was said that special rates might be levied on the property within the range of benefit; in other words, that little local Commissions might be formed. But the localities and their districts were all parts of the Metropolis, and had contributed to defray the cost of all Metropolitan improvements for 25 years. And these higher tides were admittedly caused by Metropolitan improvements. Old London Bridge was a dam which kept back the tide; the water fell in cataracts beneath its arches, one way with the rising, and the reverse with the ebbing tide. The dam was removed; the river had been dredged and deepened for the improvement of the navigation; the embankments increased the momentum of the tide; a greater volume of water came up; improved agriculture expedited the descent of the land floods, which found no storage where the mud banks had been reclaimed and superseded by embankments: all these things had been done out of funds provided, in one way or another, by the Metropolis, to improve its communication by bridge, by street, by river; to improve it as a port; to improve its sanitary condition by relieving the river of its drainage; and, in the case of the embankment opposite that building, to protect that part of Lambeth from inundation. And yet it was now proposed that the local rates should bear all the expense of works that did not fall on private owners. Could anything be more inequitable? Nothing was professedly contemplated, but works sufficient to prevent overflow. Last year their cost was estimated to exceed £62,500. Of this, £12,500 had to be spent in Fulham; £14,200 in Poplar, including £8,400 on Bow Creek; £9,000 in Wandsworth, including £4,800 on the Wandle; and £11,400 in Greenwich, including £8,400 on Deptford Creek. Of course, no expenditure was required where the Victoria, the Albert, and the Chelsea Embankments now were. It was unnecessary to quote figures relating to their magnitude and their cost. Fulham, Wandsworth, Poplar, and Greenwich had already contributed to defray their cost. It was perfectly immaterial whether the embankments alone had, or had not, contributed to the floods—it required engineering subtlety to show that they had not—grant that they did not, was not their existence and history conclusive proof of the inequity of saddling local rates with the cost of any embankment, however partial? Was it not clear that the Me- tropolitan Board ought to constitute itself a Commission for this purpose for the whole Metropolis? It was the mere accident of possessing public streets and places by the river-side, which would make that Bill operate so oppressively upon the district of Fulham. It was the accident of having none, and the good fortune of having secured the Albert Embankment, that made the passing of this Bill immaterial to the vestry of Lambeth as representing the ratepayers. But, for all that, the vestry was not so selfish as to support the Bill as it stood. At a meeting last week, it passed a resolution, under seal, in favour of justice to Fulham and Wandsworth, as follows: — That, assuming the principle of the Thames Floods Bills to he maintained, and the responsibility of preventing overflow to ho thrown upon the owners of river frontages, this vestry is still of opinion that the principle will operate very inequitably in respect of all frontages which, not being private property, are vested in vestries and district boards; therefore, this vestry, representing a parish which is already protected by the Albert Embankment, constructed at the cost of the Metropolis, as so large a portion of the other side of the river is by the Victoria and Chelsea Embankments, is strongly of opinion that all works exceeding the obligations of private owners ought to be executed by the Metropolitan Board of Works at the cost of the Metropolis, in accordance with the Report of the House of Commons' Select Committee of 1877. It was for their Lordships to say whether, under all the circumstances, so far as the prevention of floods was concerned, all streets and public places by the river-side ought not to be vested in the Metropolitan Board. That principle had been strongly supported by The Times and by nearly the whole Metropolitan Press. It involved nothing inconsistent with the principle of private responsibility for private property, should the House think fit to change the law in that respect. There remained the third question of the compulsory improvement of private property—or, rather, the compulsory expenditure of money upon it, and making the capital and interest the first rent-charge for 30 years. Even should the property increase in value, it did not follow that an increased rent would be obtained during the continuance of an existing lease. It was taken for granted that the particular property upon which the expenditure was incurred would be proportionately increased in value, which by no means followed in some cases; and if it were, it did not follow that an increased rent would he obtained during the continuance of an existing lease. But the rent-charge must be paid, whatever became of the owner; so that, if he could not bear the yearly charge, the property would be confiscated. "Was it not obvious that if the main principle of the Bill be sustained, and if the responsibility of river-side owners was to be established, there ought to be some limit to the burden put upon a private owner for the protection of his neighbours? At all events, property ought not to be subjected to an annual charge, unless an obvious addition was made to its letting value, and that addition could be realized by the owner. If the expenditure must be incurred and the private owner ought not to bear it, it would clearly come within the same category as compensation, and be payable by the Metropolitan Board. Arbitration might also be extended to these cases. Without some further provision the door was left open to a serious invasion of the rights of private property. The noble Lord concluded by moving the Instruction to the Committee.


supported the Bill, the principle of which, he said, had been acknowledged for the last 300 years. He would also point out that the principle of throwing the taxation on river-side owners had already been exhaustively dealt with by a Committee in the other House, which had come to the conclusion that as the Thames was a great navigable river, the navigation of which had been improved by dredging and other works, those who were chiefly benefited, and whose property had thus been materially improved, were those who should chiefly bear the cost. The cost of the works contemplated would not exceed the trifling sum of £55,000— a very different amount to what had been stated by the noble Lord, who appeared to think that it would cost many hundred thousand pounds. The Committee felt that it would not be just to spread the taxation over a large area; but it was recommended that if an owner, in carrying out certain improvements suggested by the Metropolitan Board of Works, suffered permanent damage to his works, he might obtain compensation; and this might be spread over the whole area. Their Lordships, perhaps, would be surprised to hear that of 1,000 owners of river-side property, 600 had already done what was necessary in embanking the river. Out of 46 miles of river frontage, 27 miles had been completed, and only 19 remained to be dealt with. He utterly denied that the raising of the embankments had caused the rise in the tides. It had been shown conclusively that it was due to dredging. The Bill ought to go before the Committee unweighted with any such recommendation as that suggested; and if the objectors appeared before the Committee, their views would be impartially considered. It appeared to him that this Bill was a fair compromise, and would set aside the objection raised to the Bill introduced by the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1878.


said, the issue raised was a very simple one. A large sum had been already expended by the Metropolitan Board out of the funds of the Metropolis in embanking portions of the river on both sides; and the owners and occupiers of the property on the river frontages that were not embanked, having contributed their full share of the expenses already incurred, thought it very hard, now that something was required to be done for the defence of their own property and districts, that they should be compelled to bear the whole expense of the works that the Board thought it necessary to order. The grievance was of two kinds: First, there were the local vestries and district boards representing ratepayers, who had contributed to the Metropolitan expenditure on its embankments, and who were now called upon, as local ratepayers, to bear the expense of protecting any public streets or footpaths by the river-side. The contention of these parishes and districts was that, at all events, all streets and public places should be taken charge of by the Metropolitan Board and protected at the expense of the Metropolitan ratepayers —that, in fact, the whole river-bank should for this purpose be vested in the Metropolitan Board. Next there were the private owners, who, as taxpayers and ratepayers, had already contributed to the cost of the embankments, and were now called upon to pay all the cost of preventing the tide overflowing their property, if not for their own protection, at least for that of their neighbours. This might be a trifling matter in some cases; but in others it would be a very serious one, and would involve a cost disproportionate to the value of the property. In these circumstances, the claim that was made in the proposed Order of Reference was most reasonable. In some cases protection of public property had been effected by private owners; but it was not just to ask that it should be continued at private expense for public benefit. It was most unfair to urge that what had been done in some cases pending the tardy action of the Metropolitan Board of Works furnished an argument for imposing a permanent obligation. He himself had done all, or more than all, that had been suggested by the Metropolitan Board; but what had been done would be require to be maintained and repaired, and this would be necessary on public as well as on private grounds. Therefore, he hoped the proposed Instruction would be allowed to go to the Committee, and that it would receive their best attention.


said, his opinion from the first was that the Bill ought, not to have been made a Private Bill. When the Bill came before him he expressed that opinion; he also inquired whether the usual Notices had been served, according to the practice in Private Bill legislation, and was surprised that they had not. However, as the Bill had been introduced in the other House and had passed through a Select Committee, he should rather object to the proposed Instruction, because it would be like telling the Committee what to do before both sides of the case had been fully heard. At the same time, the Bill was one which would require great care and attention. Ho thought it would have been far better had the Bill been introduced as a Public Bill.

The Instruction was not pressed.

Motion agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed;The Committee to be proposed by the Committee of Selection.