HL Deb 13 May 1889 vol 335 cc1829-39

My Lords, I have to ask Her Majesty's Government to state on what grounds the Local Government Board have repudiated any claim based upon the cost of quarter maintenance of main roads for the years ending 25th March, 1888 and 18b9. There is one point which I think perhaps in strict accuracy ought to be referred to, and that is that the grants are for a quarter for the Highway Authorities and a quarter for the County Authority. My Lords, I do not think it necessary to apologize to the House for bringing this question forward, because there has been so strong an expression of opinion and disappointment, not only from the County Councils, but also from the various Highway Authorities, that I feel the Government will not object to an opportunity being given of stating in an authoritative way their opinion with regard to the making of these grants. I think, my Lords, in order to make this question clear, I ought to remind your Lordships of the terms on which the main roads have been paid for up to this time. The main roads have been maintained by the Highway Authorities, either the parishes or the Highway Boards. lathe first place the Highway Board has had to pay the whole of the cost, and half that cost has been repaid by the County Authorities. Then, in addition to that half paid by the County Authorities, and which falls so hardly on the district itself, for some years there has been repaid one quarter of the cost to the Highway Authorities, and a quarter to the County Authorities. Therefore, under this somewhat complicated triangular arrangement, which existed down to last year, the Highway Authorities paid one-fourth of the cost of maintaining main roads, the County Authorities one-fourth, and the Government one-half. I think your Lordships would agree that this system is so complicated that it ought to be done away with, and that in future it should be carried out in a different manner. But, my Lords, I should like to call your attention to this, upon the point of the permanence of this system. The payments by the Government must be necessarily in arrear, and such arrears were owing when the Bill passed creating County Councils. What takes place is this: The Local Authorities have to get their accounts made up at the end of the period, and they have to get a certificate that the roads have been kept in order. Then the County Authorities, as soon as they get them, pay their half, and in the process of time the Government, two or three months afterwards, repay a quarter of what has been paid. So that some time afterwards they are repaid one-half of which has been paid by them. This grant has always been paid in arrear. When it was first started, the Government did not give the grant at once, but they waited until. they had the returns for the year, and paid afterwards. It was therefore in arrear at that time, it has always been in arrear since, and it is in arrear now. Then when the Bill appointing County Councils was passed, all these grants made by Government towards the Local Authorities were done away with, and it was resolved in the future to make the grant in a different form, and that the County Authorities should be paid in their stead. I believe the County Authorities desired that the grant which was owing last year towards the maintenance of the roads should be paid, but the ^Government would not pay it. My Lords, I will take the case, first, of the Highway Authority. I am bound to say that the Highway Authority has not so much to depend upon as the County Council; but they had to entirely take over the maintenance of the main roads. That has to be done in future by the County Councils. I will call the attention of the House to the fact that there are two years of arrears to the Highway Authorities. There is something owing for the year ending March, 1888, and a sum owing for the year ending March, 1889. The Local Government Board have informed me that no payments have been made to any Local Authorities in respect to the claims based on the maintenance of main roads for the year ending March, 1888, or for the year ending March, 1889, nor is it intended to give such effect to the Bill. In my letter to the Board I called attention to the fact that really these payments were due for the last two years, but in answer to that the Local Government Board said they had forwarded the claim to the Surveyor of Highways, and that although based on the cost of maintenance of main roads in 1886 and 1887 it was a contribution in aid of expenditure during the financial year 1888–9. Therefore it is clear, as far as the Government contention goes, they are not in arrear, but that the payments have been made for the year which has actually been running. As I have pointed out, I do not believe this contention can be supported by evidence. I know there are certain Highway Authorities who have made financial arrangements knowing that that half would be paid back at the end of the financial year; and they would be put in a somewhat awkward position if it were done in any other manner. But I think the County Councils have a stronger claim upon the consideration of the Government, because I would point out that the County Councils have had to pay during the current half year what is coming from the Government. They say, "You are bound to pay the Highway Authority, though we are not going to pay you." I do not quite see the distinction between the two bodies in that respect, and if one has a payment founded on the sum expended during the past year, and a payment is made for the financial year on account, then, I think, the County Authority should be put in exactly the same position. I think we are bound to pay the Highway Authority. At the same time, I think both of them should be placed in exactly the same position. But, my Lords, that is not the point on which I think the greatest stress ought to be laid. The Government, in bringing in the Local Government Bill, informed us that for the future the County Councils would be placed in a more favourable position than they had been in the past; that those grants would be larger than the amount which had been handed over hitherto; and therefore, that the County Councils, in starting their work, would be in a more favourable position than Quarter Sessions ever were before. I would be perfectly willing to base the whole of our case upon the question whether that will or will not be the case this year. We have had some expenses already, and we shall have to pay for six months of maintenance of high roads to the Highway Authority—that is to say, half the whole cost. In addition to that, we shall have to make some provision for the maintenance of the county roads during the next 12 months. As I have said, we shall have nothing to meet this in the way of any payment in aid at the beginning of the year; and, of course, all we can do will depend upon what we are going to get from the local grant. My Lords, I beg to say there is not a single county in my neighbourhood in which the estimates for the coming year are not in consequence of this higher now than they have been for many years past. They are considered to be higher than they have been for many years, simply from the fact that they have had to meet the cost of the maintenance of roads for the past year. The point of the Government is that the only grants which are now going to be given will take the place of the old grants, and that as far as that is concerned, we shall not be in a worse position. I would ask the attention of the House to the laws which regulate this grant. The whole of the grant which is handed over to the County Council is provided for by Statute in a very strict manner. It is provided in what order the Local Authorities are to be paid by the grant, and not one farthing of that grant can be touched by the County Council for the purpose of the maintenance of main roads until all the Local Authorities have been paid. I understand that part of the grant is paid in July, part in October, and part in February, before the end of the financial year. That will make it more than a year from the present time. I wish to point out that the rates are higher than they have ever been before. It is clear that 18 months will probably have elapsed between the last payment and the payment on account of this new grant. I am very sorry to have occupied the time of the House at some little length upon this matter, but I think the House will see that it is rather an important one, and unless it is put forward in some detail, it would be impossible to make out where we stand. Equitably speaking, even if the Government were to place us this year in as good a position as we were in in former years, we should then feel that if they cannot pay the grant in this form, the County Authorities are at least entitled to some consideration for this present financial year. My Lords, I think that the manner in which the County Councils are working generally seems to give, as far as I can judge, considerable satisfaction, but a great part of that satisfaction will be marred from the fact that during the first year of the County Councils they have been pressed further than these authorities have ever been before. In this way, my Lords, the County Councils will be put in an unfavourable position in which they do not deserve to be placed. They will not be placed according to the declaration of Government in a more favourable position than the old authorities were by the former grants, and that declaration will certainly not be kept if an incident of the period of transition is to be the loss of the grants that are overdue, and which would have been received in the ordinary course if no change in County Government had been made.


My Lords, there has been no repudiation of any valid claim by Her Majesty's Government in this matter. It is assumed that the Government are, in the present and next financial year, liable to pay to the Local Highway Authorities a quarter of the cost which was incurred by them in the maintenance of main roads in the years ended Lady Day, 1888 and 1889. There is, however, no good ground for any such assumption. The facts are these:—The County Authorities, under the Highways and Locomotives (Amendment) Act, 1878, were required to pay to the Local Highway Authorities one-half of the cost of the maintenance of the main roads, when such roads had been certified by the County Surveyor to have been maintained in a proper condition. It was therefore the practice of the County Authorities to pay in one year a moiety of the expenditure incurred in the preceding year. In 1882 it was determined by Parliament to make a grant to the Local Authorities in respect of main roads in anticipation of the larger relief to local taxation which was made by the Local Government Act. This grant was, of course, intended to be in aid of the expenditure of the particular year in which the grant was paid; but for the purpose of the distribution among the different authorities it was determined to take as the basis a moiety of the sum allowed by the county in the previous year. This was done in order to secure the full advantage of the examination of the claims of the Local Authorities by the County Authority. It is clear that the grant was made for the particular year in which it was voted and paid, and not for the preceding period in which the expenditure which was the basis of the distribution was incurred. Any other contention would involve this, that when Parliament in the year ended Lady Day, 1883, voted for the first time a certain sum for main roads, that Vote was to be regarded not as a Vote for that year, but for the year ended Lady Day, 1881. This was clearly not the intention. Take the past year. The full grant for the maintenance of main roads has been paid to the Local Authorities as in previous years, but the distribution, for reasons already mentioned, was based on the expenditure allowed by the County Authorities for the year ended Lady Day, 1888, and that allowance was in respect of the expenditure in the year ended Lady Day, 1887. If the Local Government Act had not passed, or if under that Act the County Authorities had not had ceded to them the License Duties and Probate Duty Grant provided for by that Act, the Local Highway Authorities would no doubt receive in the present financial year a similar grant to that which they have received in past years, but under the Local Government Act the License Duties and Probate Duty Grant have been substituted for the Parliamentary grants, and the revenue ceded is largely in excess of the grants which are discontinued. It cannot be contended that, while the Local Authories are to receive the Imperial Revenue out of which the Parliamentary grants would have been paid, they are also to continue to receive the grants for which it is distinctly provided that this Imperial Revenue shall be substituted. It is true that this revenue will be received by the County Authorities and not by the Local Highway Authorities, but it is to be borne in mind that it devolves upon the County Authorities from the 1st of last April to defray the whole cost of the maintenance of these roads, and that the Local Highway Authorities are altogether relieved of the burden of maintaining them.


My Lords, I should like to say a few words upon this matter with regard to the County Councils, after the statement which has been made by the noble Viscount in answer to my noble Friend Lord Belper. This matter of the subvention for the maintenance of main roads is extremely complicated. My noble Friend has put it extremely clearly, and I have nothing to say by way of differing from him upon the former method applied to the subvention. But, my Lords, I think there is this to be said. There are two sets of authorities concerned in this matter—the Highway Authorities and the County Authorities. They have both a responsibility in the matter, and the Government have nothing to do with the question whether the county rate has more thrown on it, and the Highway Autho- rities less thrown on them, than previously for the maintenance of the roads. The Government have only to see that they have paid over sufficient money to relieve the local burthen, whether it be in the shape of County or Highway Bill. The Government have paid certain sums towards main roads, relieving the local rates for the year in which they make the payment, but calculating the amount on the cost of main roads for the previous year. Had they not done this, the Local Authorities would have had to wait until the accounts of the year had been audited, and this would have created an inconvenient delay. They have gone on paying in the same way for 1883–4–5–6–7–8. They have paid the full subvention—the quarter to the Highway Authority and the quarter to the County Authority —down to 1888. Then they say they are not going to pay any more. And why? Because they are going to give an equivalent and more than an equivalent to the County Councils by means of the License and Probate Duties. If the Government paid, as my noble Friend desires, they would be paying some part of their subvention twice over. In my opinion, if a Highway Authority has any grievance it must look now for redress to the County Council. But now I should like to press another matter very much upon the Government. The noble Lord at the latter end of his speech thought that in his part of the country some of the County Councils would have to raise very considerably their rates in this the first year of their administration. I confess that would be a very serious thing. It would have a very bad effect in prejudicing the country against this new Act, and I therefore think it is important that Her Majesty's Government should redeem their declaration and pay the full amount of the subvention. We hoped we should gain a little beside what we had at the old Quarter Session, something more to answer the heavy burdens which we have to meet; but I think it is of the greatest importance that the Councils should not be put to any inconvenience by the subvention being less than the charges which they, instead of the Government, are now bound to meet. We have to meet the subvention to the Unions, we have also to maintain absolutely the whole of our main roads, and we have to pay for the whole of the Police. I need not go through the items of all that is now thrown upon the County Councils. I therefore would press very much on Her Majesty's Government that the Councils should receive within the financial year certainly as much, if not more, than was formerly paid to various Local Bodies; otherwise, we shall fall into difficulties. I am aware that before this can be finally settled an agreement as to the share which counties and boroughs are each to have of the Licenses and Probate Duties has to be made. I was one of those who went through the process of trying to agree to a settlement last week, and I assure your Lordships that you could not have a much more difficult measure to carry through than to come to an arrangement between the borough and the county with regard to the share which is to come from the Government of the Licensing and Probate Duties, because although with regard to the Probate Duty the Act in a certain sense settled the principle of its division for the whole country, you have to make a division on that as well as for the other licenses within each county. My Lords, I think this matter of the division between the boroughs and the counties should be settled as speedily as possible, and until that is done the Government will not of course be able to complete finally the subvention; but I venture to press on Her Majesty's Government strongly what my noble Friend so well put, that it is very desirable we should get the full subvention during the financial year and that we should not be obliged to raise higher county rates than we were obliged to raise formerly.


My Lords, I think this is simply an exemplification of the old proverb that you cannot eat your cake and have it. If the Local Government Bill had not been passed last year the grant which has hitherto been paid by the Exchequer would have been paid this year. But the Bill having been passed the licenses have been handed over to the County Councils in the place of the grant. The amount from licenses will be larger than the former grants in aid from the Exchequer. Undoubtedly there will be some delay in the payment of the sums this year, but the noble Earl will see that they cannot be paid until they are received, and the money will not be wholly received by the Exchequer until the end of the financial year. Considerable payments will be made in July, October, and February next. This is an important question, in so far as the different County Councils may be placed in a temporary difficulty arising out of the transfer. I believe every effort will be made by the Government to pay the money as quickly as possible. With regard to the larger question which noble Lords have raised as to how the County Councils are to tide over the difficulty of having to levy an increased rate to meet the present year's liabilities, the point is not covered by the Notice on the Paper and I do not suppose that the noble Earl opposite will expect the Government to give an answer without further consideration. The point is obviously an important one, and if the Government had received notice of the question they would no doubt have been able to deal with it. The Government would not willingly lay an undue burden upon the County Councils in the first year of their existence.


My Lords, it is quite clear that the Government are right in the view they have taken as to the question of the payment of the money this year. If they are right, it is all the more important that your Lordships should impress upon the Government the extreme hardship which the counties will suffer if they do not receive a sum equivalent to the amount which they have lost. If they have to make a new and additional county rate, the ratepayers will take notice of the increase, although the poor rate may be reduced. I quite agree with the noble Lord that we cannot eat our cake and have it. But in the present year there is no cake. They have been accustomed to a cake of a certain size, and they have been told that they were to have a larger one this year. But they are not to have it, and what they ask is that the cake may be made up to the same size as before. I think the Government are really bound, having announced that their measure will tend to the relief of rates, not to allow the year to go over in such a way that the rates will be actually increased instead of decreased. It is not enough to say that they will get the money in another year, because the ratepayers of another year may not be the same as the ratepayers of this year; and they would be relieving the ratepayers of another year at the expense of the ratepayers of this year. I hope and believe that the larger question will receive the careful consideration of the Government with the view of preventing the grievance complained of from arising.


My Lords, if we understand that the Government consider the County Councils are entitled to the payment of the full subvention within the financial year so that they shall not be obliged to raise higher county rates, I think that will be an answer to my question.