HL Deb 24 March 1898 vol 55 cc713-21

Order for Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move the Second Reading of the Floods Prevention Bill. This Bill, with some slight amendment, is just the same Bill as was brought in and passed in 1896 and 1897. I have brought it in again this year at the urgent request of the County Councils Association. I rather lay emphasis on the fact that I bring it in at the request of that association, not because I wish to avoid criticism, but to show your Lordships that this Bill is no fad of my own, and that I have not brought it in to gratify my own fancy. It is a Bill prepared by, and on behalf of, an association which represents five-sixths of the comities of England, and therefore practically represents five-sixths of the agricultural population of England, and it is believed by them that it will be extremely beneficial in its character. With respect to the object of the Bill, it is almost sufficiently explained in the title. It is a very small Bill, and will only give to county councils power to prevent floods in places where no other river authority has control. The Bill does not interfere with areas already under river authorities, but only fills up a gap in legislation in respect of places where there is no power to control the watercourses. What is the use of an owner moving an obstruction if other obstructions are allowed to remain below or above him? This Bill is only to enable county councils to do what nobody else could do—namely, to remove obstructions in the river where there is no other authority having control. Then, my Lords, I must read to you the powers very shortly which this Bill gives, to prove to you that the statements which were made last Session are entirely and absolutely exaggerated. The powers conferred by this Bill upon county councils are these: they may cleanse, repair, or keep in a state of efficiency any watercourse, bank, dam, or other like work. They may construct a new work in the place of an old work, but only in the place of a work out of repair, and they cannot make any material alteration without the consent of the owners. They may carry out improvement, but so as not to substantially alter the existing character of the work. They may remove obstructions not resulting from the original course of the river, but such as have been caused by natural causes or accident. They may—this clause was introduced by Lord Camperdown—proceed at law against persons illegally creating obstructions. Lastly, they may, with the consent of the owners and occupiers, remove dams and other obstructions. Then, my Lords, with regard to what they are to pay, they have to pay full compensation for any damage done. I admit that in the last Bill the word "illegal" was inserted with respect to damage, but on the advice of the Lord Chancellor, who is always kind to my legislation, and to whom I owe a debt of gratitude, I struck that word out. With regard to the question of rating, can there be anything more absurd or absolutely ridiculous than the idea as recommended by Lord Heneage last Session of dividing a county into uplands, midlands, or lowlands, in order that a few obstructions in rivers and watercourses may be removed? Why, my Lords, the uplands, midlands, and lowlands are represented in the county council, and will not tax themselves unnecessarily. As to taxing subordinate districts, they have no power to do that except with the consent of the subordinate districts. It appears to me impossible that there could be a Bill more limited in its powers than this one. If there is any fault it is that it is too limited, but it would be hopeless to pass a great Bill through this House. I have informed your Lordships of the nature of the Bill, to the Second Reading of which I ask your Lordships to assent, and I will now shortly state what has happened to this Bill. It was brought in in 1896, and Lord Salisbury objected to the absence of certain safeguards. I put in those safeguards, and the Bill passed through all its stages, being fully considered in the Standing Committee and amended. The Bill passed this House, but owing to the press of business in the Commons, as is not unusual, it failed to get through that House. Then, my Lords, last year the Bill, which I had anticipated would pass through without any difficulty at all, was, to my great and infinite astonishment, opposed. First, there was the question of the uplands and lowlands; I was told that I ought to have divided the counties. That was absolutely impossible. Lord Heneage drew the conclusion that because my Bill could not prevent drought in the uplands I ought not to prevent floods in the lowlands. Can there be a more extraordinary argument than that? Then he said the Bill was controversial. How, in the name of goodness, can a Bill to prevent floods be more controversial than questions affecting sanitation, highways, etc.? If the local authority has power in the one case, why not in the other? Then there came this extraordinary objection. Lord Heneage said— Under this Bill there was net a single watercourse, not a supply of water, not a single storage of water, that could not be interfered with by the Bill. Every word of that is inaccurate. In the first place, all watercourses are excepted which are under the authority of any other river Board. With respect to the supply of water, it is specially provided that they shall not interfere with the supply of water. In respect to the storage of water, the Bill provides that they could not remove any dam or other wall or means of storing water without the consent of the owners. Therefore, my Lords, every one of these objections is really and truly inaccurate. Then, again, Lord Salisbury—we all regret his Lordship's absence and the cause of it—said— They could enter into your garden and takes your fish-pond, and they could do what they pleased with it. The fact is, they could not take any standing water or fish-pond at all; that is provided against in the Bill. Therefore, I think, my Lords, that my small Measure was rather hardly dealt with. As Lord Salisbury is not here, I will not allude to the argument which he addressed to me with respect to looking out of the window of a railway carriage, and so forth. I think I have proved to you that this Bill is one of extremely limited powers. It is as Bill very much desired by the agricultural population. It is a Bill which can do no harm, and which may do great good. I will conclude by asking your Lordships, without having regard to my age or to those infirmities, which were alluded to in the last Session, to consider this Bill without prejudice as a Measure brought forward on behalf of five-sixths of the counties of England, and which they believe will be extremely beneficial.


My Lords, this Bill was before your Lordships last year, and your Lordships threw it out on the Second Reading. I was one of those who supported the Second Reading, and I shall do so to-day. I think the country is indebted to the noble Lord who has just sat down for persevering with his Measure, and for doing his utmost for a very important object. As he stated just now, there are very few subjects of greater importance than the conservancy of our rivers, and where there is no Conservancy Board, or river authority, it is important that some public body of that nature should be created. What is, I think, more important is that private individual should be proceeded against for any damage they cause to the rivers, or who, in the language of this Bill, "illegally create obstructions or damage to the watercourses of the country." There should be, on the part of the public, a means of compelling private owners to maintain the rivers or watercourses passing through their property in a proper condition, and also to enforce penalties upon those who damage the rivers of the country. I confess that I think there are faults in this Bill of very considerable magnitude, though I think they are such as might be corrected in Committee. I am rather astonished that this Bill has passed your Lordships' House once already. A year ago it passed through the ordeal of a Standing Committee, and how it passed with the blots remaining in it I can hardly conceive. At present the language of the Bill is vague and unguarded. I will refer, for instance, to the first clause, which says that the object is to prevent floods, and then the words are added "or any other damage." Well, "any other damage" is a very vague sort of expression. In the same clause there are the words, "they may cleanse, repair, or otherwise keep in a due state of efficiency, any watercourse, weir, bank, dam, or defence against water, or other work of a like nature." The words "or other work of a like nature" are also excessively vague, and this is rather a dangerous power to give. Then, again, county councils have the general power, in another section of the clause, to repair works that are out of order all over the country, and carry out any improvement or alteration "which does not materially change the character of the work." These are phrases of a very vague description, and I am rather surprised that they passed a Standing Committee without correction. But the most important part of the Bill is the third clause, which gives county councils the power of levying the expense upon districts and parishes as a special rate. Some parts of a parish or district might be benefited and others not, and to adjust the payment to the parts of the locality which would be benefited has been the great difficulty in all attempts to legislate on this subject. I can recollect years ago that difficulty occurring when a Measure of this sort was proposed in Parliament. I think your Lordships will recollect the discussion turned upon whether lowlands, uplands, or midlands should be equally rated. The prevention of floods may do a great deal of good to a valley and no good to the upland, and to rate the uplands for the benefit of the valley was considered not fair, and upon that point several Bills have been wrecked altogether. The noble Lord gets over the difficulty by not alluding to it at all, but by proposing a special district rate. I do not think that can be done. Every man judges by his own experience. I have myself just cleared a river four miles along a valley, at a very considerable expense, and under this Bill the county council may carry on the clearance of that river for the whole of the rest of its course, partly at my expense. I should think it very unfair that I should have to pay towards the clearance of the rest of the river after clearing, at my own cost, my own portion of the river. The power of levying the expense by a special rate is too great to be entrusted to county councils. We know that county councils are very ambitious of extending their powers. Those powers were given by Parliament for certain distinct executive functions. They are already trying to extend those powers so as to include legislative functions, and at this moment have combined in an association of county councils throughout the Kingdom to petition Parliament to alter part of the Act constituting county councils by giving them further power to support Bills in Parliament—in fact, to take a share in legislation. Even in the exercise of their executive functions some restriction should be placed upon such works as these. This Bill proposes to allow county councils to combine. Suppose county councils combined to clear the whole of the valley of the Thames, which they might do. This would be a national work, extending beyond the proper limit of the functions of county councils. I recollect an expression of Lord Salisbury's some time ago. His Lordship said that these councils and boards, which Parliament had been creating in such large numbers, were all infected with "megalomania," and anxious to be superior to the kind of bodies Parliament intended them to be. Only yesterday the Second Reading was agreed to in the other House of a Bill to enable poor law unions to combine by elected representatives in a sort of Parliament of such bodies. All these are circumstances which I think should make us extremely cautious in giving enlarged powers to local bodies. The 4th Clause provides that these bodies may undertake works without inquiry. They have already powers of taxation greater almost than those of Parliament, because there is less check upon their proceedings. Public opinion cannot bear upon their proposals so easily as in Parliament, and the extent of the taxation which this country is already exposed to by local bodies of this sort is great. They have also raised a large amount of loans, which are a very formidable adjunct to the public debt. Altogether, I think this Bill requires very considerable checking and alteration. At the same time I am ready to vote for a Second Reading, because I believe that if restrictions are inserted, and the consent of those chiefly affected by the works to be undertaken is stipulated for, the Bill might be made useful for the important purpose of the conservancy of our rivers, which, throughout the whole Kingdom, are being seriously polluted and obstructed.


Your Lordships have heard, or been reminded, of the history of this Bill, which has been brought in on two previous occasions by the noble Lord opposite, and it is not necessary for me to go over that ground. But I think, from the speech of the noble Lord who has just sat down, your Lordships will realise that the House has not been unwise in hesitating, as it did last year, to give a Second Reading to this Bill. As the noble Lord who introduced the Bill has explained to your Lordships, he has accepted to some extent the suggestions that were made to him last year, and has introduced changes in the Bill as regards certain points in which it was thought the Bill needed Amendment, and I think your Lordships will gather from what my noble Friend beside me has said that under the innocent exterior of an enabling Bill this Bill contains drastic provisions. The Bill gives county councils very large powers with regard to the property of individuals. For instance, in the third clause the county council is given power to enter on anybody's land regardless of whether the stream, watercourse, or river belongs to that person, for the purpose of carrying out such works as it thinks necessary, and without notice. I admit it is only in cases of emergency that they have power to do this, but it is for the county council to say when the emergency exists. I do not know what your Lordships' experience of county councils may be, but mine is that a very large part of the work is done by committees. I do not say that is a bad way of doing the work. The work is done practically, quickly, and with great saving of labour and trouble to busy people. But there is, at the same time, a risk of propositions slipping through the councils themselves on the mere acceptation of the recommendation of a committee. Therefore I think your Lordships would be wise to accept the opinion of the noble Lord who sits behind me, that this Bill requires something more than passing through the ordinary procedure of your Lordships' House, and what I am instructed by the President of the Local Government Board to advise is that a Second Reading should be given to the Bill on condition that it is referred to a Select Committee.


My Lords, I shall be happy to assent to the course suggested, and I am glad to think that the Bill will be read a second time. I do not think the force of exaggeration can go beyond the statements of my noble Friend Lord Norton. He said, my Lords, that the Bill will enable county councils to rate anybody any way they like. It is exactly contrary. The special rate can only be imposed on parishes and sanitary authorities by their own consent. This is purposely provided for. With regard to differential rating, which he talks about, he knows that it is impossible to divide uplands, lowlands, and midlands so as to make the rate absolutely adapted to the benefit received. He knows, and everybody else knows, that all the Drainage Bills in England which have been passed for the alteration of watercourses have given up differential rating. What injustice, my Lords, does this Bill do? The county councils will only use their own rate. If they use the rate of anybody else it must be with the consent of the ratepayers. As to private land being entered without notice, it could only be entered for the purpose of inspecting works, and nothing more. I trust that in suggesting the reference of the matter to a Select Committee the noble Lord does not mean to postpone it to the Greek Kalends. I hope this Bill, the evils of which, if any—and I deny there are any—have been most grossly exaggerated, will pass within a reasonable time.

Question put.

Motion agreed to.

Bill rend a second time accordingly, and referred to Select Committee.