HL Deb 11 July 1901 vol 97 cc31-42

My Lords, for some weeks, or I may say for some months, your Lordships may have observed a motion in my name on the Paper, with no day named, for an amendment of Standing Order 22, which relates to the necessity of tramway undertakings obtaining the consents of the councils of the districts through which they pass before they can be introduced into Parliament. I have, in consequence of circumstances which I will presently as shortly as I can tell your Lordships, withdrawn that motion for the present, but I thought it was due to the House, and also I was anxious on my own account to make a short statement to the House giving the reasons I have for taking this action, and also the reasons I had for originally placing the motions on your Lordships' Table.

The Standing Order in question is one which is familiar to those of your Lordships who are interested in Private Bill legislation. It provides that no company can promote a tramway undertaking, nor can any municipality promote a tramway undertaking outside its own district, without obtaining the consent of the council through whose district the tramway passes, or, if there are several districts through which the tramway passes, of councils representing two-thirds of the whole length the tramway passes. Now this is not merely an ordinary power of the district councils to oppose, but it is what is called an "Examiners' Order," which means that it must be proved before the Examiner before the project can be in any way discussed by Parliament. It has occurred to me for some time past that that Standing Order is not working very satisfactorily, and last year I discusses the question with my right hon. friend Mr. Chaplin, who was then at the head of the Local Government Board, and we decided that it was desirable that some modification should be introduced into the Order. In the middle of July Mr. Chaplin, who as I have said was then at the head of the Local Government Board, said on the Third Reading of the Housing of the Working Classes BillAfter a conference with the Chairmen of Committees in both Houses, I am in a position to say that the Government are willing to make such alterations in that Standing Order— that is the Standing Order I am now referring to— and propose them in due course, as will modify those restrictions and allow the question to be brought before Parliament and leave to the Committee the decision as to whether the matter should go forward or not. A little later on in the session my noble friend Lord Ribblesdale, speaking on behalf of the London County Council, asked me a question in the House with regard to this modification of the Standing Order, and I then expressed my sympathy with him in desiring that modification, and I practically undertook to introduce an Amendment into the Standing Order to effect the object which at that time we both had in view. I did not think it was right last session, in the middle of August, to move so important an Amendment of the Standing Order, and I thought it would be in every way desirable that local bodies throughout the country should have ample notice that such a motion was in contemplation and that they should have an opportunity of expressing their opinion upon it.

At the beginning of this session I again gave notice of this motion, but, my Lords, I then found that the London County Council were not so anxious to have the Amendment which they had desired last year, and I also found as the session went on that there was little or no intention of moving the proposed Amendment in the House of Commons. I need not point out to the House that it is very desirable that the Standing Orders of the two Houses should be the same, or, as nearly as possible the same, and even if that were not necessary it would be perfectly useless for me to move the Amendment which was in my name on the Paper unless the same course was taken in the House of Commons as, of course, if one House insisted on the consent as a preliminary condition to the Bill being considered in Parliament, it would be perfectly useless for the other House to abolish that consent. Under those conditions, which I am afraid I have had to explain at some little length, I have for a time, at any rate, abandoned the motion which stood in my name.

I should further explain that I received in the course of the session a great many representations from local bodies as to the desirability or the undesirability of the course that I was advocating. There was by no means unanimity. I found in the country with regard to the question, but undoubtedly with the London municipalities, and also at present, I think, though I speak subject to correction as to that, in the London County Council, there is a feeling adverse to the course that I propose to take. The London County Council and the municipalities in London are really in a different position with regard to tramways from municipalities in other parts of the country. In London the municipalities are not the local authority under the Tramways Act; the London County Council is the tramway authority, but the municipalities are the road authorities. In other municipalities the road authority and the tramway authority are at one; so that in London if the tramway authority (that is, the London County Council) desire to make a tram-Way through any district they cannot do so without obtaining the preliminary consent of the municipality through which they desire the line to run, and if a company desire to run a tramway through any district they have not merely to get the consent of the municipality as road authority, but they also have to get the consent of the London County Council as the tramway authority. I found, as I said, that in London the municipalities were against my suggestion entirely, and an idea seemed to prevail in their minds that I was anxious in some way to derogate from the powers that they, or rather the Vestries who preceded them, enjoyed. Now I wish in the most emphatic and distinct way to repudiate anything of the kind. My Amendment had really less to do with London than the rest of the kingdom. My chief objections to the Order are not with regard to London, though there are inconveniences in the area of London itself; and it was absolutely absurd to suppose that my proposed Amendments of the Standing Order were directed in any way against these new municipalities of London. They were directed against what I thought was a mistake in the Standing Orders as applied to every municipality and local authority throughout the whole of England and Wales. That, I think, disposes of any idea that may be entertained that I had any desire to injure the prestige or the powers of the London municipalities.

But now, my Lords, if you will allow me, I wish to explain briefly why it was that I thought the Standing Order was not acting satisfactorily. The Tramways Act, as the House is aware, was passed more than thirty years ago—in 1870—and in the Tramways Act, which dealt only with Board of Trade Provisional Orders, it was laid down that the consents of local authorities should be given. Well, as I have told the House before, the local authorities in those days differed very much from what they would do now if the Act were reenacted, and I would impress upon my noble friends in the Government the importance of reviewing the tramway legislation with a view of putting matters of that kind right. The Tramways Act, of course, did not impose upon the promoters of Bills the same disabilities that it did upon promoters of Orders, but the House of Commons, very soon after 1870, and the House of Lords, I think, a year or two later still, made this Standing Order, which I now desire to amend, which rendered the consents of local authorities necessary as a preliminary condition to all tramway schemes being brought before Parliament. For reasons I shall presently give I do not think that that worked satisfactorily. It is perfectly true, and it has been suggested to me as a remedy, that the Standing Orders Committee has power to dispense with any of the Standing Orders. But, my Lords, in the case of this particular Standing Order, with two slight exceptions, the Order has never been dispensed with, and those exceptions took place this year under circumstances with which I need not trouble your Lordships in detail.

It seems to me that to introduce this power of dispensation, to discuss this question as to the reasonableness or the unreasonableness of the refusal of a local body to assent to a tramway scheme before the Standing Order Committee, would almost necessarily involve a discussion to some extent on the merits, and noble Lords who sit on the Standing Order Committee are very well aware that it is not a body before which questions of merits can be conveniently discussed. Therefore, my Lords, on that ground, and on that ground alone, I thought that the question could not be solved by giving the Standing Orders Committee any greater power than they have at present of dispensing with a Standing Order. Quite admitting, absolutely admitting, the right of districts through which tramways are going to run to have a strong voice in the matter, my suggestion was that before a scheme could go before a Committee the consent of all the local authorities should be proved, but that if it was withheld the Committee before whom the Bill was taken, if they considered that the consent had been unreasonably withheld, might dispense with it and the Report accordingly. That seemed to me to give the local authorities a very large and a very important power in the matter which I think they ought to have, and which I need not tell your Lordships they would inevitably have before any Committee, but at the same time it did not actually prohibit any Bill which did not previously obtain these consents being brought before Parliament.

Now with regard to my reasons for thinking a change desirable. In the first place, since 1870 the question of tramways has undergone a very large and very important change. At that time I think I am not exaggerating when I say that they were regarded by the majority of people as somewhat in the light of a nuisance. Well, they are not universally popular now, but the introduction of electricity to traction, and the enormous development of these tramways, especially in the very populous parts of the country, render it really a very important national mode of locomotion, and one which is likely to go on developing from time to time. It also has a very important bearing on the question of the housing of the working classes in populous centers. I should also say besides that, that with this great extension the tramways have somewhat developed out of their actual and purely local character, and you are getting through the great centers of industry, such as Manchester, and the north of Warwickshire and Staffordshire, long lines of tramways joining together, which are in the nature rather of through routes than local traffic. That is the first change. The second change is one of perhaps less importance, but it is important. It is that the local authorities have now what they had not in 1870, a power not only to make, but also to work and to own the tramways themselves. Your Lordships will see at once that it is scarcely fair to give a municipality, especially when it is constructing a tramway outside the limits of its own district, an absolute veto on all other schemes, because by that means you are giving one possible competitor a power of crushing at once every rival who might come into the field. I do not think that is fair, and I do not think it is in any way conducive to the public interests. Then I was mentioning the development in populous districts. There is this point to be considered—that you have many of these large towns and large urban districts with enormous populations that are separated from one another by rural districts. In those cases if the companies or municipalities desire to connect by through tramways these large centers of population, they may be absolutely prohibited from doing so till they have obtained the consent of some long, but possibly from a population point of view, far less important district constituting the rural district dividing the two places. That I do not think right either. I do not think it is right that so large a power should be put into the hands of a comparatively sparsely populated district, of absolutely vetoing schemes which might be of very great advantage to the districts surrounding. Then, if I am not exhausting the House, I may mention another reason, namely, that this power of absolute veto is not Consonant with the principles of legislation at the present day. I admit that the electric lighting legislation is not quite on all fours; it is the under surface of the road, not the surface that is used, but in the case of electric lighting the districts have no absolute power of veto; they have a power of opposing, which local authorities ought to have, but that power is modified, and may be overridden by the Board of Trade in their Provisional Orders if they report to the House that they have done so. But a much more striking and analogous case is that of the light railways. In the Light Railway Acts there is no power at all required of the local districts or the local authorities—absolutely no power whatever—and so you have this anomaly. You may have a long line of tramway alternating with a light railway, which differs from it merely in name, and because they come under a different Act of Parliament, in one case the absolute consent is required and in the other case no consent at all is required. I do not know what my noble friend Lord Jersey, if he were in the House, could tell us as to how the absence of these consents has worked with regard to light railways. I could not speak as to it myself, but all I can say is that I have heard no complaints about it, and as far as I know the local authorities' opinions have always been taken, and so far as I have heard have always had their proper effect on the minds of the Commissioners.

But now, my Lords, I come to my last and my most important reason for thinking that a change of the Standing Order is necessary, and it is this. I take it that when Parliament in the Tramways Act of 1870 laid down that the consents of the district councils or the municipalities should be required, and when we followed suit in our Standing Orders of both Houses, what we intended, and what Parliament intended, was that the local authorities should express the opinion generally of the localities as to whether a tramway was inexpedient or expedient, or that possibly they might refuse to allow it to be adopted because the streets were too narrow, or because there were other features in the district that rendered it inexpedient. I think that would be very reasonable. Even if they had gone beyond that and said that in certain cases they would allow tramways to be constructed, if at the expense of the company wanting to run them certain improvements were made—certain streets widened, and so on—I think that would be reasonable enough. But what did happen—and I am speaking now from my knowledge of the number of tramway Bills that come before me in the Private Bill Office—was that the local authorities—I am not making this a general assertion, but I am saying that it constantly happens that the local authorities, chiefly the small ones, use this power of refusal as a lever to extract terms out of the promoters—be they companies or neighboring municipalities. The process has been to postpone giving their consent till very nearly the time when the Bill had to be deposited in November, and then to impose such conditions upon the tramway companies or the municipality which was running the tramway out of their own district as would, in my opinion, in many cases be exceedingly onerous and very unfair. I do not say that this is universally the case, by any means. I saw a letter in a newspaper yesterday which said that my Amendment was unnecessary, because in one or two cases tramways had been fairly treated. I am not for a moment denying that, and I go further and say that, in most of the largest constituencies, probably the tramways are very fairly treated, but there are cases in which this power of withholding consent gives the local authorities a leverage which I think they exercise in most cases very unfairly.

Now to give your Lordships an idea of the conditions that are exacted. In the first place, in some cases clauses have been introduced into Bills asking for payment for the use of the roads; in other cases tramway companies have been required to light the streets, which is obviously the business of the municipality itself; in other cases they have been required to widen the streets where the widening was not required for purely tramway purposes. I quite admit that widening for purely tramway purposes would be a proper and legitimate thing to ask, but these conditions are accepted by the companies under pressure and they are introduced into Bills as agreed clauses—"protective clauses" as they are called. Those clauses are exceedingly difficult for me to deal with. They are passed by Committees, who probably never look at them, and then they come before me. I am bound to say that they are very difficult to deal with, because I am told on every occasion "these are clauses that have been agreed to and it is very hard to deprive us of what we have obtained," but I am bound to say that where I think the public interest is not rightly protected I have in many cases very much cut those clauses about. For instance, my Lords, I never have allowed in any Bill a clause authorizing a way leave to be charged for the use of the roads. It seems to me that that is altogether contrary to public policy and contrary to the intention of Parliament either in the Standing Orders or in the Tramways Act. I could quote a number of cases of these conditions, but I will not weary the House by doing so. I should like to make one quotation from a Report of the House of Commons Committee as an illustration of what may be done. This is a Report on a Glasgow District Tramways Bill. It is a public document and therefore I may quote it— The Committee find the preamble not proved, but they desire to put it on record that in their view the original scheme was a good one and calculated to be of much service to the district, but it has been so mutilated and loaded with conditions by the conflicting interests and the excessive demands of several local bodies that at present it appears to the Committee to be wholly unworkable"— And on that ground the scheme was thrown out, after costing the promoters a very large sum of money indeed. My Lords, I confess that it seems to me exceedingly undesirable that you should leave this absolute veto, which gives a lever to the local authorities for haggling terms, and which also encourages the tramway companies or the tramway promoters, whoever they may be, to bribe the local authorities into giving consents. It seems to me that it is absolutely improper, and that these schemes should go to a Committee to inquire whether the consents of the local authorities had been reasonably or unreasonably withheld.

My Lords, which is really the main reason why I think the Standing Order should be altered. There are minor reasons: one which I referred to just now, namely the difficulty in London itself (but not exclusively in London) of the double power of veto of the road authority and the local authority. I do not know whether I made myself clear as to the difference between the two, but this is what happens. It has actually happened in London within the last year. A tramway company got its Bill consented to by one of the London municipalities through whose area it was to run, but immediately. Afterwards it went for the consent of the London County Council—which was only remotely interested, and only interested as the owner of a tramway in another part of London—and they refused their consent. Therefore you have got this curious anomaly that the London County Council, who are the tramway authority, though not the road authority, were able to prevent a scheme being carried into effect which the local authority and the road authority were anxious should be carried into effect for the benefit of their district.


May I ask what district that was?


Hammersmith. The same conflict arises in the case of county councils. County councils are owners only of the main roads. They are not owners of the ordinary roads, and they are not the local authority for tramway purposes, but yet county councils can prohibit a tramway going along their road even though it is desired by the district authority. I may mention now that I have had on several occasions lately clauses introduced into private Bills giving the county councils power at the end of a specified time to purchase tramway undertakings. I have considered it right, and shall continue to do so unless the House alters its present legislation, to strike those clauses out of the Bill on the ground that the county councils are not tramway authorities under the law as it now stands, and that therefore they have no right whatever to have any power of purchasing tramway undertakings.

The arguments, of course, in favor of retaining the Standing Order as it is at present are that the local authority are the best judges of the need of the district; that by the power of absolute veto they can crush any unpopular schemes without the expense of opposing in Parliament, and that they are unable to protect frontagers and to save them the expense of Parliamentary opposition. I quite admit that there is a great deal of force in these arguments, but I think the protection to frontagers is a somewhat imaginary one, and also I think the question of the expense of opposition is rather exaggerated. In nine cases out of ten the opposition to tramways is not absolute; it is merely the obtaining of some of these protective clauses to which I have referred. I know as a fact that in almost all cases the local authorities spend very considerable amounts of money in feeing counsel and agents with a view of seeing those clauses of the Bill through all their stages in Parliament.

My Lords, I must apologise for having detained the House so long, but I should like before I sit down to say that though I quite admit that a great deal of force should be given to those arguments in favour of retaining the Standing Order as it is, yet I think the reasons against it are still stronger. My reasons, if I may be allowed to recapitulate them, are these: that it is not theoretically right that anyone or any body of persons should have an absolute power of veto and should be able to prevent a scheme coming in any shape before Parliament against their will; that it is against the principles of modern legislation, especially against the principles of the Light Railway Act; that it is not right for a rival proprietor (as it is in the case of large municipalities) to have the power of absolutely stopping any rivals from coming into the field; that there is an inconvenience in the double veto of the road authority and the local authority, and, above all, that it is not expedient or in the public interests that you should give to the local authorities such a strong power of exacting conditions that may be very onerous upon an important national industry, and also that you should encourage the promoters of these undertakings to bribe the local authorities in some way or other. When I use the word "bribe," I desire distinctly to explain that I do not mean money bribe; I mean bribing by offering some advantage in order to get the consent of the local authority.

One cure for this is, as I said before, for the Standing Orders Committee to have greater power of dispensing with this Standing Order than it has at present, and for the reasons I have given I do not think that is advantageous. Another and a more heroic plan would be a complete alteration of our tramway legislation and an amendment of the tramway law, giving the Board of Trade greater powers of making Provisional Orders. I am not sure that it is not well worthy of the consideration of His Majesty's Government—and also to bring it somewhat more into line with the light railway legislation, which at present is really absurdly inconsistent with tramway legislation. I merely throw out these suggestions for consideration by His Majesty's Government. In the motion which I had on the Paper I resorted to what seemed to me the simplest and the easiest method of getting rid of the evils which I have endeavored to explain to the House. As I have said before, I have dropped the motion because I see no indication of its being taken up in another place, and it would be useless to take it up in this House unless it was taken up in the other House as well; but I feel very strongly about it, and if I get any sympathy here or elsewhere I shall be very glad to reintroduce the matter.

I thought it was due to the House and also to my self to explain the position in which I stand with regard to this matter, and the reason why I have left the motion for so many months without naming a day for its consideration on the Paper of your Lordships.