HL Deb 17 March 1908 vol 186 cc345-60

in asking whether His Majesty's Government would, in considering any further legislation or taxation relating to motor cars, bear in mind the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Motor Cars and the Royal Commission on London Traffic, and take such steps as may be necessary to create a national road authority, by whom the main roads of this country should be managed, said, My Lords, I am asking His Majesty's Government this afternoon the Question which is in my name on the Paper, in consequence of certain rumours which we must all have heard, that fresh arrangements are to be made on the question of the taxation of motor cars, and I think it might be convenient if His Majesty's Government could give us at any rate some information of the lines on which the proposed legislation will proceed. I am, of course, aware that this House cannot deal intimately with questions of taxation, but as the projects which seem to be foreshadowed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer include matters of rating which will affect a great many of your Lordships very considerably, I think it is within the competence of this House that we should have a short discussion on the question. First of all, I would ask the noble Lord who, I believe, is going to reply for the Local Government Board on this Question to refer to the matter from two points of view. I am not now going to press the motorists' point of view, because the time will arrive when that can be done both in the other House and in this. But from the local authorities point of view the question of taxation and legislation with regard to motor cars is very important. To begin with, if we are to believe what has been said in another place, and if we are to take the reply of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to certain deputations which have waited upon him, he has no intention at the present moment of giving anything to local authorities either in regard to providing them with funds for the extension of road management and improvement by them or in regard to setting up some central Board for the working of our roads. The former, I confess, is the more important of the two. At present no less than three Royal Commissions and one Departmental Committee have reported that the present system of road construction, maintenance, and administration is very bad. The Royal Commission on Local Taxation, the Royal Commission on Loudon Traffic, and the Royal Commission on Motor Cars, have all made certain recommendations which, I fear, are at any rate for the present moment to a certain extent rendered nugatory by the fatal want which impedes so many good resolutions, namely, the want of money. But if the Chancellor of the Exchequer is going to tax motor cars more highly (and I am not personally one of those who say that certain classes of motor cars ought not to pay more than they do), I think that at the same time local authorities and motorists have some right to ask that if money is to be raised from them, it should be raised on the lines of the recommendations of these Commissions and this Departmental Committee, namely, on the lines of road improvement and of alleviating the great nuisance arising from dusty roads, which is the greatest nuisance motorists have to face in the country, and the removal of which nuisance would not only add to the comfort of motorists, but also alleviate the sufferings of those who live alongside the roads.

At the present the Treasury receives all the money which is derived from carriage taxes, establishment taxes, and all kinds of other small licences and taxations. The money so received is paid into the Local Taxation Account and returns to the counties in the form of a grant in aid of local taxation. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer is going to take from them, besides a proportion of that, a certain amount of the licence fees for renewals of driving licences and for motor cars registrations—a sum amounting to something like £80,000 a year—as well, all I can say is that the county councils, which now have a very hard time of it, will have a still harder time in the future. It must not be forgotten that they have to put all that is necessary under the Local Government Act in the shape of triangles, signs for designating dangerous crossings, and so on, and they can only do that out of the sum they receive on licences and registration of motor cars. If the Lord Chancellor were here he would corroborate me, I think, when I say that last year they received over £2,500 in motor car licences and driving fees to assist them towards putting up these notices, and I trust that His Majesty's Government, if they consider any question of increased taxation, will see that this is not only a question of motor cars, but a question of carriages as well, and will give some contribution to enable the county councils to assist towards the improvement of the roads and the removal of their dusty condition. I do not intend at this late hour to trespass on your Lordships' time at any great length, but I should like to say that it seems to me that if motors are to be taxed from the point of view of luxury, there are other things which should be taxed equally, and perhaps to a larger extent. For instance, there are yachts, racehorses, jewels, pictures, and even such things as the possession of an orchid house or anything else of that kind. But if the motor-car is to be taxed on that basis, I think the Chancellor of the Exchequer is rather under a fallacy concerning it, because the number of motor cars owned by rich people as compared with those owned by men of moderate means is comparatively small, and everyone studying the statistics knows that at the present time the largest single owners of motor cars are professional men, such as doctors and so forth, who use them for the purposes of their business. I think that is a class which ought to be dealt with very lightly in regard to increased taxation. If, on the other hand, motor cars are to be taxed as destroyers of the roads—which is another argument that I can quite understand being put forward—there are other vehicles which destroy the roads far more than motor cars, and if taxation is to be put forward upon that basis, then I suggest that there is all the more justice in declaring that the money should be paid to the Local Taxation Account in order to assist the counties.

This is a serious question, my Lords, and it is becoming more serious every day. Thirteen million pounds a year is spent on the roads of this country, of which £11,000,000 is raised by rates. The administration of these roads is at present in a chaotic condition. Authorities mend the roads just as they choose; there is no unified system. To take an instance, between London and Carlisle there are over 170 authorities who manage that stretch of road. What we ought really to do in this country—and no doubt His Majesty's Government will follow up the Report of the Royal Commission on this subject—is to have a national road authority to administer the main roads of the country. Everybody who has toured abroad knows the excellent condition of the roads in France, and this condition is solely due to the fact that they are managed by the Government as a national asset and as a national duty. I trust His Majesty's Government, if they have in view any further taxation of that sort, may come to the conclusion that a portion, if not the whole, of the money derived from the vehicles that use the roads, and especially motor cars, may be devoted to local purposes—to the purposes of the improvement and maintenance of the roads; and I trust that the noble Lord who is going to reply will be able to give us some assurance on that point.


The noble Lord has raised a very interesting and a very important question, and he has incidentally raised the whole question of motor car traffic and the upkeep of roads. This question is very much involved, and I can only regret that in the few words that I have to say in reply to the noble Lord's question, I am afraid I shall not be able to give him what he will think a very satisfactory answer, because this question is so much mixed up with financial considerations which, as nobody knows better than the noble Lord, hardly come within the province of this House. I am able to say, however, that the Government have no present contemplation of any general legislation on the subject of motor cars, although they quite recognise that an Amendment in the law relating to motor cars is desirable in some directions. The noble Lord has given us some very interesting facts and figures on the question of motor cars and the upkeep of roads, the cost of which has no doubt increased to a very considerable extent since the advent of motors. But the main part of his question is really one, as I have already said, for the Treasury to deal with, referring as it does to matters of finance.

Now, what the noble Lord asks is practically if, when fresh legislation or fresh taxation is being considered, the recommendations of the Royal Commissions on Motor Cars and on London Traffic may be borne in mind, and he also asks that steps may be taken for establishing a national road authority for the management of the main roads of the country. I notice that in his remarks just now he used the expression "national road authority," but the suggestion of the Royal Commission to which he has referred—the Royal Commission of 1906—was not quite that there should be what he has termed a national road authority. Their sug- gestion was that the money derived from the taxation of motor cars should be handed to some central department, and should be by them appropriated in part payment of the cost incurred by the local authorities in works having for their object the creation of more durable roads and the removal of dangers to traffic on the more important arteries of through communication. I think it will be seen, therefore, that it was not a national road authority such as the noble Lord has referred to, but a central department by whom the proceeds of licences should be distributed that was recommended. Such a department would, of course, come to exercise the same control over the main tenance of the roads as is now exercised by the various local authorities, while the actual management of the roads under the scheme proposed by the Royal Commission would remain with the existing authorities.

Then the noble Lord has also referred to other Royal Commissions and to a Departmental Committee which have already sat. The Royal Commission on London Traffic to which he referred, which sat in 1905, was by its terms of reference confined to the consideration of the traffic problems of London solely. It was, however, instructed to advise as to the desirability of establishing some tribunal to which schemes of railway and tramway construction should be referred, and it recommended the creation of a Traffic Board to deal with or advise upon all matters affecting traffic within the area of Greater London. The Report of that Commission does not, I think, bear very much upon the noble Lord's Question of to-day, but the Royal Commission on Local Taxation to which the noble Lord has also referred, did recommend, as the noble Lord has said, that a grant from the Exchequer should be made towards the maintenance of such roads as might be found on investigation by a "duly authorised tribunal" to be of national as well as of local importance. Then there was the Departmental Committee on Highway Authorities, 1903, which I think must be the one to which the noble Lord alluded, appointed by the Local Government Board. This Committee proposed a central Department to supervise the maintenance of there national highways. But I cannot find that any of these Commissions, or this Committee, to which the noble Lord has referred, recommended quite what he has suggested, viz., a national road authority to manage the main roads of the country, and the Government cannot give any promise for the establishment of any such authority. It would be, in effect, to create in this country roads maintained by the State similar to what are known as "Routes Nationales" in France; and this would tend to throw a very serious burden upon the Imperial funds, and would be, I venture to think, inconsistent with the policy of local government and decentralisation which has been adopted in this country, although of course, it must be admitted—and I frankly admit—that motor traffic is not merely local, but if I may use the expression, through traffic, and that considerable changes in locomotion throughout the country have taken place no doubt largely owing to the advent of motors. I may perhaps point out also—and this trenches on the question of finance—that the practice of earmarking specific heads of Imperial revenue for the purpose of grants in aid of local taxation, is opposed to the present policy of the Treasury. Chancellors of the Exchequer are all very grasping, I know, but in view of the increasing demands that are made upon the Exchequer, I do not know that Mr. Asquith is any more grasping than any of his predecessors, or than the noble Lord who generally sits on the front bench opposite (Viscount St. Aldwyn); but I strongly suspect, my Lords, that if the Chancellor of the Exchequer has any contemplation at all of getting increased revenue from the taxation of motorcars—of which I have not the faintest notion—he will wish to have the disposal himself of any increased revenue which he may get, and not let it be intercepted for the purpose of grants-in-aid.

The noble Lord asks in his Question whether the Government will give any part of its increased taxation to local authorities for the upkeep of the roads. He must recognise, however—especially as he has sat in another place—that the whole question of subventions and of the taxation of motor cars are matters which do not directly affect your Lordships, although as taxpayers I know perfectly well that all your Lordships must be individually interested in knowing what extra taxation may be imposed upon you in another place, and those of you who own motor cars will, I am sure, be very anxious to know whether you will have to pay a higher tax in respect of them during the coming year. But, as I have said, I cannot pretend to any knowledge of what the views of the Chancellor of the Exchequer are in this relation, and I am afraid we shall all have to wait patiently until he unfolds his Budget in a few weeks time.

Then, my Lords, there is the long-deferred and very urgent question of re-adjusting the burden of local taxation, which will have to be considered. The Report of the Royal Commission on Local Taxation has already been referred to by the noble Lord, and I suppose it may be taken for granted that when that very large question is dealt with, the suggestion of assisting from national sources the maintenance of arterial roads will be taken into very serious consideration, not only in connection with the motor-car traffic, but as part of a general and much wider scheme. The Royal Commission on Local Taxation did certainly make certain recommendations as regards giving assistance towards the maintenance of roads, but that was not particularly in respect to motor cars; in fact, I think it was—I will not say before the advent of motor cars, but before they had increased to the present enormous extent. But any recommendations made were made in respect of the relief of local rates.

My Lords, I am very sorry that I cannot make any more definite statement in reply to the noble Lord, because the whole question is so intimately bound up with the financial administration which, as I have already said, this House is not concerned with, and we also have the Budget still in front of us. I will, however, take care that the views which the noble Lord has expressed, and which I know are shared to a very large extent by noble Lords in this House and by others outside, shall be represented to the proper quarter.


My Lords, owing to an engagement in the country, I hardly expected that I should be able to be present on this occasion, and consequently I rise to address your Lordships in a somewhat unprepared state on this question. First of all, I would say that in the few remarks which I propose to make, I am speaking entirely for myself. On a previous occasion I criticised to a certain extent the action of His Majesty's Government, and I also criticised the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu with regard to this question of the maintenance of roads for motor car traffic. The views I expressed then I hold now. At the same time I sympathise entirely as to the importance of the question raised by my noble friend. He is of course an authority on all matters connected with motor cars and the motorcar traffic on our roads. I am not, but I sympathise with him, because I think that no one can deny that at present, and more and more as the years go by, we are seeing the motorcar traffic gradually, but surely increasing on the roads, and we are seeing steadily, gradually, and surely the increase of the employment given to a vast number of men, not only in the conduct of these motors, but also in the construction of all sorts and kinds of motor cars. Therefore it is a question which I think my noble friend is perfectly justified in bringing forward, and which I am glad to hear from the noble Lord opposite, that His Majesty's Government will carefully consider. But having said so much, I am bound to agree with what has fallen from the noble Lord opposite. I quite recognise that it is impossible for him to give any pledge as to what His Majesty's Government will do with regard to this, to my mind, very important question, because we must consider—and my noble friend opposite knows this full well, because he occupies a very prominent position in the County Council of Northumberland—that the whole question of road traffic is one of great importance to those living on the spot, and to the local authorities, and therefore they will look with a very considerable amount of anxiety at the course taken by His Majesty's Government when the whole question of local taxation, as my noble friend has told us it will be, is gone into, and at the extent to which the rates are to be relieved or assisted.

My Lords, I myself have no hesitation in saying now, as I have said before—although I fear I shall be censured for doing so by my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu—that I think motor cars do not pay half enough taxation for the amount of benefit they receive in being permitted to run along the roads. I consider that the amount which a motor car pays for the privilege of being able to-run from John o' Groats to Land's End, and for having the roads kept in condition, is not adequate. I myself, as an owner of motor cars, would be only too glad to pay more, whether the tax is to be levied per horse-power or however the Government may decide, in order that I might feel that the roads were kept in order for me, and that I had a right to use those roads. I say again that at the present moment, to my mind, motor cars are certainly undertaxed; but as to how the question of taxation of motor cars is to be dealt with, I do not pretend to say. I remember that I said a year ago that I thought they ought to pay according to horse-power. I thought then that the very large fund which would result should be at the disposal of the Government. I still maintain that it should be at the disposal of the Government and not of the local authorities, for the purpose of maintaining the roads and of compensating those who are damaged by these motors rushing past them.

My noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, said that he did not see why motor cars, any more than objets d'art and other luxuries, should be taxed. I differ with him upon that, because motor cars are a cause of inconvenience to others, while objets d'art are not, and I consider that those who cause inconvenience to the public ought to pay for doing so. Therefore, I think that this is certainly a question which the Government ought to consider. In times past, when motor cars first originated, I think I may say that the drivers showed no consideration whatever for anyone. They rushed through the towns and villages regardless of any damage they did; they scared men, women, and children, as well as horses and cattle on the roads, and in the fields, and I think the unpopularity of motor cars in the first instance was due entirely to that class of driver. But I am glad to think that the class of driver who is now employed is very different. He is forbidden by his employer to do anything, so far as he can avoid it, to cause inconvenience to the districts through which he passes, and I think that the British public consequently view the question of motor cars in quite a different spirit from what they did a few years ago.

I am bound to say I look with a certain amount of contempt upon police traps. I have always noticed that police traps are usually set in the safest part of the road, in those districts in which no harm could be done by going at a great speed—and yet it is at those very spots where no harm can be done, that there are policemen waiting to capture those drivers who are exceeding the legal speed. But where ought they to be? Not wasting their time in setting traps in those safe districts, but in the villages and towns where children are running about and risking their lives and limbs.

My Lords, I think this is a very big question to enter into, and I am very glad indeed that my noble friend has raised it. I certainly hope that when the time comes for raising this question of local taxation the views which I have put shortly and crudely before your Lordships may be taken into consideration, and that the whole system of motor car traffic along the roads, which is at the present time a very important question, and will become more and more important as the years go by, may be taken into consideration, and the matter fully discussed and considered before any definite conclusion is arrived at.


My Lords, the question which my noble friend has raised is one (and nobody, I think, appreciates that more than he does) of immense and almost endless ramifications. I was rather sorry that in the course of his observations he dwelt so entirely upon the damage done to the roads by motor cars, and that he did not say a word about—at least so far as I followed his argument, he did not refer specifically to—the much greater damage done to roads by road engines as distinct from motor cars. I suppose that nobody who lives in the neighbourhood of a town can possibly fail to be aware that one road engine, in the course of a few hours, will do a far greater amount of damage than a very great number of motor cars, and also that there is a tendency now, on the part of railway companies, to take such traffic as they have heretofore still continued to place upon our fast disappearing canals off those canals and to put it upon road engines and send it along the roads. For example, in the neighbourhood of Bath and Bristol, the Midland Railway Company has taken its traffic off the Kennet and Avon Canal, and has put it upon the main roads in the counties of Somerset and Wilts and in the City of Bath (which is an independent road authority) which runs parallel to that canal, and those roads, which used to be some of the finest roads in the country, and were very popular, especially with the bicycling community, have now been almost entirely destroyed, and the cost of these roads to the county authorities has been enormously increased. That, of course, raises a question which is very germane to what has fallen from my noble friend, and which will undoubtedly have to be considered whenever this very large and complicated question is dealt with—I mean the law relating to extraordinary traffic. My noble friend knows—for he has given an almost life-long study to this question—that the law relating to extraordinary traffic is in a state of most extraordinary confusion. At a very early period of the appearance of this greatly increased traffic upon our roads, decisions were given—and I have no doubt they were perfectly sound as having been given by eminent Judges—that "extraordinary traffic" only meant traffic which was not ordinary traffic—that it was not "extraordinary" in the sense of being unusually great in the point, let us say, of the weight, or quantity, or quality, of the traffic itself. They decided that you had simply to ascertain the question whether it was part of the ordinary traffic of the district or not. Then subsequently there were other decisions which rather qualified that doctrine, and quite recently, in regard to this very Midland Railway Company, in the neighbourhood of the city of Bath, there has been a decision given which no doubt is a very great encouragement to the road authorities. Now it stands to reason that if the road authorities are able to enforce claims for extraordinary traffic against companies which do this damage, and if they are able to recover a considerable amount of the increased cost—not, perhaps, that I am very hopeful about that—it would in some ways rather modify the present position, because it would remove a portion of the grievance which the local authorities have, as I think, far more against the owners of heavy traffic like the road engines than against the owners of motor cars, though no doubt the motor cars are far more numerous in themselves than the road engines.

Then, whenever this question comes up, I have no doubt the Government will also have to consider certain questions on which my noble friend touched, though not very fully. For example, my noble friend said, and said very truly, that one of the greatest evils of our present road system was the enormous number of authorities. I always regretted that the late Government, when they were passing that great measure, the Local Government Act of 1888, accepted an Amendment by which the county councils were able to divest themselves of a considerable portion of their authority and their duty, by contracting with minor authorities. Undoubtedly the enormous number of local road authorities is a very great evil. It will be great in any case, because you have all the county authorities—not only the geographical counties, but the administrative counties, which include all the great county boroughs—boroughs above 50,000 population. But if, in addition to that, a county council contracts with all the minor authorities in a county, or with some of them, you immediately intensify that evil twenty or thirty-fold, according to the circumstances of your county.


nodded assent.


I am glad to see that my noble friend agrees with me. And the contracting clause to which I refer, is all the more dangerous because there is generally a certain amount of local popularity to be got by telling the minor authorities that you are going to contract with them. The unfortunate result has been that the less progressive counties in England have taken advantage of that clause, and have very largely divested themselves of the duty which Parliament placed upon them, and in that way have enormously increased the existing confusion and expense.

Although my noble friend spoke of two Commissions, I think as a matter of fact the second body was not a Commission but a Departmental Committee, and that Departmental Committee issued a very valuable Report. In that Report there were some specific recommendations upon this point—that the powers of the county councils to divest themselves of their duty in regard to road maintenance should be very seriously considered by the Government.

Then there is yet another matter, which I do not think my noble friend mentioned at all, which bears upon this question, namely, the extraordinarily weak position in which the county councils of England stand as compared with the county councils of Ireland, with regard to the expense of road improvements. I believe this is not very generally known: that the greatest local bodies that we have in England—the county councils—have no compulsory power for taking land for the improvement of roads. When the late Government were passing the Local Government (Ireland) Act through Parliament, they accepted a very useful Amendment. I am glad to say that, because just now I was criticising them in reference to an unfortunnate Amendment which they accepted in the English Act, but by general consent in the "House of Commons (and English Members took some part in the discussion—I myself ventured to do that somewhat dangerous thing, and it is a thing which I have very seldom ventured upon doing, to discuss an Irish Bill in the House of Commons) a clause was accepted under which the Irish county councils were given that which the English county councils have not got, namely, a cheap and easy method of taking land by compulsion, when they cannot get it by agreement, for purposes of road improvement. Of course that is a right which has to be very carefully guarded, in order to prevent landowners being subject to any injustice. The machinery provided was partly administrative, partly judicial, but as I say this clause was accepted quite unanimously by the House of Commons and by your Lordships' House. If a similar provision were made with regard to England, I believe the county councils would be enabled, in regard to this matter of road maintenance and road improvement, to move with greater freedom, especially in the case of land near large towns, where in many cases roads seem to end in the neck of a bottle, and where there is a great tendency to ask the very highest price which can be got for the land. An alteration of the law in this respect would, I know from experience, be a very great advantage to the county councils.

I have ventured to mention all these subjects in order that I might fully justify the position which the Government take—that as these points all exist, and as there are those larger questions of local convenience on which my noble friend dwelt so very clearly in his speech, I do not think anybody can complain, if, bearing in mind the rather lengthy programme which the Government have before them, they do not, in this session at least, attempt to deal with this very difficult question.


The noble Lord who answered me on this question hardly, I think, grasped that what I asked him for was not so much information as to whether a higher tax on motor cars was to be put on in the ensuing Budget; what I rather invited the Government's attention to was the fact that whatever process they adopt for taxation the money should be handed over, as the noble Lord (Lord Fitzmaurice) has made out so good a case for, to the local authorities for the purposes of the roads. The Departmental Committee to which I referred particularly advocated that there should be a central authority, which might be the Local Government Board or some other Department, to take over the work of the maintenance of the main roads. I did not go fully into the Royal Commission Report, because it would have taken too long. After what has fallen from noble Lords opposite, I am afraid that the subject will not receive the attention of the Government this session, but I hope that His Majesty's Government will bear it in mind should an opportunity arise at any time of doing anything to help forward this matter.


I apologise to the noble Lord if I omitted to refer to the particular point to which he has just called attention, but I was rather regarding the whole question as one which is very much mixed up with these three Royal Commissions and the Departmental Committee. I am quite sure that all the recommendations of these various bodies will receive the careful consideration of whatever Government is in power at the time when this question comes to be dealt with.