HL Deb 23 July 1914 vol 17 cc149-52

LORD NEWTON rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether, in accordance with Section 6, subsection (6), of the Post Office (London) Railway Act, 1913, the Postmaster-General has invited tenders from the companies and local authorities able to supply the additional electric power required; and whether a decision has been arrived at.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the reason I put this Question is that last year the Post Office promoted a Private Bill for the purpose of constructing a tube through London. That Bill came before a Committee of which I was chairman, and amongst the members I was fortunate enough to be associated with several noble Lords with considerable experience of public business, one of whom I see present to-night, Lord Sydenham. During the proceedings it transpired that the Post Office were about to embark upon very heavy expenditure in connection with the construction of generating stations for the purposes of this railway. It appeared from the evidence that very little, if any, regard had been paid to the question of economy; and in the interests of the public we thought it necessary to strike out the clause which dealt with this particular question, because we considered that the Post Office, before embarking upon this heavy expenditure, should take steps to ascertain whether electric power could not be obtained on more reasonable terms by applying elsewhere.

We accordingly struck out that portion of the Bill, whereupon the Post Office, with a levity and petulance very unbecoming to a serious Department of the Government, came to this House and asked that the portion which we had struck out of the Bill should be restored. This House refused to assent to that proposal, and eventually a compromise was arrived at in the terms of my Question, and it was agreed that the Postmaster-General should invite tenders from the companies and local authorities which were able to supply the additional power required. The noble Marquess the Leader of the House remarked, when this compromise was arrived at, that it might be assumed that Question after Question would be asked in another place as to what actually was occurring, what tenders the Postmaster-General had received, what the amount of those tenders might be, and what the saving thereby would be as compared with the Post Office supply. I do not know whether any of those anticipated Questions have been put. If they have, I have not observed them; and that is my excuse for putting this Question this afternoon. Of course, I do not wish to imply that I have any distrust of the action of the Government or of the Post Office in regard to this matter.


My Lords, the reply to the noble Lord can be very simply made. The Postmaster-General has not the slightest intention of departing from the obligation imposed upon him in subsection (6) of Section 6 of the Post Office (London) Railway Act of last year. The reason why no tenders have been invited is that no works have been begun at all; no tunnelling has been done; in fact, the only thing that has taken place is this, that some experiments have been made upon land belonging to the War Office merely to give an idea how to act in the future. I can give the noble Lord the assurance that directly the proper time comes the Postmaster-General will, very naturally, abide loyally by the provisions of the section that was put in as a compromise.


My Lords, I entirely agree with what has been said by my noble friend Lord Newton. It was clear to us in the Select Committee that the Post Office authorities had not examined the economic aspects of the question with which they were dealing, and this subsection was put in as a sort of compromise with a view to ensuring that such consideration should be given. Since the Committee sat, the whole question of electric supply has entered upon a different stage, which has a direct bearing upon what should be the policy of the Post Office with regard to that matter. A most important report has been presented to the London County Council by Messrs. Merz and McClellan which deals with the whole question of electric supply to London, and shows what is possible in the future. The general impression that the whole Report leaves upon one's mind is that the present condition can only be described as almost barbaric.

With your Lordships' permission I should like to quote a few significant figures which bring out the present position with clearness. In the Greater London area there are no less than seventy authorities supplying electricity, apart from any connection with each other. There are seventy generating stations, apart from nine others which deal with traction only. There are in operation forty-nine different types of systems of working electricity, and 585 engines, some of which are quite out of date. Those figures surely tell their tale, and since the London County Council first considered this question of electrical supply matters have gone steadily to the bad by the multiplication of these small stations. The output of electricity in London has largely and steadily increased, but the cost, which is the all important point for people in London, has not diminished as it ought to have done.

The fact is that the advantages of London for the supply of electricity are quite exceptional. There is relatively cheap coal, and there is water transport. Then there is a large, increasing and diversified demand; and, finally, there is cheap capital available for all objects of public importance. Nevertheless, in spite of all these advantages, owing to this muddling arrangement from which we suffer, London compares most unfavourably with Berlin, Chicago, and Detroit, where concentration has been carried out effectively. Berlin may be taken as an example of what can be done by scientific methods carried out with German thoroughness. There coal is somewhat more expensive than in London, but there is only one authority dealing with the whole of the electric supply as compared with our seventy authorities. Although all the old plant has been scrapped and written off, the Berlin system returns 12.83 per cent. interest, supplying current at an average price of 1.7d. per unit; while in London the return on capital is only 7.85 per cent., and the average cost per unit is 2.29d. In Chicago the return is 10.87 per cent., and the cost of electricity is very little over Id. per unit. The inhabitants in Berlin take 111 units per head per annum, while London takes only 48.5 units per head, which shows how much more generally used electricity is in Berlin than in London.

The experts, Messrs. Merz and McClellan, estimate that by concentration and employ- ing the best modern plant £170,000 per annum could be saved in working expenses in the central area alone, after allowing for all the extra charges on the new capital required for new plant and for new mains; and they estimate that the annual gain to the public of London by the concentration would be very nearly £5 per head per annum. I believe that those figures can be trusted, and they show the enormous loss to which London is now annually submitting. In the year 1931 the London County Council will have power compulsorily to purchase all existing private companies. If the present vicious system is allowed to go on, when that time comes the amount of more or less unsuitable and obsolete plant they will have to purchase will be excessive, and the total cost of transformation, which must take place before long, will be increased. The advantages of electricity to London cannot be over-estimated, and it is most important that there should be as little delay as possible in realising those advantages. In these circumstances I think it would be very unwise for the Post Office to embark on a new generating plant, and I hope, as we have been assured, that the question will be thoroughly looked into, and that the Post Office will avoid making such a grave mistake as that would be.