§ [SECOND READING.]
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Desborough.)
EARL RUSSELL had given notice, on the Motion for the Second Reading, to move to resolve—
That in the opinion of this House new means of communication should be in the hands of local authorities and available for the free use of the public, and that it is undesirable to proceed with a Bill giving fresh powers for the levying of tolls by a private corporation.
The noble Earl said: My Lords, I have put down an Amendment to the Second Reading of this Bill for the purpose of raising one or two questions of principle in connection with the giving of fresh Parliamentary powers for toll bridges. Possibly my Amendment, as it appears on the Paper, may be a little deceptive, because it refers to "new" means of communication, when in fact what is proposed in this Bill is the construction of a new bridge in place of an old one. Nevertheless it is the giving of fresh powers and a fresh lease of life to Commissioners who have power to demand tolls. The principle in the present case is in many ways free from the worst objections that could be taken to this sort of thing, because I think I am right in saying that none of the money derived from the tolls levied in connection with this bridge can be applied to private advantage in any way. The Bridge Commissioners cannot put any part of it into their own pockets, and there is no body of shareholders interested in the yield of the toll.
§ This bridge is one which is pretty well known to most of those acquainted with 888 the Thames. It is proposed in this Bill to renew the old powers of levying tolls, and, in addition, to give a new power—which is very much resented—to impose tolls on bicycles and tricycles. That provision is contained in Clause 22, and it is a new toll which was not authorised by the old Act. I venture to submit that as a matter of general principle all methods of communication should be free and open to the public at large without payment of toll. That is a principle which has been very largely accepted, although lately it has rather been departed from, particularly by this Government, who have imposed tolls upon certain classes of road users thereby sacrificing the principle that locomotion as far as possible should be free and unrestricted.
§ It is to be regretted that the county councils concerned in this case were not able to take their courage in both hands and to build a new bridge out of county funds and throw it open to the public freely. I understand that even in these somewhat backward districts there is a feeling that bridges ought to be free. I have myself received communications on the subject, one gentleman in particular stating that he had been urging this for some time. This Bill goes rather far, because in Clause 33 it gives power to the two county councils to contribute to the expense of the new bridge. The Berkshire County Council and the Oxfordshire County Council are empowered to pay to the Commissioners any sum which they may think fit—that is to say, public money may be contributed to the building of a bridge which is nevertheless to remain a toll bridge, and the people whose money may be used towards the construction of the bridge are to be mulcted in tolls when they use the bridge. I submit that this is very undesirable, and I hope that the Committee upstairs will seriously consider this clause when the Bill reaches them. Then there is a provision in Clause 34 that the bridge may be transferred to the county councils of these two counties, and that thereupon it shall be a joint county bridge; but that clause also provides that for fifteen years after the date of such transfer the county councils shall be able to take the tolls fixed in this Bill.
§ I have not very much hope of being successful with my Amendment. Questions of abstract principle of this sort are not very much regarded when the parties 889 immediately concerned have come to terms, and I understand that the public authorities in this case—the county councils of the counties of Oxford and Berks—and the Bridge Commissioners have come to an agreement on this matter. But it has been suggested to me that, even if this Bill goes through, there is a way out of the difficulty by which this might in a very short time become a free bridge, and I hope that my remarks on that head may commend themselves to the authorities concerned. I may say that I am representing to some extent to-day the views of the Roads Improvement Association, which takes a great interest in these matters. The view held is that if a sum of something like £5,000 were contributed by the Road Board to the rebuilding of this bridge and if that were supplemented by £1,000 from each of the two county councils concerned, it would suffice, with a fund which the Commissioners have in hand, to build a new bridge which could be thrown open to the public free of toll. That could well be done after this Bill had passed, if the Road Board thought fit to devote a portion of their funds to a settlement of the question. It is true that this cannot be said to be a main thoroughfare. The main lines of communication go on each side of the Thames, and this bridge joins them up. But still there is an amount of traffic on this bridge which would justify a contribution of this sort by the Road Board. I do think it is regrettable that these old toll powers should be revived in any way by fresh legislation, and that local authorities should in that way be encouraged to get out of their natural obligation to establish proper means of communication. Therefore I desire to move the Amendment standing in my name.
To leave out ("now") and insert the following Resolution: ("That in the opinion of this House new means of communication should be in the hands of local authorities and available for the free use of the public, and that it is undesirable to proceed with a Bill giving fresh powers for the levying of tolls by a private corporation").—(Earl Russell.)
§ LORD DESBOROUGH
My Lords, as the mover of the Second Reading of this Bill I desire to say a few words in reply to the noble Earl. My noble friend is somewhat misinformed when he infers that these Bridge Commissioners are a private corporation. They are a public body appointed by Act of Parliament, and 890 they perform their duties with assiduity and without any remuneration whatever. They have power, I believe, to charge for a room, but they are given a room free; and they do not get even a luncheon out of the proceeds of the toll. I would point out to the noble Earl that the public would not get a free bridge if he succeeded in defeating the Second Reading of this Bill. What would happen would be that there would be no bridge at all. The old Streatley and Goring bridge was erected on a number of piles, and I do not think there is a sound pile left. I can assure the House that the Bridge Commissioners are not in the least anxious to put into operation the powers to which the noble Earl so very much objects. They approached both the County Council of Oxfordshire and the County Council of Berkshire and offered to make over to them their whole interest in the bridge if only the two county councils would undertake to construct a new bridge, but for one reason or another neither county council was prepared to undertake the duty. People who live at far ends of counties do not very often see the object of spending large sums of money on purposes which they regard as of local utility. But this is an important bridge, and if something is not done soon there will, as I say, be no bridge at Goring and Streatley at all. The nearest bridge towards Reading is four miles off, and the nearest bridge in the other direction is eight miles away. A large number of troops who were in the neighbourhood lately were warned not to use this bridge, and it is at present impossible for heavy traffic to go over it.
As neither county council would move, the Bridge Commissioners were forced to do something themselves. The noble Earl suggested that a sum of money should be obtained from the Road Board. I can assure him that such a contribution would be cordially welcomed by the Bridge Commissioners. The Commissioners have at the present time a fund of £5,000 which they will spend in the making of the new bridge, but it is necessary to raise certain other funds. The clause which empowers the county councils to lend money was put in to secure economy, for obviously county councils can borrow at a much cheaper rate than could the Streatley and Goring Bridge Commissioners. With the noble Earl, I hope that the county councils will alter their view and decide to take over the bridge. 891 But what we want is to rebuild the bridge as soon and as cheaply as possible, and, with the noble Earl's help, I hope we shall make it as free as possible. In the meantime only those tolls will be levied which are necessary to maintain the bridge. The noble Earl called attention to Clause 22. I would remind him that for fifteen years no charge has been made by the Bridge Commissioners either for foot passengers or for bicycles, and as it is not proposed to exercise these powers in the future Clause 22, to which the noble Earl objects, will be struck out. This Bill has already passed through the House of Commons, and the proposals contained in it constitute the only way out of the present difficulty. I therefore hope your Lordships will agree to the Second Reading.
THE CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (THE EARL OF DONOUGHMORE)
My Lords, I would appeal to the noble Earl behind me to allow this Bill to have a Second Reading and to go to a Committee. At the same time I am extremely glad—I think all your Lordships will be glad—that he has raised this subject, because I will not admit for a moment that I am second to him in my dislike of toll bridges or anything to do with tolls on roads. In my view they are an anachronism. It is a deplorable thing to create a new toll, and it is a very undesirable thing to continue an old one. But here the general principle must give way to the special circumstances of the particular case. Both noble Lords have explained that the county councils concerned are not willing at the present moment to take over the full amount of this burden. And in that connection there is this particular circumstance which must be remembered. The bridges over the Thames are very much more in number and constitute a much more serious proposition than bridges over most rivers in this country. The problem, therefore, with which these county councils have to deal is far different from that of an ordinary bridge joining two counties. If they took over all the bridges bordering on their counties the burden would be a considerable one, and they are therefore wise in walking warily. These being the particular circumstances of the case, I trust that the noble Earl will not persist in his Amendment. I hope the Bill will go to Committee, and I have no doubt that in Committee the particular points referred to will be carefully considered.
My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord who moved the Second Reading of the Bill for his explanation, and to the Lord Chairman for his support of the general principle. In the circumstances, my object having been attained, there is no need for me to press the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Bill read 2a, and committed.