§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
THE CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (THE EARL OF DONOUGHMORE)
My Lords, I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Donoughmore.)
THE EARL OF MEATH
My Lords, with reference to this Bill I have received, and I dare say others have also received, a Petition from the inhabitants of Fulham assembled at a public meeting in the Lecture Hall, West Kensington, on Saturday, March 22, 1924, showing that this Bill has recently been presented to the House of Parliament, both companies asking for further powers. The Petitioners urge that such powers should not be granted until, and unless, the Metropolitan District Railway Company have reserved out of the twenty-one acres of surplus and derelict lands at Earl's Court a proper and suitable open space and recreation ground for the public health and recreation.
I do not, for a moment, intend to press this proposal upon your Lordships. I do not think it would be wise or right. But at the same time, as founder and chairman of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, which has been instrumental in opening since 1884 over 120 parks and playgrounds within the Metropolitan area, 848 your Lordships will not be astonished if I ask you to join with me in expressing a hope that these powerful companies—who apply to your Lordships under this Bill for further powers, including, as I understand, that of erecting workshops on the twenty-one or twenty-three acres of surplus and derelict lands at Earl's Court, which is claimed by the Metropolitan District Railway—will recognise the responsibilities of landownership in a crowded city like London and will voluntarily set apart, and place at the disposal of the local borough authority, some portion of these twenty-three or twenty-one acres (for I do not think it is accurately calculated which it is) to be maintained by that authority as a playground or open space for the benefit of the railway employees and the public generally. The Fulham Borough Council has already expressed its willingness to approach the London County Council and assist in the maintenance, should the railway companies see their way to grant this favour to the public.
Your Lordships may like to know that these vacant lands, which are at the junction of several railways, are alleged to have been originally common lands, subject to the public right of sports and pastimes. I should remark that if I make any errors it is not my fault because the Bill was only put into my hands yesterday evening and, moreover, I have had no time to look into the legal position. Therefore, you will see that I am not asking anything from a legal point of view; I am assuming that all that they claim is just and right. In the year 1914, when the war broke out, the Metropolitan District Railway, the Midland Railway and other railway companies claimed the right to be lawfully in possession of, and to own, certain surplus railway and derelict lands called and known as the Old Exhibition Grounds of Earl's Court of about twenty-three acres in extent, and they let them on lease in that year to the then Government at the enormous rental of £14,000 a year so as to enable the Government to find a home temporarily for the Belgian refugees who came from the theatre of war to this country for safety.
On November 11, 1918, when the Armistice was declared, the Belgians returned to their own country, but nevertheless the Government continued, most extraordinarily, to pay this enormous rent 849 until September 29 last, when the waste of public money thereby entailed was brought to the attention of the Government by the inhabitants of Fulham. It is now stated that an offer of £17,000 per annum has been made by a dancing hall company to the railway companies for a twenty-one years' lease of these grounds—but here, again, I cannot vouch for the truth of this, though I have clone my best to find out, and I believe it is so. But whether this be true or not, it is evident that the value of the land is great, or the Government would not have paid the railway companies £14,000 a year for so many years for twenty-three acres of derelict land. The railway companies may well, therefore, be generous in these circumstances.
It may be a surprise to some of your Lordships to learn that the population of Fulham is 160,000, whereas in 1891 it was only 91,000. It is a more crowded area than that of Poplar, of which we have lately heard so much. There are 93 inhabitants to the acre in Fulham, whereas there are only 70 to the acre in Poplar. To-day I visited all the three grounds, which are divided by the railways. The one called the Western Gardens is surrounded on two sides by small houses, and would appear to be most suitable for a recreation or playground. The nearest open space to these derelict grounds is over a mile distant, and two are over two miles distant. These are Bishop's Park, given by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and South Park, given by a Miss Sullivan. If the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and a private lady have given such a generous lead, I have little doubt that the railway companies would not turn a deaf ear if your Lordships drew their attention to this opportunity of showing the world that the popular opinion in regard to companies is erroneous. It would redound to their honour if they showed that if companies do not possess bodies they at all events have souls.
THE EARL OF DONOUGHMORE
My Lords, the noble Earl who has just sat down said that your Lordships would not be surprised at his having called attention to this matter. He must permit me to express some surprise at the course that he has followed—anyhow, as regards myself. Your Lordships are, of course, 850 aware, and the noble Earl is aware, of the usual procedure in regard to all Private Bills. The Chairman of Committees moves them pro forma. When there is any opposition to them he does not move them. It is left to some Peer who is more particularly interested in the Bill to father it, whereupon it becomes my duty to give your Lordships House such advice as I can as to what I consider to be the most convenient procedure to follow. The noble Earl, having given no notice in this case, leaves me in the position of having to defend it. I am very glad to see that owing to a fortunate accident my noble friend Lord Ashfield is here and he may perhaps feel called upon to address your Lordships.
In the meantime, I wish that the noble Earl had raised a Second Reading objection or suggested some instruction for the guidance of the Committee to which this Bill will be referred. I think it would have been very much more convenient had he given me due notice, in order that we could have been posted as to what the intentions of himself and his friends were in calling attention to this matter. I think I ought to tell your Lordships that a Petition has been deposited on the lines of the desire expressed by the noble Earl. This Petition, of course, is of no value to your Lordships. The Standing Orders, which give ample time for the deposit of Petitions, state certain hours by which Petitions must be deposited. Any Petition against this Bill ought to have been deposited before three o'clock yesterday. The Petition which I hold in my hand was deposited this morning, and therefore is of no value to your Lordships, though it is of some value to me as I shall quote it in a moment in connection with the merits of this question.
The noble Earl referred to what is familiarly known as the Earl's Court site—the site of the old Earl's Court Exhibition—and desires somehow to bring about the setting aside of this site as an open space. There is nothing in this Bill, I can assure your Lordships, that affects the Earl's Court site in the least, and if any Amendment was made in the Bill affecting the Earl's Court site, it would be outside the Parliamentary Notice and therefore very wrong. More than that, the Bill is promoted by the Central 851 London and Metropolitan District Railway Companies. The Petition specifies the particular five acres of the Earl's Court site as those which the noble Earl has stated a desire to see made an open space, and I am assured that that portion of the site does not belong to these railway companies at all. That being so. I cannot imagine a more unreasonable thing, or indeed a greater waste of your Lordships' time, than to discuss whether a certain site which does not belong to the promoters should be made an open space or not. I sincerely hope therefore that your Lordships will allow this Bill to be read a second time and to proceed through your Lordships' House. There are a number of other points which I could bring before your Lordships, but I think I have said sufficient to elucidate the matter and need not say more. The noble Lord, Lord Ashfield, is present, and I hope that he will correct me if anything that I have said needs correcting. Subject to that, I feel that the only course before your Lordships is to allow the Bill to proceed in the ordinary way.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a.