§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE FIRST COMMISSIONER of WORKS (THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY)
My Lords, This Bill is the result of negotiations which have 922 extended over a period of more than three years between the Railway Companies' Association, the Canal Association and the County Councils' Association, with the assistance of the Ministry of Transport. It was originally drafted as a government measure but, owing to the restrictions imposed on the legislative programme of last Session, it was introduced in the House of Commons during that Session as a Private Member's Bill. The place obtained in the ballot was, however, not high enough to secure it a Second Reading. The present Bill is a redraft of that Bill, with amendments to meet the points raised by the various authorities interested in its provisions. The previous Bill, introduced in another place, was referred to on several occasions in the evidence given last Session before the Joint Select Committee of the House of Lords and the House of Commons on the Railway (Road Transport) Bills. In reporting on the Bills to the House the Joint Select Committee used the following words, which bear upon the measure which I am venturing to bring forward:—During the hearing of the evidence and arguments upon these Bills the question of the construction and maintenance of bridges has frequently come before the Committee and they are impressed with its importance.A Bill dealing generally with the question of bridges has been read a first time in the House of Commons, and the Committee consider it advisable that some measure on these lines should be proceeded with at the earliest opportunity.The object of this Bill is to facilitate the improvement and, where necessary, the reconstruction of weak bridges "for the maintenance and repair of which some person or body other than a highway authority is responsible." I refer to individuals, railway companies and canal companies.
Under the existing law powers are conferred in the Locomotives Acts and the Heavy Motor Car Orders on the owners of weak bridges to prohibit their use by locomotives and by heavy motor cars above certain weights. There are a large number of such bridges, and these powers have been freely exercised, with the result that locomotives and heavy motor cars are debarred from the effective use of many highways which are of considerable importance from the point of view of through traffic. The very expansion of the numbers of heavy 923 vehicles has led to an increase in the restrictions imposed on the use of bridges. During the last few years the Minister of Transport has received a growing volume of complaints as to the serious loss and inconvenience caused to trade and industry by the existence of these weak links in the highway system of the country. These representations have come not only from the Commercial Motor Users' Association and other associations representing transport interests, but also from chambers of commerce, local authorities and other representative bodies in different parts of the country. To mention a few instances: the industrial areas in the Midlands and in Lanarkshire are covered by a net work of railways and canals, and in these districts are large numbers of bridges on Class I roads which are subject to restrictions in the matter of weights which they are allowed to carry: owing to restrictions on certain railway bridges in Cheshire and Staffordshire the great ports of Liverpool and Birkenhead are practically cut off from access by road by vehicles exceeding 5 tons in gross weight coming from the south: in the eastern counties again there are a large number of weak bridges belonging to drainage boards.
Under existing conditions there are serious difficulties to be overcome before any effective steps can be taken towards the strengthening or reconstruction of a bridge in private ownership. In the first place, a large proportion of these weak bridges belong to railway and canal companies, who have obtained judgments in the Courts to the general effect that their liability as owners is limited to the maintenance of the bridge to a standard sufficient to carry the volume and weight of traffic existing at the time when the bridge was originally built. In the second place, the Minister of Transport., under the Statutes governing the administration of the Road Fund, can make grants from the Fund only to, or in conjunction with, a highway authority, and cannot, therefore, make a grant for the reconstruction of a bridge, however important it may be, direct to a railway or canal company. There is the further difficulty that the owners of bridges built under statutory powers are unable to transfer their liabilities or their property in a bridge to a highway authority, even 924 though they may wish to do so and it may be in the public interest that they should.
At the present time, therefore, the reconstruction of a weak bridge in private ownership usually involves more or less prolonged negotiations and a tripartite agreement between the owner, the appropriate highway authority and the Minister, under which the highway authority pays the cost of reconstruction with the aid of a grant from the Road Fund, and assumes responsibility for the future maintenance of the bridge, or of the roadway over it, while the owner makes a contribution in respect of the liability for future maintenance of which he is to be relieved. Moreover, as these negotiations are purely voluntary, there is at present no means by which the Minister can compel the reconstruction or improvement of a weak bridge even on a highway of first-class importance. In such circumstances progress has been very slow, and the situation every year is becoming more serious.
The Bill in the first place, under Clause 2, would enable highway authorities and the owners of bridges to effect arrangements with regard to the improvement or reconstruction of bridges and approaches, and the maintenance of the roads which they carry, without the necessity for specific sanction in every case. Secondly, and this is in Clause 3, the Bill provides that either the owner of a bridge or the highway authority, if they consider that the bridge is unsuitable for the requirements of road traffic, may apply to the Minister of Transport for an Order for the reconstruction, improvement or maintenance of the bridge or approaches or the highway carried by them. The clause would also enable the Minister to make any modification in the provisions of a Private Act which would be necessary to give effect to an Order, other than the provision relating to precedence of traffic or to the headway of a railway or canal. In order to safeguard the interests of railway and canal companies who own bridges, Clause 4 provides for various limitations on the provisions of Orders which may be made by the Minister under Clause 3. The limitations, however, are not of such a character as to prevent the Minister from making an Order in any suitable case.
925 Clause 5 provides that any Order under the Act transferring a bridge, or the responsibility for the maintenance of a bridge, to a highway authority shall not affect any statutory rights of a public utility undertaking in relation to the bridge. This refers to the rights that gas companies may have.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY
Yes. Clause 6 deals with the apportionment of the cost of the reconstruction or improvement of a bridge in consequence of an Order made by the Minister between the owner of the bridge and the highway authority concerned. The cost of the work is limited in the case of the owner to an amount equivalent to his liability if the Order had not been made, except where additional expense is incurred by the highway authority for the purpose of effecting at the owner's request an improvement, in the owner's undertaking. Clause 7 provides for arbitration in the event of disputes arising as to the proportion to be borne by each of the parties of the cost of works to be carried out in pursuance of an Order made by the Minister. The remaining clauses are generally of a routine character and I do not think it necessary to trouble your Lordships with any special reference to them individually. This Bill is a measure which should effect an important improvement that is most urgently needed in the highway system of this country and I beg to move that it be read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(The Marquess of Londonderry.)
My Lords, in the Joint Select Committee which considered the Bills of the Railway Companies for road powers we heard something of this Bridges Bill which, as the noble Marquess has said, had already been in existence, though not very active existence, for some time, and I am glad to welcome its appearance to-day. We were not on that Committee very hopeful that it would reach legislative form so early, and I am glad that it has. The Bill is a rather complicated one, and I am not quite clear what powers it does give and what powers it does not give. I rather gather that it would not deal with a case—with which, in a particular instance, 926 the Joint. Select Committee did deal—in which a railway company opposed road improvement by making it extremely difficult to carry a new bridge across their railway. There is nothing, I think, in this Bill which would give power to the Minister to make an Order for that purpose. I am not sure, but as far as I can see that is the case. If so, that is perhaps an unfortunate omission.
I am also not quite clear what is likely or is expected to happen under Clause 2, where a highway authority may agree with an owner for the payment by the highway authority of contributions towards the cost of the maintenance. I hope it is not contemplated that under that clause pressure will be put upon county councils to take over the bridges of railway companies and maintain them at the expense of the ratepayer instead of at the expense of the railway. But I think the clause as it stands would give that power. I so read it. Of course, the noble Marquess has correctly stated what has been decided as to the sufficiency of a bridge. It has, I think, been decided in more than one case that the railway companies are not bound to maintain a bridge at a level which is necessarily equal to present-day traffic but only at a level which was necessary when the bridge was first constructed; and in cases of that sort, where the highway authority even in the interest of their own ratepayers desire that the bridge should be improved and strengthened, there would be nothing unreasonable in their bearing the cost of that. That I think would be covered by Clause 2, and I think that the clause, which enables agreements to be made for the transfer of the property and the transfer of the maintenance of the bridge, is an extremely useful clause.
I recollect a case in which I was engaged many years ago in connection with a canal company, in which a mandamus was obtained against a canal company requiring them to strengthen, repair or rebuild one of their bridges, which, of course, was a bridge of the ordinary canal shape with a very steep hump in it. The canal company was perfectly willing to allow the highway authority to make a practically flat crossing over the canal and to maintain it if they could do so, but the highway authority had not the power to do it, and the canal company 927 was under a statutory obligation which prevented it giving up this bridge or closing the canal in any way. And, further, when the mandamus was granted it appeared, of course, as is so often the case, that the canal company had no money at all and was therefore practically unable to obey the mandamus. The company could not rebuild and could not repair the bridge because there was no money to do it with. That raised an impossible situation, which, I take it, will be completely met by this Bill. Cases of that sort will be quite easy to adjust under the terms of this Bill and to that extent it will be a very great advantage.
I am glad to see that in Clause 3 the Minister is given very considerable powers, which I think will be useful, for dealing with the details of every case that arises. I see some difficulty—I have no doubt it has been fully considered—owing to the casual way in which the statutory obligation is dealt with: you may do this, that and the other regardless of the bridge being constructed under statutory obligation. Well, in the case of many bridges so constructed there are also statutory obligations about their maintenance and repair. I do not know whether that ought not in each case to be altered, at any rate by some perfectly definite order of the Minister, so that, if this statutory obligation in the Private Act under which the bridge is built no longer exists, it should be made clear what obligation does exist and what obligation remains. There may be, it seems to me, some ambiguity afterwards if that is not made clear by a definite order of the Minister at some point or other. I do not think myself there is any objection to his over-riding the provisions of a Private Act of Parliament in this manner, as provided by this Bill.
I understand from what we heard in the Committee and from what the noble Marquess has said to-day, that this is a Bill which has been agreed between the persons concerned after a good deal of difficulty and a great deal of negotiation. I think I am right in saying that. No doubt the noble Marquess in charge of it would say, perhaps for that very reason, that it cannot be substantially amended in any way without causing difficulty. But there may be Amendments that are desirable, and perhaps the noble Marquess would not mind giving a sufficient 928 time, say a fortnight, between now and the Committee stage, in order that any Amendments might be considered. As far as I can see, I think it is extremely likely that no useful Amendments can be put down, but I should personally like time to consider it.
§ LORD BLEDISLOE
My Lords, this is one of the problems which, so far as it affects land drainage authorities, came before the Royal Commission on Land Drainage in 1927, of which I was the Chairman. It is a matter, so far as drainage authorities are concerned, of great gravity, because they are not authorities with any large financial resources behind them, and it is those low-lying areas, particularly in the East of England, where they do own bridges—and own a good many bridges—where the land is easily subjected to flooding, and in case any of their bridges did break down the flooding would be a very serious matter for them, and involve a very serious financial obligation on the owners and occupiers of land in that area. The obligation of such authorities is limited to such cost of maintenance as would have been involved at the time the bridge was constructed, when traffic was of a much less heavy character than it is to-day.
Realising that, so far as the problem concerned the railway companies and canal companies, it was a matter of negotiation between them and the highway authorities, with a view of such legislation as has been introduced now into this House, what we suggested was that in the event of such legislation not applying to drainage authorities, a clause should be introduced in any Bill dealing with the matter, making it obligatory upon the highway authorities, whether county councils or other authorities, to take over those bridges, the basis of pecuniary liability or chargeability, so far as the drainage authorities are concerned, being limited to the amount which they would have had to meet on the basis that I have described, that is to say, such amount as would be necessary to maintain the bridge in a condition which would enable it to carry the original traffic. So far as I have been able to interpret this Bill I think the ground is covered, but I should like the noble Marquess to say in his reply whether he can assure me that the basis of pecuniary obligation, 929 as contemplated in Clause 6, is, in fact, on all-fours with the obligation as suggested in the Report of the Royal Commission on Land Drainage. Subject to that, I most heartily support this measure, as it is calculated to relieve all those who now have the responsibility of maintaining these bridges, particularly relatively poor authorities and drainage authorities, of an obligation which it is not fair any longer to ask them to carry.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY
My Lords, the noble Earl opposite seemed to be somewhat in doubt as to the cost which might fall on the companies who own these bridges. This Bill now makes it possible for the highway authorities to come to voluntary agreements with the owners of bridges for their reconstruction, or, in default of such agreement, it enables the Minister of Transport to order such reconstruction upon the application of either the owner of the bridge or of the highway authority in whose area the bridge lies, and, in case of an order, the division of the costs between the parties—I think that was the point which the noble Earl asked about—may be settled by arbitration under the Arbitration Act.
The other point to which he referred, the extent of the liability of a private owner of a bridge, really touches two difficult questions of law. The first difficulty, which the noble Earl mentioned, has been settled by the judgment in the case of the Sharpness Dock Company, where the High Court decided that the liability of the private owner of a bridge only extended to maintaining it at the strength which was suitable for bearing the traffic over it at the time when it was built. The other legal point has not yet been decided, that is, as to the standard of maintenance of the carriage way over the bridge. The highway authorities are naturally of the opinion that the standard of maintenance of the roadway over the bridge, as required by Statute, is that necessary for the traffic of the day. The private owners, on the other hand, maintain that their liability for maintenance is limited to maintaining the roadway at a standard suitable for the traffic at the date when the bridge was built.
The noble Lord, Lord Bledisloe, has asked me a question about Clause 6, and I would say in reply that the amount 930 of the owners liability if no such Order has been made simply means the capitalised annual cost of maintenance to the owner. If the owner has been liable to expend a certain sum of money every year on the bridge that sum of money would be capitalised, and the same procedure of arbitration would be used if the parties were unable to agree.
§ LORD BLEDISLOE
Can the noble Marquess tell me as to the basis of the commutation by way of lump sum referred to in Clause 7? Is that compatible with the proviso to Clause 6 (1) (c) where an Order has been made? That is really what I wanted to know.
§ On Question, Bill read 2ª, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.