§ LORD MONTAGU OF BEAULIEU had placed the following Notice on the Paper:—To move, That in the opinion of this House the time has come when the whole question of the rights of undertakers to dig up public roads for water, drains, gas, electricity and similar services, and to use such wayleaves free of charge should be reconsidered; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is unfortunate that our debate, which, I am sure noble Lords will agree, has been somewhat amusing, has lasted so long that it leaves very little time for discussing what I think is universally agreed to be a very important subject. It was about three years ago that I called your Lordships' atten- 138 tion to this question, and on that occasion I referred to the fact that the London Traffic Act, 1924, had done something, at any rate in the London area, to remedy the great difficulty of the road authorities in resisting the constant disturbance of their roads. Since that time the County Councils Association, which, as noble Lords know, represents all the great county councils of this country, have made efforts to get something done. They have called a conference, at which the Ministry of Transport was invited to assist but, I regret to say, did not see their way to do so, and they approached various representatives of the great undertakers, the gas, water and electricity companies, in order that some arrangement might be arrived at. So far nothing has been agreed.
§ Since the last occasion on which I called attention to this matter the roads have become still more important. There are about a million more motor vehicles on the roads, and everyone knows that the congested state of some of our streets in the big towns and even outside the cities has become very serious indeed. In the London area, it is true, streets cannot be broken up unless notice is given to the Ministry of Transport in regard to certain areas, and London is to that extent protected, but notwithstanding that fact, as I shall show in a moment, London is still subject to constant interruption in its traffic through the disturbance of its streets. The powers of undertakers—a word of rather depressing meaning in its ordinary sense, but including all those who have the right to lay mains or sewers and gas or water pipes—are derived from a comparatively ancient Act of Parliament. In 1847 Acts were passed called the Gasworks Clauses Act and the Waterworks Clauses Act. They were passed at a time when the railways had taken most of the traffic off the main roads and when there was really no congestion in our cities and, so far as could be seen, there was no harm in digging up roads. Roads in those days, sometimes even in London, consisted mainly of gravel, and even so late as thirty years ago they consisted mainly of macadam.
§ To-day roads are of entirely different structure. They are in many cases massive engineering structures, founded on a base of concrete often reinforced with steel, and they are really more in the 139 nature of buildings than of the old idea of main roads. To break up these roads nowadays is quite a different matter, as regards both the expense of breaking them up and the expense of repairing and maintaining them. When these roads or streets are broken up, if you happen to be an unfortunate frontager upon them the noise of the pneumatic drills is said to be quite as bad as that of machine-guns in action, and when you do not get pneumatic drills to shake all the surrounding property from ceiling to basement you have sledge-hammers used for the same purpose. This alone, in London and the great cities, is a very serious annoyance to the ratepayers and the people who live near these roads. In addition, as the law stands to-day—I discovered this fact quite lately—when a house becomes empty in a street in London through the termination of an ordinary tenancy, the water company has a right to make a hole in the road and cut off the water supply. When the house is re-inhabited the street is again dug up and the water supply reinstated. Surely that is a very antiquated way of dealing with the matter. There ought to be some tap or some device for cutting off the water without tearing up the streets.
§ Another authority has been very much to the fore of late. The Electricity Commissioners have very big powers under the Act that this House passed last year, and only lately, right outside this House under the Victoria Tower, a trench ten feet deep and nearly ten feet wide has been cut right away down towards Mill-bank. I am appalled to think what the cost must have been and I cannot think that this was the most economical or direct way of joining up electrical stations. There are so many of these authorities who have the power to take up streets that it is really impossible to say how far they can go. The only real deterrent to undertakers in regard to the digging up of some of our streets and great main roads is the fact that some of the road authorities are putting down such substantial foundations that the undertakers hesitate to go to the expense of breaking them up. That deterrent is found only where these foundations exist. Let me take an illustration from the county of Kent, where there were 1,269 diggings in the roads in the 140 year 1926–27. That is at the rate of about twenty-four a week, and shows to what extent this digging up of roads has grown.
§ I have lately had an opportunity of gauging the state of London to-day. Between May 11 and May 14, within an area fairly close to this House, the road down to Millbank through Smith Square was torn up for a length of 500 yards and half the width of a very much used roadway was disturbed. In King's Road, Chelsea, between Walpole Street and Markham Square, the road was up for about 250 yards, leaving in places barely room for two vehicles to pass one another. King's Road, as your Lordships know, is a very much used highway, and is in a rather densely populated area. In Wellington Street the road was obstructed from Tavistock Street to the Strand for about 100 yards. I might go on almost indefinitely with these instances.
§ LORD JESSEL
Will the noble Lord state whether these obstructions are caused by undertakers, or by ordinary repairs?
§ LORD MONTAGU OF BEAULIEU
They are all cases of undertakers. In addition I found 16 places where small isolated interferences with the road were in progress, including Herrick Street, Pall Mall East, Bridge Street, opposite the Cenotaph, Craven Street, Bow Street, and many other places. There are 18 or 20 more places which at this present moment are in a state of disrepair owing to undertakers pulling up these streets.
So much for London. In the counties, I will take Gloucestershire. The surveyor writes to me to say thaton a road 28 miles in length, which happened to be unusually narrow, and where the grass verges were only available to a minor extent, not only was the road very seriously weakened throughout its entire distance, but the concentration of traffic on the half of the road not interfered with by excavation was so punished by traffic that a considerable claim had to be made against the undertakers, which after prolonged negotiation resulted in a part payment being accepted by way of compromise.That shows how much a County like Gloucester might be hit. In Hampshire, my own County, the surveyor writes that important main roads are constantly being interfered with, and he mentions 141 that during the last financial year 734 applications for breaking up the roads were received. In Berkshire, between Reading and Wokingham, on a length of three miles there have been over 500 openings and my informant adds:—So you can understand that a tarmacadam road which was in excellent condition has not been improved.In Dorsetshire, in the growing town of Poole, a road was closed to traffic for several months while it was being entirely reconstructed, and then, within a few months of being reopened to traffic, it was again cut up, first for gas and then for electric light. From Kent I have the same sort of report.
The City of Westminster surveyor writes:—A recent instance of breaking up a new road has taken place on the north and west sides of Trafalgar Square, where entirely new roads, including foundations (the north side having been repaved in 1925 and the west side in 1926) were recently excavated for their full length by the Postmaster-General in connection with the extension of telephone services.Then in Southwark, on the other side of the river:—Many of our streets have been torn up by the operations of the Post Office authorities, Metropolitan Water Board, and electric supply services, entailing the partial or total closing of streets for periods of three weeks to three months, which in a central borough carrying through traffic to and from the five main bridges over the river Thames, is to be deprecated.Then in Marylebone:—The carriage-way of Oxford Street is an example of a road which was put down at a great expense only to be opened again shortly afterwards by the Post Office authorities. This, however, occurred in 1923 and was, therefore, prior to the coining into operation of the London Traffic Act, 1924.An extract from the minutes of the Council, expressing the resentment felt by the Council at the constant disturbance of their streets, was enclosed. In the City of London itself the surveyor suggests that the period laid down in Clause 4 of the London Traffic Act, 1924, might with advantage be increased to two years. In that suggestion I entirely concur.
That is with regard to existing streets, but Parliament on one occasion at least did what I consider to be a sensible thing. When, the Great West Road was built, and the Middlesex County Council 142 had to obtain an Act for that, there was special provision to the effect that no pipes might be laid in the carriage way, and where those pipes, many of them great water pipes, cross the Great West Road, they have been laid in a subway, so as not to disturb the surface of the street. We have great difficulty, I admit, in cases where you have mains running down one side and houses on the other, but I think the time has come when we should compel undertakers to lay mains on both sides of the street. Then you would never have to break up your streets in order to connect houses on the other side with the main. Certainly in all new work duplicate mains should be laid on each side of the street. Unless something is done shortly in this matter, not only will a great deal of money be wasted—we are spending about £1,000,000 a week on the highways, and therefore it is a very important question—but the damage to the highways will increase as the population increases, and the congestion of traffic will grow greater.
Your Lordship: may have heard the humorous reply of the boy who defined a road as "a place to lay pipes in." I am not at all sure that that was not a correct definition of a road as it exists to-day. Should not these undertakers pay something with regard to obtaining these wayleaves? At the present they pay nothing towards the maintenance of the road. In some cases they are rated, but only to a small extent, and I think the time has come when, if a company wants to use the road for purposes of its business, it should help to pay for the right like other people. The noble Earl who is going to reply has a good deal of sympathy, I believe, with the case which I am putting forward to-day—at any rate the theoretical aspect—and I hope he will be able to give me some comfort, but it seems to me that the first thing we have to do is to get Parliament to alter the law of 1847.
My proposal would be that first of all we must repeal the Gas Works and Waterworks Acts, 1847, and extend the special provision of the London Traffic Act, dealing with road disturbance, to the country generally. Also, would it not be a good plan to make the period for non-disturbance two years instead of one, in the case of all important highways? My second recommendation 143 would be that in all the new roads the undertakers should duplicate essential services by laying them at each side of the street. Even existing services should be duplicated within a period, say, of five years. Then I come to the rather more difficult question of what you are to do on big estates like Piccadilly, Oxford Street, Regent Street, and so on. There, I think, we have to begin as soon as possible the construction of subways or tunnels, under or near main streets or highways, for the accommodation of these essential services, in order to avoid constant interruption of service and delay to traffic in these much-used highways. My fourth recommendation would be to make some charge to all undertakers for the use of wayleaves under highways, and when they use the verge or edge of highways.
In regard to the whole of this question the interesting point that arises—and it has some connection with what the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, said yesterday—is that the road user is not officially represented. The undertakers—the gas and water companies—are very well organised. Their Parliamentary influence is considerable and they are entrenched behind a series of Acts of Parliament and precedents. Roads today are in a totally different position from what they were in a few years ago, and the number of road users has multiplied a thousandfold. I think the time has arrived when the user of the highway should be given some voice in the matter, and should not be inconvenienced for the sake of other parties. I do not suppose I should have much success this Session, but I intend to introduce in this House a short Bill to deal with this question. If the Government at a later stage, or next Session, could give facilities, all the better; or perhaps it would stimulate them to produce a Bill of their own. But it is time a move was made in this matter, and I can assure your Lordships that I am speaking with the entire approval of the County Councils Association, who have done what they can in the matter, of practically every local authority which is in control of highways, and I think also I may claim to speak on behalf of practically every road user.
Therefore in bringing forward this question I think I am justified in saying 144 that it is one which the Government should consider very carefully indeed. I intended to make other remarks, but at this late hour I will not do so. I only hope that the noble Earl who will reply for the Government will be able to give me some comfort in the matter, so as to reassure the County Councils Association, the local highway authorities and the many millions of road users, that this important subject will receive careful and early consideration.
THE LORD SPEAKER (THE EARL OF DONOUGHMORE)
I do not know what it is that my noble friend intends to move. He has a Resolution and a Motion for Papers.
§ LORD MONTAGU OF BEAULIEU
I should like to have the option of deciding that when I have heard the reply.
§ Moved to resolve, That in the opinion of this House the time has come when the whole question of the rights of undertakers to dig up public roads for water, drains, gas, electricity and similar services, and to use such wayleaves free of charge should be reconsidered.—(Lord Montagu of Beaulieu.)
My Lords, I think that the local authorities and the general public owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Lord for bringing up this very important subject, and I very much regret that, owing to circumstances over which he, at any rate, had no control, there should be so few of your Lordships present to listen to the facts and the arguments which he has adduced. He boggled at the beginning of his speech at the word "undertaker," but it is obvious that people whose chief function is the burying of pipes in the road are very properly called by that name. But the subject has now become a totally different one from that which it was in its historical origin. Roads were not only of comparatively little importance then, they were made in a very primitive and simple way, and it was a very easy thing to dig up a road and replace it. Nothing much was involved beyond a little temporary disturbance. What is involved now is a 145 disturbance to traffic which is certainly serious enough in our congested areas, but what is much more important than that is the total destruction of an engineering work, which is no longer a thing you can dig up in pieces, but is an engineering work constructed as a whole, and not susceptible of having bits of it taken up and filled in again without, injuring its structure. Enormous damage is done to our carefully and scientifically constructed roads by this disturbance
Then we have the other part of the historical origin, which is that these powers were given to undertakers obviously for the convenience of the public as it was then, and obviously without any great damage or expense to the roads as they were then. We now have to consider how we are to deal with the altered situation. I may say at once that, so far as I am concerned, I should be opposed to any idea of compensating undertakers for making them take more care with the roads; indeed, the noble Lord rather suggested that they should pay for their use, and I see no reason against that. But the present situation is a very curious one. I think I am right in saying that when the Embankment was made, and a subway was constructed underneath it for the express purpose of taking pipes, the London County Council found that they were without any statutory power to make the undertakers put the pipes there, and because they were asked to pay a rent—I think Parliamentary powers were sought, but not obtained—the undertakers continued to be free to dig up the Embankment, although there was a subway where their pipes could have been put. Undoubtedly in new roads we must come to subways, or some other method of protection. In old roads the question is, of course, very much more difficult. What the cost would be of subways in roads like Piccadilly and Regent Street I hesitate to think. But whether in the end it would not be a great deal less than the cost of this continual disturbance is, I think, an arguable matter
What about the remedy? The noble Lord has suggested that he will bring in a Bill this Session which, I suppose, will give the House and the public some idea of the remedy he proposes. Well, he is a very bold man, far bolder than I should be myself. I do not know, even 146 if I were given a free hand, what is at the moment the remedy which I should propose. But I will go so far as to say this, that I doubt whether conferences by the Ministry of Transport, in which the undertakers are the dominant feature, are ever likely to solve the question. I think we shall have to treat the undertakers rather roughly, and to disregard their point of view. After all, if the worst comes to the worst and an ultimate expense really is put upon the undertakers it will mean for the time being some slight increase in the price of gas or the price of electricity, which I fear may have to be borne in the general interest.
But we cannot have this very important situation—of the public money (that enormous sum) which is spent upon roads and of the public convenience, and cost due to interruption of traffic—dominated any longer by the views of the undertakers. I suggest to the noble Earl who is going to reply—not, of course, that I should expect an answer from him to-night—that he should convey to the proper quarter some such idea as the setting up, say next Session, of something in the nature of a Joint Select Committee to look into this question and to consider what steps should be taken to reconcile the views of all parties and the necessities of the case. I think you want something stronger than a Departmental Committee. I think you want a Parliamentary Committee. Here you are dealing with statutory undertakers, and you will alter their statutory powers and their statutory obligations, and you will alter them, from the point of view of most of them, for the worse; and I think to get that done in the public interest yon want nothing less strong than a Parliamentary Committee. I also think that you cannot come to any conclusion as to what the best method may be without taking a good deal of evidence, and giving a great deal of consideration to the problem. For the problem is very far from a simple one.
I would say one thing more before I sit down. I do not wish to detain your Lordships longer than necessary at this time, but I would say that it is unfortunate that the Postmaster-General, a Department of the Government, should set so bad an example in this respect. He at least, I think, ought to consider the public interest in the matter of these 147 new roads. I think, too, that I am right in saying—I am not sure about this and the noble Lord will correct me if I am wrong—that the London Traffic Act, considerable as are the powers which it confers upon the Minister, does not go far enough in this matter; that his powers are still far too limited to enable him to control the operations of these people who dig up our expensive roads.
§ LORD MONTAGU OF BEAULIEU
The noble Earl will forgive me for interrupting him. I know what he refers to. In the case of emergency (and an emergency may mean anything) the whole of the London Traffic Act rather falls down and no longer applies. Therefore, the noble Earl is quite right in making his observation.
I am not sure whether I am applying my observations to a state of emergency. In a state of emergency in another sense the Government may do rather remarkable things. After all, if a water main bursts under the street and a column of water rises fourteen feet high something has to be done, whatever the Ministry may think. I do not know that I am complaining about a state of emergency; but I think there is still not quite sufficient control. Anyhow, I would urge upon your Lordships that this is a matter which is of interest to the country at large, that it involves a waste of public money, and that the present system is uneconomic. We are spending these enormous sums upon our roads and to a certain extent we are spending them wastefully because of this sort of thing. In the interests of public economy and the wealth of the country it is important that something should be done. I do not wish to detain your Lordships any longer at this time of the evening, though, of course, this is a subject upon which one might talk, with examples, for a very long time.
§ LORD JESSEL
My Lords, I agree most heartily with the remarks made by the noble Earl opposite when he congratulated the noble Lord who introduced the Motion. This is a matter of enormous public interest, and I am only sorry that at this late hour there is not time for its adequate discussion. I agree with what was said by the noble Lord who introduced the Motion, but I am rather amused to find 148 him praising the London Traffic Act, especially as I think he was its chief opponent when it was going through your Lordships' House.
§ LORD JESSEL
At any rate the noble Lord denounced the then Government. I have always thought that one of the greatest feats of the Labour Government was to bring in that Bill and pass it through Parliament. It is a great credit to them. They had many difficulties and I am sure that Londoners are grateful to them for what was done. But it amuses me now, as I say, to hear the noble Lord bless that Act which he so bitterly opposed.
The noble Lord will pardon the interruption, but I stated this evening that it did not go far enough.
§ LORD JESSEL
I was not referring to the noble Earl, but to my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu.
§ LORD JESSEL
My noble friend cannot have the thing in bits. There are two points which interest me and which were referred to by both noble Lords. First of all, there is the Postmaster-General. He and his Department are the worst offenders. Any authority in London will tell you that the Post Office is far worse than any commercial undertaker in this respect. Another authority which sins against the light is the Metropolitan Water Board. In my own experience not very long ago that authority took up a road which had not very long been made. The reason was that a house was empty and the Board could not find anybody to pay the rate; so they went to the trouble of cutting a big hole in the road and then of filling it up again. I think the Government might very well take that into consideration. If you complain to the local authority, they write to the Metropolitan Water Board and the Board say that they will be good boys in the future. But the thing goes on. I may say that in the case I mentioned the men themselves were laughing at having to do the job, and in a very few days afterwards they came back 149 and replaced the road, and incidentally spoiled the whole of it.
When the Government looks into this question I hope they will remember that those two authorities are even worse sinners in the matter of taking up roads and causing congestion of traffic than commercial undertakers are. I welcome very much what the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, and his suggestion that this matter should be inquired into. It is a subject that requires consideration. Much of the legislation is out of date and I am sure that some remedy will be found, difficult and expensive as it may be to find it. Lord Montagu of Beaulieu suggested having all these matters in different channels underground. I am told that if water and electricity are put into conduits they might quarrel. There are many technical difficulties. But if the Government proceeded on the lines suggested, it would be most helpful to the public, seine good would be done, and a pressing evil might conceivably be righted.
THE UNDER-SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WAR (THE EARL OF ONSLOW)
My Lords, in rising to reply to this debate, I wish to say, in the first place, that my right hon. friend has a very great deal of sympathy with the difficulties to which my noble friend behind me has so eloquently alluded. I hope that what I shall be able to say will sufficiently reassure him and those of your Lordships who take such an interest in this question that my right, hon. friend is fully alive to the difficulties and to all that is going on. I hope, therefore, that my noble friend will not consider it necessary to persist in his Motion. I should regret if he were to do so because it would rather imply that we were prepared to accept the suggestion of my noble friend the noble Earl opposite that a Joint Select Committee should be appointed. As he said in making the suggestion that he did not expect a definite reply at this moment, I would rather suggest that if in your Lordships' opinion further ways and means are necessary in considering this question, it should be postponed to a later date. This whole question is an admitted nuisance and nobody denies it. The many instances given by my noble friend behind me and by my noble friend opposite would prove that up to the hilt. Still, I hope that the few words I shall 150 address to your Lordships this evening will show that not only is the matter receiving very careful consideration but that certain steps on the lines suggested by my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu have been taken.
This Motion falls into two parts. It draws attention, in the first place, to the inconvenience which is caused by the exercise of the statutory rights of undertakers, including the Postmaster-General who is one of those who are very largely concerned in the matter, as has been observed by noble Lords who have spoken to-night. These undertakers have the right to break up streets for public services and that causes a nuisance to users of the streets and highways. The other part of the Motion has reference to the question of expense. I should like, if I may, to deal with the two parts separately. My noble friend Lord Montagu based his case against the undertakers on the fact that they made use of the Act of 1847. I think the private undertakers are companies with Private Acts of their own which incorporate sections of the Act of 1847. As a matter of strict accuracy, I think they work under Private Acts rather than wider the Act of 1847.
THE EARL OF ONSLOW
I agree, but there are Private Acts. To be strictly accurate, there are one or two very small gas companies which are not statutory and which as a matter of fact put their mains under the road. These undertakers have the right to get at their mains by breaking up the roads whenever it is necessary. It is obvious, and I think it was admitted by the noble Earl, that some such right must exist. Supposing anything goes wrong with the water, the gas, the electric light, the drains, or even the telephone, the telegraph or anything else, there must be some means by which the undertaker is able to get at the mains and put the service straight; otherwise the consumers would experience no inconsiderable difficulty. But there must, of course, be reason in all things. I entirely agree that conditions should be laid down which would render this perhaps necessary work on the part of the undertakers as little a nuisance to the public as possible.
151 Coming to the various provisions which regulate these rights of the undertakers, I would point out that the state of affairs in London differs materially from the state of affairs in other parts of the country, and from two points of view. In London practically all the services, with the exception of some municipal electric light undertakings and the sewage, are owned by statutory undertakers and the Postmaster-General. The fact remains that the local authorities themselves do not carry out the gas, water and electric light undertakings, but in many other towns in England, in fact in most other towns, the local authorities themselves are very large dealers in gas, water and electric light.
THE EARL OF ONSLOW
Very few, I think. In the big county boroughs the local authority is very much more concerned with these undertakings than is the case in London. London is peculiar in that respect. The local authorities here are not so much concerned in these services as is the case elsewhere.
THE EARL OF ONSLOW
I am coming to that. If the local authority is the controller of sewage, gas, electric light and so forth, it is very much easier to regulate the nuisance than is the case when you have several authorities, one for gas, one for electricity, one for water, and the Postmaster-General, of whom we have heard so much. It is much easier if you have one authority than where there are three or four authorities. The second difference between London and other large towns is that there is an Act in London which deals with the matter, and makes special provision for digging up the streets. As this Act has been referred to, I think I ought to explain it a little more carefully. I think I should give the exact provisions in order to develop the arguments I wish to address to your Lordships in a moment. The Minister of Transport, every half year, goes to the various highway authorities and asks them to give 152 him the schemes of road maintenance and road repair to be undertaken during the half year. Those schemes are put together and co-ordinated and every effort is made to make the necessary repairs as little inconvenient to the public as possible. When that co-ordinated scheme is ready it is sent to the undertakers and they are asked to do their work accordingly. I think I am not overstating the case in saying that generally speaking the undertakers show themselves willing to co-operate with the highway authorities and make their schemes fit in with the general plan.
THE EARL OF ONSLOW
I am coming to that in a moment. In addition, when a street is relaid and repaved or reconstructed it cannot be broken up by a statutory authority for a period of one year after the repaving or reconstruction has taken place unless there is an emergency. I think the word "emergency" caused some difference between my two noble friends who spoke. We must agree if there is an emergency that, by applying to the Ministry of Transport or some other authority, the undertaker or whoever is concerned should be allowed to put it right. I think your Lordships will concede that. Generally speaking, however, the street cannot be taken up until after a period of twelve months has elapsed.
THE EARL OF ONSLOW
I would not like to answer that question at once. It depends on the amount of rates not paid, but I think my noble friend was not quite correct in thinking that the Metropolitan Water Board can, when a house is unoccupied, come and take up the road, cut off the water and put the road back again, at any rate without the Ministry of Transport considering the matter.
If that comes within the definition of emergency I should withdraw the adherence I gave to it.
THE EARL OF ONSLOW
My information is that if such a case occurred and if the road had been repaved, it could not be taken up again for at least twelve months without special permission. It has been suggested from all quarters of the House that the London Traffic Act should be strengthened. I think that I should not be going too far in saying that that view is one with which the Government have every sympathy. It has been suggested that instead of communicating copies of the highway repair scheme to the statutory authorities those authorities should be compelled—I think my noble friend used that word—to join with the highway authorities in submitting their scheme, so that a joint plan of action for the half year might be thought out, and that it should be done by compulsion and not voluntarily. That was one suggestion. Another suggestion was that the one year's prohibition should be increased to two years. I do not say that my right hon. friend has decided upon legislation on those lines, but we do feel that the law needs strengthening in the interests of the road-using public and if and when an opportunity presents itself for the amendment of the Act—as your Lordships know it is not permanent but has to be renewed—my right hon. friend the Minister of Transport would not be averse from giving favourable consideration to some such reforms as those I have described.
I hope the noble Earl will not limit his argument or suggestion to the road-using public. The rate-paying public are quite as much concerned as the road-using public.
THE EARL OF ONSLOW
The rate-paying public is also the road-using public. All ratepayers use the roads. The greater includes the less.
THE EARL OF ONSLOW
The ratepayer must be also a road user. I should like to say that generally speaking the Government do recognise the inconvenience to the users of highways, whether ratepayers or not, and are willing to give sympathetic consideration to any modification of the present Act which may be suggested here or elsewhere. I 154 will give your Lordships one or two instances of the way in which the Ministry of Transport tries to abate the nuisance. One is by inducing both local authorities and statutory undertakers to do the work by shifts during the 24 hours so as to get jobs finished as soon as possible. The recent repaving of Piccadilly is an instance of that. That was an extraordinary interruption of one of the main arteries of London, but I think your Lordships will agree that the work was carried out very efficiently and expeditiously, although it may have inconvenienced many of your Lordships and ratepayers and road users. But really it was done with the minimum of inconvenience to everybody.
I will now deal with the nuisance in towns outside London. Here the state of affairs is rather different. While in London the local authority is rarely the undertaker, in many towns outside London the corporations and the district councils are very often undertakers of gas, water, and electric light, as well as being the highway and sewage authorities. When you get the control in one hand it is much easier to secure co-operation and to take up roads with as little inconvenience as possible to the public. But still, the main runs under the road in very many cases—in practically all cases—and when you want to get at the main you must dig up the road. That difficulty has to be faced. The only way of dealing with it is to refrain from digging up the road except at the most convenient moment and to do so as seldom as possible. But there is another difficulty here. The renewal of mains and the general work underground is a seasonal occupation, like house-building. The best time to do it is during the summer months when there is good weather and long light hours, and it is in summer that the public uses the roads a great deal mere than in winter. So the two interests clash. I am afraid that is a matter that cannot be helped.
I think that generally speaking in most of the big towns of England, and in the smaller towns also, there is very close co-operation between the borough engineers and borough surveyors and the undertakers to whom the services belong where the undertakers are not the corporation, and that every effort is used to avoid inconvenience to the public. 155 It is to be hoped that when further experience has been gained in London—because London has initiated the regulation of these matters by Act of Parliament—similar systems may be tried in the other great towns in England and the experience thereby gained will be undoubtedly of immense value to those who are concerned with regulating this matter.
Having dealt with existing roads, I would like to deal now with the new roads. My noble friend put forward some very interesting suggestions and I would like to deal with them. Your Lordships are aware, of course, that great new arterial roads like the Great West Road and a number of by-pass roads have been constructed not only around London but over the whole country. There are very few houses built along those roads at present—the Kingston bypass road is an example—but as time goes on the frontages of those roads will be taken up and towns will spring up all round. These new towns will want gas and electricity, water and sewerage systems and so on. New urban areas must have proper services. The general scheme of construction of these roads was described by the noble Lord. The practice is to allow 100 feet between fences. That gives room to put your mains on both sides of the road, so that the roadway need not be taken up at all. There is room on both sides to deal with the public services and the roadway is not disturbed. Of course there is a disadvantage in having two sets of mains, but otherwise you would have to have trenches cut across the road. It may be a little more expensive, but it is far more convenient and very much better for the roads. It is possible, too, though I think it is a difficult proposal, to lay mains at the back of houses instead of along the roads. I do not think that could be done in places which are built over. Possibly it might be done in new areas created by the new arterial roads. They would have side-roads leading off them and it might be possible to lay mains at the back of the houses.
It will be clearly impossible to do it unless you had some space not belonging to the houses in between.
THE EARL OF ONSLOW
I do not think it could be done in existing urban areas. 156 Another suggestion made by my noble friend behind me was that subways should be provided under the roads for carrying the mains. That has been done in London, in Kingsway and Aldwych. I believe the instance quoted by the noble Earl opposite about the Embankment is correct. I am not quite sure, but I assume it is so.
THE EARL OF ONSLOW
This was done at any rate in Kingsway and Aldwych, but it is only partially satisfactory, because the number of mains required very soon exceeded the space provided, and therefore when fresh ones had to be laid the old system had to be resorted to. The real reason why it is difficult to provide subways, especially in crowded areas, is the enormous cost. It would be a very large city and a very rich city which would be able to afford so expensive a scheme. I do not think it would be possible in many parts of London for another reason. The roads sometimes are packed with mains to a depth of twenty feet on both sides of the road. Then you have another difficulty. There are cellarage rights, and banks and other places sometimes have cellars running right under the street. I believe there is difficulty sometimes in getting mains round them. Those are difficulties one must expect in old-established cities. If it were possible to build a new town on huge vaults then the suggestion of subways might be carried out. I have no doubt that in new cities when roads are being constructed this matter will be taken into consideration, because this admitted nuisance must be considered by all those who are responsible for planning new streets and repairing old ones.
I come now to the second part of the Motion, and that is the suggestion that further payments should be made by undertakers for the easements which they have for their mains under the roads. My noble friend, I think, said that they were allowed to do this free of charge. That is not quite correct. They do not pay for the easement but they do pay rates. I cannot give your Lordships a detailed statement of the total contribution to the rates made by the undertakers, because assessments, as your 157 Lordships know, are different in different areas, but I think it must be obvious that the contribution which undertakers pay in respect of rates is a large one. The Conjoint Conference of Public Utility Undertakers stated recently, at a deputation to the Ministry of Transport, that generally speaking it might be taken that fifty per cent. of the rateable value of public utility undertakings should be attributed to the works necessary to distribution, which of course are largeiy the sub-surface mains.
Outside London these works are largely publicly owned. I believe that outside London eighty per cent. of the Water mains, sixty per cent. of the electricity mains, and forty per cent. of the gas mains are publicly owned. Of course in these cases wayleave payments would be merely a book-keeping transaction, an entry in the books of the corporation, because they own the road and they also own the undertaking. Even if they are owned by private companies much the same thing would occur, because if a private company were made to pay rent for its easements it would pass on the payment to the consumer and the consumer is the ratepayer, so what he would gain in the fall of the rates he would lose in having to pay extra for gas or water. That is the difficulty which presents itself to the suggestion made by my noble friend. He may say that the same thing is true in regard to rates. If the undertaker pays rates that charge also is put on the consumer. I dare say that is true, but to relieve undertakers of rates, even though it might reduce the price to the consumer, would be an interference with the rating system which would hardly be worth the trouble it would entail.
I do not think I need say much more at this late hour, except that the Government are fully aware of the nuisance caused by taking up the roads, are ready 158 to do anything in their power to limit it and will welcome any suggested remedy. They will also certainly welcome experience in other districts. When further experience perhaps has been gained by the working of the London Traffic Act in London, we are ready and anxious to do anything we can, when Parliamentary time permits, to carry out further improvements in that Act. The suggestion as made by my noble friend that road users should be given some voice in the control of the roads. That is rather a large issue, and I think that my noble friend would scarcely wish me to deal with it now, especially as it came somewhat as a surprise. He has told us that he will introduce either a further Resolution or a Bill dealing with this matter, and that will perhaps provide a convenient occasion for treating it in further detail. I hope that I have been able to reassure your Lordships and to show that the Government are fully alive to the seriousness of this question. They are anxious to deal with it. My noble friend will agree that, if the Motion were agreed to, it would rather snuggest that we would be willing to accept something for which my noble friend did not ask—namely, the appointment of a Joint Committee.
§ LORD MONTAGU OF BEAULIEU
My Lords, after what the noble Earl has said, and after a very interesting debate, I am willing to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
§ House adjourned at twenty minutes past seven o'clock.