HC Deb 29 April 1909 vol 4 cc495-8

It would be better that I should in this connection inform the House of another project which I shall have to submit in detail to its judgment later on in the course of the Session, but as it involves a substantial addition to the financial burdens of the year, I have to outline its general character in my Budget statement. It also has an indirect, but important, bearing on the question of providing useful and not purposeless employment in times of depression. I propose that a beginning should be made this year with a scheme for dealing with the new, but increasingly troublesome, problem of motor traffic in this country. We are far ahead of all other European countries in the number of motor vehicles upon our roads. We have at least three times as many as France and more than four times as many as Germany. And I am informed by those best able to judge, that to-day among, the products of our factories are some of the best cars procurable in the world, both as regards the compara- tive perfection of the more costly vehicles and the value given for the prices asked for those designed for popular use.

I therefore look forward to a great future for this industry, and I am the last to wish to hinder its development or be responsible for proposals which would be in any way hostile to its interests. Quite the reverse. I am anxious to be helpful to its growth and prosperity. But I cannot help feeling that this problem is urgent, and calls for immediate attention. Any man who takes the trouble to consider the damage which is done to the roads of this country, often by men who do not contribute—or perhaps I ought to put it in another way, who have not been given the opportunity of contributing to the upkeep of the roads they help so effectively to tear up—the consequent rapid increase in the expense of road maintenance, the damage done, if not to agriculture, at least to the amenities of rural life by the dust clouds which follow in the wake of these vehicles, above all, the appalling list of casualties to innocent pedestrians, especially, to children, must come to the conclusion that this is a question which demands immediate notice at the hands of the Central Government. The question of road construction, which was at one time deemed to be part of the essential development of the country, seemed to have been almost finally disposed of by the railways, but the advent of the motor has once more brought it to the front. It is quite clear that our present system of roads and of road-making is inadequate for the demands which are increasingly made upon it by the new form of traction. Roads are too narrow, corners are too frequent and too sharp, high hedges have their dangers, and the old metalling, admirably suited as it was to the vehicles we were accustomed to, is utterly unfitted for the motor-car.

If there be any truth at all in Ruskin's sweeping assertion that "all social progress resolves itself into the making of new roads," it must be admitted that we have been lamentably deficient. The State has for a very long period done nothing at all for our roads. I believe that no main road has been made out of London for 80 years. We have no central road authority. The roads of England and Wales are administered by 30 metropolitan borough councils (including the London County Council and City of London), 61 county councils, 326 county and non-county borough councils, and 1,479 urban and rural district councils. The great North Road, our greatest his- toric and national highway from London to Carlisle, is under no fewer than 72 authorities, of whom 46 are actually engaged in maintaining it. Among those are such authorities as the Kirklington Urban District Council, which controls one mile, and the Thirsk Rural District Council, which is responsible for 1 mile 1,120 yards in one place and 2 miles 200 yards in another! Both the general public and motorists are crying out for something to be done, and we propose to make a real start. How the funds will be raised for the purpose it will be my duty later on to explain; the only indication I shall give now is that the brunt of the expense at the beginning must be borne by motorists, and to do them justice they are willing, and even anxious, to subscribe handsomely towards such a purpose, so long as a guarantee is given in the method and control of the expenditure that the funds so raised will not merely be devoted exclusively to the improvement of the roads, but that they will be well and wisely spent for that end. For that reason we propose that the money shall be placed at the disposal of a central authority, who will make grants to local authorities for the purpose of carrying out well-planned schemes which they have approved for widening roads, for straightening them, for making deviations round villages, for allaying the dust nuisance, and I should also propose that power should be given to this central authority to set aside a portion of the money so raised for constructing where they think it necessary and desirable, absolutely new roads. Power will be given them not merely to acquire land for that purpose, but also for the acquisition of rights over adjoining lands, which will enable them eventually to bring into being new sources of revenue by taking full advantage of the increment and other benefits derived from the new easements they will be creating for the public. That is all I have to say with regard to expenditure, and I now come to the question of how I have got to meet it.

Once more I want to make it clear before I dismiss this part of the subject that the expenditure undertaken out of the fund must be directly referable to work done in connection with the exigencies of the motor traffic of the country. Although this is expenditure which will be incurred in the course of the present year, and is, therefore, not in the same category as the prospective liabilities which I have hitherto sketched, I do not think it incumbent on me to add this new liability to the ordinary deficit for the year, and I think the House will see that I have a sufficient reason for not doing so. I propose to deal with this expenditure by raising a special fund for the purpose, and it is therefore not quite in the position of being part of the current expenditure of the year. The expenditure will be strictly limited by the revenue we succed in raising.