HC Deb 25 January 1944 vol 396 cc541-7
71. Captain Gammans

asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport whether he is yet in a position to make a statement on post-war road policy.

72. Sir Adam Maitland

asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport whether he will publish particulars or plans of his Department for the post-war construction of motorways.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport (Mr. Noel-Baker)

As the answer is rather long, I will, with your consent, Mr. Speaker, make a statement at the end of Questions to-day.


Mr. Noel-Baker

His Majesty's Government have considered on what lines the improvement and development of our highway system could best proceed after the war and they think that some preliminary indication of their general views would be helpful, both to highway and local authorities in framing their own plans, and to others who are interested. Proposals to improve and extend the road system must in the first place be viewed in relation to the efficiency and development of our inland transport system as a whole. Such proposals must also be framed with full regard to the interests of town and country planning, the location and requirements of industry, including agriculture, and other aspects of national development. My Ministry will, therefore, maintain contact with the many other departments concerned, as well as with the local and highway authorities.

In the Government's opinion, there is a clear case for extending the present trunk road system, and they have it in mind, in consultation with the county councils, to frame legislation which would substantially increase the existing mileage of trunk roads (that is to say, about 4,500 miles) which is at present vested in the Minister of War Transport. Where a bypass which forms a link in a trunk road passes through the area of a county borough (or in Scotland through a large Burgh) it will probably be found right to vest this section also in the Minister. Discussions will be opened at once with the highway authorities, in order to select the additional roads to be scheduled as trunk roads. We intend to continue the arrangements under which the existing authorities can act as the Minister's agents. In order to secure the full advantages of new developments, it may also be found necessary to plan some new trunk roads, where the line of the existing road is not satisfactory. The possibility of simplifying the present somewhat complicated system of grants to highway authorities is being considered.

Consideration has been given to the proposals made in various quarters for the construction of a new system of motorways, to relieve the pressure on our existing main roads. While the Government do not think that there is sufficient justification for embarking upon the construction of a widespread system of entirely new roads reserved exclusively for motor traffic, they are satisfied that it will be expedient and economical to construct suitable lengths of roads of this type, where engineering and traffic considerations make this course preferable to the extensive re-modelling of existing roads, in an attempt to make them more suitable and safer for mixed traffic. In selecting lengths of road for this treatment, the Ministry would be guided by the proper development of our transport system as a whole by the convenience of road traffic, and by sound principles of town and country planning. Due regard would be paid to cost and amenity. There is a strong case for reserving exclusively for motor traffic some of the by-pass and other roads designed to enable motor traffic to avoid passing through built-up areas. The value of such roads is too often seriously reduced by their use for mixed traffic and by the frequent access accorded to traffic entering from minor roads. Proposals to give the necessary authority for this purpose will be laid before Parliament in due course.

The roads of the country have on the whole stood up well to the heavy demands of war, but there will inevitably be large arrears of work, both of maintenance and improvement, to be carried out, as conditions permit. The rate of execution of the highway programme must be adjusted from time to time to general economic conditions, but, without imposing any undue rigidity, the following order of priority will be a good guide during the transitional period; first, overtaking the arrears of maintenance; second, the resumption of works closed down during the war, if that is still desirable; third, works essential to public safety or to the re-construction of blitzed areas, and works of special value to areas in urgent need of new industrial development; fourth, the elimination of obstructions to traffic on important roads, such as weak or narrow bridges, level crossings and the linking up of improved sections of roads on important traffic routes; fifth, other works of improvement of high economic value. This list is not intended to suggest any absolute priority, in the sense that every highway authority would be expected to complete all its maintenance work before it turns to works of improvement; in practice there must be over lapping of the different items.

The Government intend to encourage the preparation of major schemes of improvement, including some which are not considered at present of high priority, so that these schemes may form part of a long term and comprehensive programme of public works, available and ready to be put in hand, if general economic activity begins to give indications of an approaching decline. Without precluding progress in the preparation of other schemes in England and Wales and in Scotland that can be shown to be desirable, for traffic and economic reasons, the Government attach importance, on the ground of its great economic value to South Wales to the provision of a new road crossing of the Severn Estuary. We think that the re-investigation of the project for a Severn Barrage, which has just been instituted by the Minister of Fuel and Power, should not stand in the way of the provision of a new crossing, in view of the time which it would necessarily take to construct the Barrage, if it were to be undertaken. Highway authorities will be encouraged to proceed at once with such preparations as are possible in present circumstances to enable the policy which I have outlined in this statement to be pursued as rapidly as may be practicable.

Mr. Mathers

Will the examination, of which the Minister has given an indication in this statement, include a consideration of the relative claims of the different projects for bridging the Firth of Forth near Queensferry?

Mr. Noel-Baker

We shall consider all the plans which the competent authorities lay before us.

Mr. McKinlay

On a point of Order. May I ask for your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, on whether the limitation placed on the length of a Question addressed by a Member, applies also to the length of the answer which the Minister gives to the Question?

Sir H. Williams

Further to that point of Order. Is it not very desirable, when a statement of this importance is made bringing in, as it does, certain elements of controversy, that it should not be made at a time when debate cannot follow forthwith?

Mr. Noel-Baker

The highway and other authorities are extremely anxious to have some indication of the Government's policy, and I thought the House would desire that this indication should, first, be given in the House itself.

Sir Geoffrey Shakespeare

May I ask whether, in view of the very important statement we have had on the Government proposal with regard to road reconstruction, we cannot have a day for discussing the matter?

Mr. McKinlay

May I have an answer on the point as to the length of a Question which is accepted at the Table, as compared with the length of the answer?

Mr. Speaker

The position is quite clear. There are no definite rules, but we always try to limit a Question to 10 lines of the Order Paper. In regard to the answer, while we do not interfere, it is desirable that it should not be too long, but that depends on the discretion of the Minister. On this occasion, the hon. Member will realise that the statement was not in answer to a Question, but was an opportunity allowed to a Minister to make a statement on policy after Questions.

Mr. Granville

May I ask, in view of the fact that we have had three of these statements to-day, whether it is not possible to have notice put upon the Order Paper beforehand; and if that is not possible, may I suggest that some notice should be put behind Mr. Speaker's Chair so that hon. Members may know when these statements are going to be made and arrange to be present in the Chamber?

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Eden)

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary was, in fact, answering two Questions on the Paper, and if this procedure is not liked, I am to blame, because I have encouraged Ministers not to give long answers during the Question Hour but to give those answers at the end of Questions. I have also encouraged them to make their statements in the House rather than anywhere else. Then, I think the question arises whether, after the statements have been studied and examined, Debate is required or not. That is quite a separate issue which can be considered by the House, and my reply to the hon. Member would be that when the answer has been considered, we can see whether there should be a Debate.

Mr. Gallacher

The Minister says that road authorities are anxious to have this statement and that that is why this long answer has been given. In view of that, may I draw attention to the fact that local authorities are very anxious to have a statement on housing policy; and could not the Secretary of State be asked to make a long statement dealing with Scotland?

Mr. Maxton

Is it not a fact that once these long statements have been made and the House has not actively dissented the Minister goes ahead on the assumption that he has got the approval of the House to the new line of policy, whereas he has only answered some question? Will the Leader of the House take care that these statements are not statements of policy, which cannot be operated without the consent of the House, because the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman was that now that he had made an answer in the House local authorities could go ahead with their road plans?

Colonel Arthur Evans

Has the hon. Gentleman considered the desirability of abolishing the remaining toll gates in the country, particularly in South Wales, including those on the road from Cardiff to Barry?

Mr. Noel-Baker

Yes, Sir, we shall always be most anxious to abolish toll gates.

Mr. Evelyn Walkden

Can we be assured that a census or a survey will be taken in large towns which lie upon main roads? For instance, the Great North Road runs through Doncaster, where congestion takes places every day, and is the hon. Gentleman prepared to take evidence as to the need for diversions and by-passes of the kind he has indicated?

Mr. Noel-Baker

That is what I meant when I said that, in many places, entirely new roads would be required.

Mr. Neil Maclean

I wish to ask the Leader of the House whether he is not prepared to give a day for a discussion upon this all-absorbing topic?

Mr. Eden

I have already dealt fully with that point. If I may say so, I think the House would be wise not to attempt to restrict Ministers in these statements, because it is our method of giving in formation directly. In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton), I quite agree that a mere statement does not mean that the whole House approves, but the whole House is cognisant of what the Government propose to do, or of their intentions, and I think that is a step in the direction he would wish.

Mr. Gallacher

We do not wish the Minister to by-pass this House.