HC Deb 30 May 1945 vol 411 cc281-5
Mr. Turton

I beg to move, in page 18, line 11, to leave out "months", and insert: weeks, unless the Commission in their Report have otherwise recommended. I apologise to the House for having put in a manuscript Amendment embodying this proposal. Actually, I drafted it last night, but by an oversight it did not go in with the other Amendments.

This is a matter which we considered at great length on the Committee stage, when it was pointed out that at the termination of the continuous stopping-up of a highway there might be a delay of six months before people could enjoy, their right of way. The then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport explained that in normal cases he would require only a few weeks, but that there might be cases which would present great engineering difficulties. For that reason we have altered our original proposal to make "six months" into "28 days"; we suggest a compromise proposal to meet the case of great engineering difficulty. I hope the Government will accept this compromise.

Sir G. Jeffreys

I beg to second the Amendment.

I have not much to add to what has been said by the mover. The Clause as it stands at present seems to legislate for the exception rather than for the general rule. It will be exceptional for any longer period to be required; we have that on the authority of the ex-Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport. I believe that his successor, whom I venture to congratulate upon his first appearance upon the Treasury Bench, agrees with that view. It is for that reason that we framed the Amendment in these words, which will make it possible for the longer period to be available, in the case of engineering or other difficulties making it impossible for highways to be completed in a normal time.

5.45 p.m.

Mr. Muff (Kingston-upon-Hull, East)

I should like to ask the Attorney-General what is the effect of this Amendment, and whether it will interfere with the general practice which is followed when a public highway is to be closed. The present practice is for an advertisement to be inserted in the Press, people who wish to object can object and then, my experience as a magistrate has been, two magistrates certify the matter, and it goes to Quarter Sessions. I should like to ask the Attorney-General whether the effect of the Amendment is to depart from the ancient practice of this country.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport (Mr. Peter Thorneycroft)

With regard to the point raised by the hon. Member opposite, I have consulted the Attorney-General, and the answer is "None." That is under a different procedure from the procedure under this Bill. The old procedure under the Highway Act is not affected. As to the points raised by the mover and seconder of the Amendment, I think that the House would be in general sympathy with the aim they have in view, which is, that once a decision has been taken to open up a highway the quicker it is done the better. I hope to persuade them that their Amendment does not quite achieve that object. There are two points to be considered. The first is the question of time. They agree that there will be some cases, I hope not many, in which a period of up to six months might be necessary. That longer period is not required as a matter of administrative convenience but as a matter of hard engineering fact. Some of these roadways have in fact been buried under 10 feet of earth, they have ceased to exist for perhaps 1,000 yards, and it is quite a feat to restore them as proper roads. How soon that can be done depends on the labour available, the number of bulldozers, etc., so that in some cases a longer period will be required.

I do not think it will speed things up if a shorter period is put into the Bill. I would say to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Petersfield Sir G. Jeffreys) that just as it is no use giving a soldier an order which he cannot carry out, it is no use inserting in an Act of Parliament a time limit which cannot be kept. My hon. and gallant Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) say, "Very well, if you require a longer period, surely you can go along to the Commission and ask for it." At first sight that is an attractive proposition, but the job of this Commission, broadly speaking, is to say whether the war works are to stay or go. If there is imposed on the Commission the additional burden of deciding things like time limits, and how long it will take for the work to be carried out, it is putting on them the sort of responsibility which is put on the official referee in the courts. All sorts of matters will have to be argued as to the availability of labour and contractors. I think the Commission will have plenty to do without having that burden put upon them.

It may be that the Minister himself may decide to abandon the proposals. He makes the proposals, and three months have to elapse while objections can be sent in. Possibly my hon. and gallant Friend might come along and seek to persuade the Minister to abandon the proposals on his own account. If he has the responsibility of doing in six weeks a job which is likely to take five or six months he is very unlikely to abandon the proposals. He will wait until the Commission can sit so as to get an extension of time. The mover and seconder of the Amendment may come to the conclusion that if it were accepted it would tend further to delay the opening of these highways. In conclusion, I would say that the Ministry of War Transport is really on the same side as my hon. Friends. I have not been there long, but so far as I can understand their object it is that traffic should flow about the country. We do not want to stop up highways but to open them. We are on the side of the angels in this. If I have not persuaded my hon. Friends entirely, I hope that on the assurance that expedition will be the order of the day, they will see their way to withdraw this Amendment.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

I should like to congratulate the Parliamentary Secretary on his first appearance at the Box, but really when he recollects his own performances when a certain Act was before the House last year, and when I sat in front of him, he will realise that there are very few angels on the back benches, when they move Amendments against their own Government. I think the point that has been raised is one of great importance—this question of the reopening of highways that have been closed, some of them important highways linking up small towns and villages. I hope that what the Parliamentary Secretary has said with regard to the attitude of his Ministry will, in fact, be carried out. I am very nervous about the effects of the war on highway law generally. Previously there was a very different method of dealing with the closing and diversion of highways. I hope that the speeches that have been made this afternoon by the Attorney-General and by the Parliamentary Secretary indicate that we are to get back very shortly to the time when there will only be the way that existed before the war for diverting and closing highways, namely, the action of justices in Quarter Sessions, a special Act of Parliament or a town planning scheme. I think the third method was a very disastrous innovation, and I hope we are not to have any further extension of the way in which the public can be inconvenienced by the closing of ancient highways.

Lieut.-Commander Joynson-Hicks

I would like to pay my tribute to the way in which the Parliamentary Secretary has dealt with the House in this matter, and to say how much we appreciate it. The only possible further extension of the good will of the House would have been given had the Parliamentary Secretary seen his way to accept this Amendment. It was an unfortunate omission in his maiden speech from the Front Bench. We should have welcomed it very much. I cannot believe there is any practical difficulty in the matter, whereas there is a substantial question of principle involved here. We have an emergency authority which has been given to the Government to stop up these highways, but after that authority has been brought to an end the public should have their right restored to them, and to extend the date is undoubtedly to give a further six months in which to deprive the public of their use of the highway. I cannot feel that that is right.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary referred to the practical difficulties in the matter. I cannot really see them. There is the exceptional case of a road buried under 10 feet of soil for a length of a thousand yards, but in such a case as that there will be very little difficulty in adjusting the time so that the requisite work could be done within a specific time limit, without requiring an additional six months' time-lag before access to the road is restored to the public. I feel also that the other case mentioned merely involves a matter of administration which could be surmounted perfectly easily. I hope my hon. Friend will look again at this matter. I appreciate that he has not had quite so much time to consider it from his present point of view as perhaps from his previous point of view, but I hope that with the advice, ingenuity and experience now at his disposal he will be able to find a way out of this delay in restoring to the public what they are entitled to have.

Mr. Turton

In view of the speech of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.