HC Deb 24 September 1948 vol 456 cc1308-17

2.56 p.m.

Mr. Gammans (Hornsey)

We have had today a series of harmonious Debates quite free from any party aspects, and I do not wish to do anything to disturb the love feast. But I intend to be critical of the Government and I can torpedo in advance any reply which the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport might make that it was due to his predecessors, by saying that what I will say to him I would equally say to anyone holding his office today. The scandal of the signs on our roads is something for which all Governments must bear responsibility. I have called my subject "the scandal of road signs" and I do not think that the word "scandal" is too strong a word to use.

To my mind, our's is easily the worst signposted country in Europe. The signposts on our main roads or our secondary roads are far worse than those in France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain or Portugal. The other day, two hon. Members and myself motored in our own car to Vienna and back. The only place where we got lost was between Dover and Folkestone. The point where I blame the Government is that after the war, when we had a chance to put up good signposts, we might have done something. The Government have lost that chance. All the old signposts, unsatisfactory as they are, are being put back.

I think that there are four scandals, if I may put it in that way. The first is the scandal of the trunk roads. There is no uniformity about destination on the signposts. Take, for example, the Portsmouth road. At the start one may see the word "Portsmouth" but one may never see it again on the whole of that trunk road. One may find that the next signpost mentions the next town, and then one may never see that again because the next signpost may mention a village which no one else has ever heard of before. It is true to say that, without reference to a map, it is impossible for a traveller who does not understand our roads to go along without having constantly to ask his way.

Not only are the signposts difficult to understand but there is no uniformity about the type of signpost, their height from the ground or their colour. Many of them are still parallel to the road. That means that a motorist has to twist his head to see where he is going. Most of the posts are far too high. They date back to the days when we had stage coaches, high dogcarts or coachman's boxes. The fact that they are too small, that they are in the wrong place and too high is responsible for many thousands of accidents in the course of the year throughout the country. They happen when drivers of cars suddenly see a signpost and perhaps switch round quickly to go along another road. That is what I describe as scandal number one.

Scandal number two concerns the sign-posting of the towns themselves. There is only one word which will describe that position and that is the word "frightful." Most of our towns are simply not signposted at all. I do not know whether the Minister has ever tried to motor to Cambridge, but I would wager him £5 that he could not go from this House to the Cambridge road, unless he knew it, without getting lost at least twice. As for a foreign visitor to this country coming in say, through Dover and trying to find the Great North Road, that would be literally impossible. There is nothing marked in the centre of London, or, for that matter, on the outskirts. Then there is that frightful place the Elephant and Castle, where a man may go round and round until he has exhausted his petrol ration before he can discover the way he wants to go. Many towns are not marked at all. When one arrives at a town one cannot see which is the way out. For a foreign visitor to be landed up in some of our provincial towns and never able to get out is certainly no advertisement for visitors to come to these shores.

Scandal number three is that hardly any towns in this country are marked with their name. One may arrive at a village and never know its name. Very few of them have taken the trouble to say that this is such and such a place. In fact, one of the few places in the United Kingdom where a traveller can know where he is is when he crosses the border at Gretna Green. There one sees an enormous sign, "This is Scotland." Whether that is meant as an invitation or a warning, I have never quite discovered. I notice that England is far more modest on the return trip, because there is no sign which says, "This is England." I do not know why we should not encourage towns to put up their own boards. It is one of those things which would cause little cost to public funds and, with a little inspiration from the Minister, I believe that local people would do that.

The last scandal is one which may seem to be small but I think that it is important. I refer to the signposting of footpaths. Unless our footpaths are to be lost, we ought to erect signposts saying that they are footpaths and we also might say sometimes where those footpaths lead. Why has nothing been done about all this when what ought to be done is not in doubt? We had this report of the Departmental Committee on traffic signs in 1944. The Minister, and, I think, his predecessors, accepted that report, but very little, if anything, has been done.

I hope the hon. Gentleman is not going to trot out the old stuff such as, "We are short of staff," "We hope to get this done in due course," or "Active consideration is being given to the matter." Surely, this is not a monumental work in terms of staff. Many of the local authorities are doing far less road work today than they were doing before the war. I should have thought they might have given some attention to this matter. The motorists, in all conscience, are paying enough, and they ought to be given a decent set of signs. if there is any proof that the job cannot be done, although the will is there to do it, may I tell the House, if they do not know it already, that during the last few years the Royal Automobile Club has put up over 75,000 road signs throughout the country, and, what is more, paid for them.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. James Callaghan)

During what period?

Mr. Gammans

During the last 10 years, I believe. Incidentally, I could never see why the R.A.C., which is a motoring organisation, should be expected to pay for signs which the Government should put up, any more than one would expect trade unions to subsidise employers in providing lavatories or canteens when they are things which employers should provide. In the same way, if motorists pay an enormous sum to the Road Fund, I do not see why they should expect their own club to provide the signposts. I suggest that what are lacking today are drive and energy. The Minister is directly responsible for the main roads although the job is put out to local authorities. If he cannot do it himself, he should hand it over to the R.A.C. or the A.A.—and pay them for it, of course—who will certainly get on with the job. I hope that this afternoon we shall receive an assurance from the hon. Gentleman that before the next tourist season we shall have a system of signposts on our main roads, certainly from our ports, which is worthy of this country and is likely to attract visitors to it.

Mr. Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)

I only wish to add one thing to what the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Gammans) has said. Will my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary also consider placing on the signposts the distance in miles from one place to another? One sees that on some signposts, but not on others. If this were done, it would tremendously help all kinds of people moving about this country.

3.3 p.m.

Mr. Callaghan

I wondered, when I saw the title of this Adjournment Debate, "A scandal of Road Signs," whether the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Gammans had invented a new collec- tive noun, like "A pride of lions," or, as we sometimes say, "A bunch of Tories." I see that he has in fact, found four detailed points on which to concentrate his fire this afternoon. He started by claiming that we have the worst signposted roads in Europe. I noticed that he specifically said "Europe." Perhaps he was remembering his earlier experience in Tokyo where, he will doubtless recall, they have the charming habit, when they start to build a series of houses in an empty road, of calling the first house No. I and the second house, wherever it is built, No. 2. If they put up another house, even though it is half a mile down the road, it is called No. 3. Eventually, they have a series of numbers which bears no relation to the way in which the houses run.

Mr. Anthony Nutting (Melton)

It is not a Government responsibility.

Mr. Callaghan

This is not a Government responsibility either, and if the hon. Member will contain himself for a little longer he will find that that is part of my defence this afternoon. The position here is complicated in this country by the fact that this is not a Government responsibility, except of course' in the case of trunk roads. The highway authorities themselves are responsible, under the encouragement, advice and guidance of the Minister, for signposting their areas.

I am bound to say when my attention is invited to it by the hon. Member for Hornsey that it does not seem to me to be particularly tidy or likely to give the best results if we say to the metropolitan boroughs, "Look here, your job is to get together and find the best route out of London to Dover; now work it out and get your signs up," because I rather feel at first blush that if we say this to half a dozen different authorities through whose areas these very crowded roads go, we shall have six people sitting round a table who will find it very difficult to agree. I have no practical experience of this but it appears to me to be rather a difficult thing.

Therefore, at this stage, in view of the importance of what I would call area signposting—getting the best out of an area, and selecting the best routes—I wonder whether we might consider some alternative way of overcoming what I readily agree is an extremely unsatisfactory situation. Area signposting, which I suppose comes under the heading of scandals 2 and 3, would I think overcome some part of the difficulties, and if we can devise some means to do that I should like to see it attempted.

Mr. Gammans

Before we leave scandal 1, surely the hon. Gentleman has got not only all the power in the world but the obligation under the 1936 Act to look after trunk roads? Under the 1946 Act that power was extended to certain roads in the county of London. Why does he not get on with the job in the case of the trunk roads?

Mr. Callaghan

If the hon. Gentleman will be a little patient he will find that I shall deal with that point in due course. Of course, we are responsible for the trunk roads. I am not dealing with his scandals in any set order. I am taking up the points in the order in which they seem naturally to call for a reply. I. was dealing with this question of area signposting. I think the highway authorities have had considerable difficulty in what they have had to do. They have been short of steel and money. It is not a question of shortage of staff in this case. It is a shortage of the essentials that go to make up the signposts, that is all, and that is the most important thing.

Because of the comparatively small allocation of steel for this purpose, they have had to wait for some months to have their orders fulfilled. Some of them tried to get ahead a considerable time ago and placed their orders for new signposts of this sort, and they have not got them yet. I think it is extremely unfortunate that they have not, but we have got to reckon out how much steel we can afford for signposts and how much steel we want to put into the new steel works at Margam. That is one of the advantages of doing these things centrally, so that these matters can be planned and we can decide which priority comes first. It is because of that that many highway authorities, who are certainly doing less road work than they were before the war, have not been able to get ahead as fast as they would like, and certainly not as fast as the Minister would like.

I think it is the general experience of hon. Members that the signposting of trunk roads has improved tremendously, particularly during the last 12 months. This, of course, is a recent development. I should say that the production of these posts has really only got going a comparatively short time ago. Now they are being produced and being put up on all roads, not only trunk roads, at the rate of something like 50,000 a year. I would not bind myself to that figure because it is only a rough estimate one can make; but it is something like that. I was interested to hear that the A.A. and the R.A.C. have put up 75,000 signs in the last 10 years. I think they do extraordinarily good work in temporary sign posting. It is something, no doubt, they felt to be valuable to their members; and, no doubt, they started to carry the work out as a service to their members. However, it is a service for all the public, and the Ministry have an amiable arrangement with them as to the conditions under which the signs should be put up.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the great variety in the types of signposts, to their heights and widths, and the angles at which they should be placed, and so on. I think he is quite right. Certainly it is the case that there is a great deal of work to be done in putting matters right. We have the "Bible" on the subject here—the Report of the Departmental Committee on Traffic Signs. If it were implemented as to 100 per cent. it would remove a great many of the objections. The designs of the traffic signs, the kind of lettering for them, the height above ground level, the relation of the width of the sign to the height—all these questions have been gone into with very great care, and I think we are indebted to the Committee, which was made up of a number of experts, including representatives of the Transport and General Workers Union, the Automobile Association, the City engineers, the Pedestrians' Association, and many others. It did a magnificent job of work.

I hope the time will come when our roads will measure up to what is set out as the ideal in this report. It was, of course, brought to the notice of local authorities, and of highway authorities generally, at an early date. Although it was produced in 1944 it was not until March, 1946, it was brought to their attention—for fairly obvious reasons, I suppose. Immediately afterwards they got down to the job.

The question of the putting up of the names of towns is a matter which I should have thought was extremely important. It would be very helpful if all towns had their names up. I am surprised this posting has not been done more than it has. I would commend the hon. Member's suggestion to every local authority, to put up on their boundaries who they are and what they are proud to represent. As to footpaths, my personal sympathies are entirely with the hon. Gentleman. It would be a great pity if a footpath were allowed to disappear because nobody knew where it went, or whence it came, or even that it existed. The Minister is interested in this problem. He is taking a personal interest in it, and I can tell the hon. Member and the House that he is at the moment reviewing the progress that has been made by highway authorities in this particular matter. He is to see whether there is any further speeding up or changes of administrative machinery that can be effected.

Mr. Gammans

Would it be unfair to paraphrase what the hon. Gentleman has said, by saying he more or less agrees with what I said but holds out very little hope that anything can be done in the near future, and that certainly no priority whatever can be given to the roads coming from the coast?

Mr. Callaghan

What the hon. Gentleman suggests as a paraphrase only further convinces me that a paraphrase never represents the original statement. To sum up, I think the existing position is unsatisfactory and has been unsatisfactory for many years. I think we have a detailed statement showing how it can be put right, that new road signs, in accordance with the detailed statement, are being produced at the rate of 50,000 a year, and that there is a deal more to be done before we can claim that the position is satisfactory.

3.15 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Nutting (Melton)

I am bound to say that the Minister's reply seems to be extremely unsatisfactory and to confirm everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Gammans) said about the lack of drive and energy on the part of the Government in solving this problem. The Minister spoke of the improvement in the road signs on the trunk roads during the course of the last 12 months. I can assure him that I go to my constituency as regularly as the Minister of Fuel and Power will allow by car, and I have certainly not seen any new road signs on the 100 mile stretch between Melton Mowbray and London during the course of the last 12 months or for that matter three years. And, if I may give another example, when I went to speak at the Gravesend by-election and followed the trunk road signs to the letter, I ended, first, in a farm yard, and, secondly, in a ploughed field, entirely as the result of these signs. No doubt this was one of the reasons why we lost the by-election.

The Parliamentary Secretary went on to talk of the shortage of materials. I do not know who is responsible for putting up these utterly nonsensical road signs, whether it is the local councils or the Government who put up these ridiculous signs, saying, "Hendon welcomes safe driving," or "Mind how you go." These enormous placards must take up quantities of timber and steel.

Mr. Callaghan

Not steel—paper.

Mr. Nutting

Presumably the backing is not paper but timber, and presumably the supports are of either wood or steel or some form of metal. If there is a shortage of material, why did the Government concentrate on this ridiculous road safety campaign which, in its present form, is designed to make me, at any rate, want more than anything else to drive on the wrong side of the road at the fastest speed? If there is a shortage of materials, why did the Government or local councils concentrate all their efforts in putting up this ridiculous stuff? Why did they not spend a little thought, time and trouble and material in signposting the roads in the manner suggested by my hon. Friend?

Mr. Callaghan

I have no right to reply, but perhaps I may say that the hon. Gentleman ought to make sure at what target he is aiming before he speaks.

Mr. Nutting

I am speaking to the hon. Gentleman.