HC Deb 15 June 1950 vol 476 cc711-20

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Royle.]

11.37 p.m.

Brigadier Medlicott (Norfolk, Central)

We have for some 48 hours been considering the sums of money which the motoring community, among others, contribute to the Exchequer, and it may not be out of place for a few minutes to turn to the question of what the motorist is getting in return. I suggest he is not getting quite the square deal he deserves. I fully realise that in an Adjournment Debate it is not possible to discuss the subject of road traffic as a whole, but there are certain aspects of it which I think are rather urgent, and it is for that reason that I venture to draw attention to them tonight.

The two subjects on which I desire to concentrate are congestion due to inadequate roads and lack of sufficient parking facilities, and confusion due to inadequate signposting. I will deal with the latter first. Here I suggest that what we ought to do now is to bring up to date the consideration of the matter which was given by two departmental committees in 1933 and 1944. We ought to ask ourselves whether the conclusions arrived at by the 1944 committee are still correct in the light of post-war motoring conditions. We ought also to ask ourselves to what extent the recommendations of the 1944 committee have, in fact, been carried into effect. I ask for some fresh examination of the problem of signposting and I suggest to the Minister that in any such re-examination he tries to give a little more consideration to the practical motorist and to take him as far as possible into consultation.

The second comment I make on signposting is to suggest that we are very far behind continental standards. I think in many ways that the system laid down by the two committees of 1933 and 1944 is very good. We have an excellent collection of well-designed signs, showing schools, level-crossings, hump-backed bridges, sharp corners and gradients, but the motorist is mainly interested in the problem of getting from one place to another, and it is the absence of adequate place names in our signposting that is our chief weakness. Our system now relies largely upon the adoption of route numbers for our roads. Here I find myself in agreement with the minority view expressed by Colonel Dudley who sat on the 1944 committee, and said: I remain unconvinced that the motoring public desires to travel by the aid of road numbers in preference to place names. The system of road numbers involves reference to a map, but the real test of signposting is the extent to which motorists can use it without a map.

There are many examples. I merely want to give one I came upon myself. It is possible to motor from here to Dorchester, which is, after all, a very important west country town and road junction. For one hundred miles one does not see the word "Dorchester," upon a single signpost. That is very confusing to those without a map and perhaps strange to the country. In an earlier Debate on this subject, I think it was the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Gammans) who said he had once motored from London to Vienna and back and the only time he got lost was between Folkestone and Dover.

In regard to London, the signposting system is most curious in its defectiveness. One can stand at one point after another —Hyde Park Corner, Trafalgar Square, or outside this Palace of Westminster— and unless one has some knowledge of one's own, it is impossible to tell from any signposting the way to get out of London to any place like Manchester, Dover, York, or other points in the British Isles. The route just cannot be found by signposts because they are simply not there. I suggest, especially with the Festival of Britain coming upon us so soon, that we do want to get away from this distinction London has of being virtually without adequate signposting at all in the centre. On this whole matter of road signposting, particularly in the London area, we need to look at the problem again very urgently and to bring up to date the consideration of the matter given by the 1933 and 1944 Committees.

I want to give the Minister as long as possible to reply and so I will now turn to the problem of road congestion. The position was summed up a few days ago by "The Motor," from which I will quote a passage: Britain has never possessed adequate highways in relation to the number of vehicles operating on them at any given period. The combination of unrationed petrol and the great increase in the number of heavy commercial vehicles since the war will, in the near future, produce a state of chaos on the roads quite unacceptable to an industrial nation striving for commercial success in the markets of the world. To keep the traffic flowing in the next few years is one of the most important tasks confronting Britain's administration. Unless something is done, and done quickly, millions more gallons of petrol will be burnt in the fruitless mile-an-hour progress of traffic-jammed city areas, and the cost to the nation of lost man-hours and the general slowing down of essential movement would be quite incalculable. A calculation has, in fact, been made, and in the County of London Plan in 1943, it was estimated that the loss in man-hours and petrol by traffic jams in London can be put at approximately £70 million a year.

In this matter of London traffic—and I must concentrate mainly on London, although the problem affects all our great cities to a lesser degree—we are faced with a curious situation. No effective attempt has apparently ever been made to measure the volume of traffic which flows into the city and to relate that volume to the actual extent of parking facilities and garage accommodation in the city. We should not dream of putting on to railway lines more than a carefully ascertained volume of traffic, and yet we allow it to happen on London's roads. There is no restriction of the number of vehicles coming into London or passing through London on a single day, with the result that we are approaching the moment at which the traffic of London is nearing strangulation point.

Drastic remedies are needed, and I hope the Minister will not shrink from applying them, even though some people may regard them as unpopular. This is a matter in which it is impossible to please everybody. The remedies are two-fold, long term and short term, as most remedies are, and are partly contained in the Trunk Roads Acts of 1936 and 1946, and the Special Roads Act, 1949, which provide machinery for the building up of a great system of national highways for long distance traffic.

That, of course, does not tackle the real problem of congestion in our towns and cities, and in that connection I hope the Minister is encouraging local authorities in the preparation of their development plans—the matter, of course, is also one for his colleague, the Minister of Town and Country Planning—to give the utmost attention to the problem of providing adequate parking facilities, and to look especially at the idea of underground car parks, which many people regard as the only real solution in our crowded city areas.

The amount which the motorists are likely to pay in future years towards the revenue has been estimated at £250 million per annum. I understand that hitherto the figure has been the relatively modest one of £137 million, although both these figures are only in general terms. However, it is obvious that what the motorist gets in return is pitifully inadequate to his requirements, and I am wondering if the Minister can say anything about the recent comments of the Minister of Town and Country Planning, which indicate that even the proposal to build the London A ring road has now been abandoned. That was one of the props to the hopes for a better system of road construction for the greater London area, and if that, too, has gone the position is very disappointing indeed.

I realise that the Minister cannot say much about long-term plans, but I hope he may be able to refer to them in passing, and to say if there is any hope at all that they will be embarked upon, in spite of the difficulties of capital expenditure. It is the short-term remedies that he can do something about, and I suggest that so far as London is concerned, we have been merely tinkering with the problem. The yellow band system is good as far as it goes, but it is no use freeing the traffic in small sections. It is no use moving obstructions from one section, if round the next corner or in the next section the traffic is going to meet obstructions there.

What we need is a bold, imaginative plan, under which the great main roads in London would be treated, for all practical purposes, as the equivalent of express lines on the railway system. Certain roads should be set aside for fast, through traffic, and certain principles should be laid down in regard to the use of those roads. Those I have in mind are great roads like Oxford Street, the Strand, the Embankment, Euston Road and the like.

In those roads, if this plan were adopted, there would an an absolute prohibition of parking. No parking would be allowed in any circumstances, and waiting and setting down of passengers and the loading and unloading of trade vehicles would be restricted to certain hours, and all horse-drawn vehicles would be excluded. Right hand turning across the main stream of the traffic would be drastically limited, and perhaps, most important of all, some of these roads would be made one way throughout their whole length. The parking of private cars, added to setting down of passengers and the loading and unloading of commercial vehicles, provide the aggregate volume of this traffic obstruction which is the great problem that the Minister has to face, and even the temporary parking space given by the bombed sites is likely to disappear as more and more of them are built upon.

I come now to my second point with regard to the freeing of the roads and I want to deal with the subsidiary roads for a moment. Except in the main arteries to which I have referred, there should be a widespread plan of parking on one side of the road. Unilateral parking should be allowed in practically every street in the London area. What happens now when the motorist comes to London is that he leaves his car wherever he can. I suggest that far less obstruction is caused by one hundred cars parked on one side of the road than by only 30 or 40 parked indiscriminately on both sides of the street, just where the motorists care to leave them.

Some of these temporary measures might well result in the total amount of parking accommodation being actually increased. We must in fact become accustomed to the idea that we cannot expect to leave our cars outside our offices, but may have to go a little further afield, where we shall at least be able to leave our car undisturbed instead of wondering for how many minutes it can safely remain there. We have to bear in mind that in this whole matter, movement must take precedence over parking, and the travelling car or vehicle must have our support over the stationary one.

There is one final matter, and that is about road repairs, which comes up every year, especially about this time, and adds still further to the problem of road congestion. Here again the motorist does not get a square deal at all, because he never gets any compensation for what he loses in wasted time and petrol by the delays which these repairs cause. It is said that when the vehicles were horse drawn, London or New York could be crossed at 10 miles per hour, whereas the average today, in spite of the fact that the motorcar has arrived, is only just over five miles per hour.

I think the remedy is fairly simple if we have the courage to apply it. It is that road repairs must be done as No. 1 priority, and done all round the clock. It is exasperating to see the whole length of a road left hour after hour during the night and the week-ends and at holiday times without any work being done. I agree that the cost of doing the work upon a complete shift of 24 hours would be considerably more, but we ought to be able to set that against the tremendous saving to the motoring community of keeping the roads more clear.

I have had to deal all too briefly with this urgent problem, but I come back to the quotation I gave earlier, and that is that the duty of the administration in the next few years is, in the matter of transport, above all things, to keep the traffic moving fast and free. I hope the Minister is going to give us an assurance that he has this matter well in hand.

11.55 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

The hon. and gallant Gentleman said that he has covered the subject only too briefly, but I must remind him that he has dealt with an enormous range of road problems in the time he has taken. I welcome, however, every occasion when the road policy of this country comes under consideration. My only regret is that it comes at the end of two rather hectic sittings, and we have not the general interest of the House.

I should like to emphasise that in my view this is one of the basic problems we have to consider. While, generally, everyone appreciates the difficulties, it is a fact that Members of Parliament in the aggregate do not give adequate consideration to the road problem, with the result —at least ever since I have been in Parliament, which is approximately a quarter of a century—that we find our road system steadily falling behind the increasing development and growth of road transport.

I am only too conscious of the gravity of the situation. With regard to the majority of the hon. Gentleman's points, which I might sum up as palliatives— attempts to mitigate the consequences of that overriding neglect—I can assure him that we have steadily directed our attention to these remedial measures. The yellow band restrictions, one-way streets, unilateral parking, and so forth have been steadily pursued.

The desire to facilitate the flow of traffic over our main roads in London has received considerable attention, but I want to remind the House that the great number of cross roads that cut across our main London thoroughfares makes that impossible. But in certain avenues of the city, in Oxford Street for example, already restrictions are imposed on horse-drawn traffic during certain hours of the day. All these palliatives have been applied, and they have facilitated traffic and have had a beneficial effect in those areas.

With regard to signposting, I would recall that during the war the whole of our system was removed, and its restoration and the institution of any new system—and this also applies to problems like car parking—are the responsibility of local authorities. No one regrets more than I do, that even when the authorities come forward with proposals for adequate car parking facilities, sometimes in the centre of the city, I am unable to give approval because of the capital investment problem. Hon. Gentlemen are aware that sums allocated for road construction, improvement, maintenance, and things of that description have been severely curtailed, and often the desires of many authorities are unable to be fulfilled merely because there are not the necessary funds.

In signposting the Minister of Transport is responsible only for the trunk roads. All other classified roads come under the local authorities. The only area in which the Minister has direct authority is the London traffic area, and that is why we have concentrated on those palliatives and restrictions to which I have referred. When a Committee like that of 1944 has decided on a policy of signposting, and it has got substantially into its stride, it is rather difficult to break into it and reverse the policy. That is what I gathered the hon. and gallant Gentleman was suggesting. He apparently disagrees with the road number principle, and as a practical motorist I have some sympathy with that point of view.

In many of these matters there appears to be an overwhelming case for following a certain plan as the most simple and efficacious way of accomplishing the purpose. But when you are dealing with the British public you often find that, however desirable your purpose, they just will not follow the direction. My experience as a practical motorist has confirmed that, and there have been many other acknowledgments of it too. The average motorist in this country does not travel on the map. Therefore I am prepared to say that on my own recent experience, I am coming to the conclusion that we may have to re-examine that problem. I am giving no undertaking at the moment, but my mind is receptive in that way.

The problem of signposting London is a most difficult and complex matter. Recently I directed the attention of the Department to an experiment in through signposting, and we are just completing a signposting system from Dover right through to the centre of the City of London. When it is complete I hope that hon. Members will test it for themselves. Now that petrol is free there should be no difficulty about that, and I shall be very glad of any advice or suggestions that may flow from their practical tests of the system.

I definitely associated myself with the Minister of Town and Country Planning in deciding that the A ring route was not a practical proposition. If it were possible to carry out a scheme of this description in a relatively short time it would make a great contribution to solving the traffic problem. But the completion of that scheme seemed to be so far ahead in the future, that the inconvenience it would cause in development over so wide an area of London, did not appear to justify the retention of that idea. We are now directing our attention more along the lines which the hon. Member has suggested, of trying to get certain routes, especially from north, south, east and west, which will enable people coming into and going out of London to move with greater freedom. Some of these schemes have already been determined and merely await the necessary finance to bring them into operation.

The Cromwell Road scheme will bring enormous advantage to air transport traffic from the London airfields, with its fly-over at the end of the Great West Road, right up to Hyde Park; and the schemes we have in connexion with the remodelling of Park Lane and so on would be a great advantage from the point of view of traffic. But these schemes represent an enormous capital expenditure and Parliament so far has not proposed setting aside the necessary funds.

When mention is made of underground car parks, considering that the economic resources of this country will not even permit local authorities and authorities in London to provide adequate surface parking facilities, the House will recognise immediately the impossibility of holding out any hopes of providing the more expensive underground parking. We have examined different schemes from time to time, and I want to assure hon. Members that we are fully alive to the importance of this problem. The great difficulty, however, is the lack of finance. In this connection I would remind the House that we have passed through five years of war in which there was practically no new road construction, with a similar condition in the five post-war years due to our financial circumstances. So a whole decade has disappeared without our being able to grapple with this ever-growing, difficult problem of road development and traffic in this country.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock on Thursday evening and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Six Minutes past Twelve o'Clock a.m.