HC Deb 26 April 1951 vol 487 cc681-93

9.59 p.m.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)

I beg to move.

That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Regulations, dated 10th April, 1951, entitled the London Traffic (Prescribed Routes) (No. 4) Regulations, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 639), a copy of which was laid before this House on 12th April, be annulled.

This is in no sense a party issue. It is purely a technical issue connected with road safety. The particular street involved is Howick Place, which is only about half a mile from this Chamber. I happen to live near by and therefore am familiar with the circumstances. The London Traffic Act, 1924, under which Act, as amended by a later Act, this Order is made, for the first time made it possible to interfere with the free use of the King's highway and, quite properly, Parliament at the time, when there was a Labour Government in office, thought that any interference with the free use of the King's highway ought to be subject to Parliamentary processes and subject to the annulment procedure, of which I am taking advantage tonight.

As far as I am aware, this is probably the first time that a Prayer has ever been moved in respect of a one-way street. I have a very sound reason for asking the Minister tonight to accept the Motion, because the Order does not come into operation until 1st May and there cannot be any particular urgency one way or another. I think I shall make out a substantial case that the Order is bad, and for this reason: not that I object to the street being made a one-way street, but I think it has been made a one-way street in the wrong direction.

Those who go up Victoria Street will be aware of the large building facing on the street belonging to the Army and Navy Stores. Behind that is another building, also belonging to the Army and Navy Stores, in what is called Howick Place, and anybody who goes there occasionally will see that both sides of this rather narrow street are customarily occupied by parked cars. When that is so, there is room for only one line of traffic. Therefore, the case for making the thoroughfare into a one-way street, apart from the direction, is a very strong case indeed.

About eight or nine months ago there suddenly appeared a police notice, "No Entry"—one of those temporary notices, with a light at night. I was a little surrised the first time I saw it. I was driving my car from where I live, seeking to get into Victoria Street, and accustomed to driving along to the end into Artillery Row, turning left at the end of that road and then into Victoria Street, where there are traffic lights, which affords a perfectly safe way of moving from this back street into Victoria Street.

When I first saw the notice, I thought that repairs were being carried out, but I observed that they were not. I made inquiries and discovered the existence of this Act of Parliament to which I have referred. I found that a street could not be blocked in this way without what was called a regulation; we now call them Statutory Instruments. I looked through the records in the Library and found that no Statutory Instrument had been published prohibiting entrance into the street from west to east. I telephoned the police station concerned, at Rochester Row, but they could not give me very much information. I was referred to New Scotland Yard, and so I telephoned the Traffic Department and had a conversation with the gentleman there. I said, "Surely this notice is illegal." He sounded a little embarrassed. I made further inquiries and came to the conclusion that the notice which was erected in the street, prohibiting me or anybody else from driving a vehicle down it, was an illegal notice.

I then put down a Question to the Home Secretary, who controls the Metropolitan Police. His relationship with other police forces is slightly tenuous, but with regard to the Metropolitan Police he is the "very big noise." I asked the right hon. Gentleman why this illegal notice had been put up. He did not deny that it was an illegal notice, but said that it was an experiment. I have a great respect for the Home Secretary—he is a most honest and honourable man—and that he should conduct an experiment which was illegal rather shocked me.

The illegal notice continued for another few weeks, and then one day it suddenly vanished. I thought I had won my battle, because I did not think that the Home Secretary or the Commissioner of Police should put up notices which are illegal. I had said to a policeman on the telephone, "If I drive down this street, will you summon me?" He did not quite know the answer—he could not have done; he would have had to prove an offence, and the only offence which he could have proved was that the right hon. Gentleman and his deputy across the road in New Scotland Yard were doing something which was illegal. I think it is very improper for Home Secretaries and Commissioners of Police to commit crimes. Their prerogative is that of mercy, but they cannot extend it to themselves. I have been waiting for weeks for this document, Statutory Instrument No. 639, to appear, and I think it appeared last week. I hope that hon. Members have seen it. The pertinent paragraph says: Every vehicle entering that length of Howick Place in the City of Westminster, which lies between its junction with Artillery Row and its junction with Francis Street, shall, between the point of its entry therein and the point of its departure therefrom, proceed from east to west. I want to proceed from west to east and I will explain why. If anyone is driving past the South-Western District Post Office—and I am discussing a local problem with which probably every hon. Member present is familiar because he has either walked or driven along that street —if the notice is put up, as it will be if the Order is agreed to, on 1st May, everyone driving there will have to turn left into Francis Street and then go into Victoria Street at a point just where there is a bus stop.

Those who know the Army and Navy Stores know that the corner is occupied by Fuller's café and the bus stop is immediately opposite. If one is driving that way, as I was yesterday with my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch)—who will second this Motion—one has to wait a long time for traffic to pass. We watched and there were five buses yesterday afternoon. One cannot see what traffic is coming and one has to get to the other side of Victoria Street under conditions which involve risk to pedestrians, to other vehicles and to the vehicle in which one is driving.

Mr. Manuel (Central Ayrshire)

Shift the bus stop.

Sir H. Williams

This Order does not relate to the bus stop or I would say that the stop should be further up the street. I am describing the facts. If the street were made a one-way street the other way round—I agree it should be a one-way street—one would travel down and get into Artillery Row and then into Victoria Street at traffic lights, and there would be no danger.

My whole case is that a mistake has been made. Who made the mistake I do not know. I know that in these matters the Minister is advised by the London Traffic Advisory Committee and I am not certain who is on that Committee. I think the London County Council nominate some members, probably the Metropolitan Joint Standing Committee nominate some, the right hon. Gentleman and the Commissioner nominate others and they are supposed to advise the Minister. I suggest that on this matter the advice they have given is not worth the paper on which it was written. I do not believe any members of that Committee inspected the street and I am certain none of them drove a vehicle in the direction I have frequently driven in it.

They have not the foggiest idea of the danger in which this will involve the public. I have some idea that because of my activities in telephoning Rochester Row and Scotland Yard, some examination was made of my proposal and I have some impression that the police thought my idea a bad one. I have an idea that the engineer to Westminster City Council thought it a bad one, but I also have an idea that they gave no reason why they thought it a bad one. I suggest that the point was never discussed. This proposal will involve danger every day of the year to people driving vehicles along Francis Street into Victoria Street and also to pedestrians, as there is much pedestrian traffic there.

I have driven that way on many occasions and yesterday I took my hon. Friend because he was kind enough to say that he would second this Motion. We made a thorough inspection. I have discussed the matter with a lot of people who are familiar with the circumstances. I have not met a single person who knows the circumstances, who does not agree that I am right in asking the Minister of Transport to look at the matter again. If he will nominate anyone he wishes from his Department, and if the Home Secretary will nominate anyone he wishes from Scotland Yard, I shall be only too delighted to show them on the spot that this is a most foolish Order.

Mr. Porter (Leeds, Central)

The hon. Member agrees that this street should be a one-way street. Can he tell us whether the traffic proceeding in the way suggested by the Order will turn into the traffic when it comes out of the street?

Sir H. Williams

Traffic travelling from west to east will be forced to turn into Victoria Street at a most dangerous point.

Mr. Porter

But if traffic goes down this one-way street, will it have to cross the traffic when it emerges?

Sir H. Williams

Let us have a committee of inspection. We are considering a proposition which may involve peril to large numbers of people. My sole interest in this matter is the safety of people who happen to use that part of the world. In the course of a year they amount to a vast number.

This proposed arrangement is a very bad one. My appeal is that the Minister should look at it again. After all, the experimental lights were taken away about eight weeks ago and the street has since been a two-way street. It was said at that time that the experiment had come to an end. I had hoped that the Home Secretary would send me a report on this experiment. I often pass this place and I have never seen anybody examining the proposition up to now. A policeman on foot is not the best adviser. Here is a proposal which I think involves peril and risk of danger, death or injury to vast numbers of people. Whether there have been accidents up to now I do not know, but every time I have driven that way, which has been quite frequently, I have felt worried until I have successfully passed that point, because one has to cross one line of traffic going west to get into the line of traffic going east, and Victoria Street is very busy.

I appeal to the Minister to postpone this Order. If be will accept my proposal he can, in a week's time if he thinks I am wrong, publish a similar Order. If he thinks I am right, he can publish an Order reversing the direction in which this should be a one-way street. I make a most sincere appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to look at this matter afresh. I am satisfied that he has made this Order on the advice of an advisory committee. This is not the sort of matter which normally comes under Ministerial consideration. The Minister receives advice and makes an Order—that is normal routine in every Government Department

Here is a case of danger to people, and it is for that reason that I make my appeal. I know the district very well. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to make a concession by postponing the operation of this Order for a short time while this question is looked at by people on the spot. To do so would in any event only continue unchanged for a week or a fortnight what has been happening for the last two months.

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Crouch (Dorset, North)

I beg to second the Motion.

I can quite understand that some hon. Members may wonder why I am doing so, but since I have been a Member of this House I have for several months spent some four or five days a week in London, and I have made myself much more acquainted with the streets and the movement of the traffic here than I should otherwise have had the opportunity of doing. I, too, frequently go along Victoria Street and the various streets near by, when I go to the exhibitions held by the Royal Horticultural Society in their hall in Vincent Square. I therefore know something about the line of the streets and the amount of traffic that goes over them. As my hon. Friend has said, yesterday he and I made a thorough inspection of the actual position that has arisen.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton (Brixton)

Would the hon. Member state if he inspected the position before he agreed to second the Motion?

Mr. Crouch

I had walked down the street before I visited it yesterday, but one cannot fully appreciate the danger unless one is in a mechanically propelled vehicle because the conditions are different for people who are walking.

Yesterday I rode in a mechanically propelled vehicle and when we came up Francis Street there was a bus stop. In fact it was not a question of one bus which was holding us up; there were motor cars passing as well as the bus which was preventing us from going out. Actually we had to wait until five buses had picked up their passengers before we could proceed into Victoria Street. By the time we had lined up in the traffic we were again stopped by the lights operating from Artillery Row. It appears to me that it would be wiser and safer if the one-way street were reversed so that the traffic coming into Victoria Street would be controlled by traffic lights. I can see that when this one-way street is made there will be a congestion arising from the traffic from Francis Street.

I have always been very interested in the safety of the public on the roads, whether they are pedestrians or whether they are riding in mechanically propelled vehicles. If this Regulation is carried out, and the Order is made, there will most definitely be accidents on this site, and they could easily be prevented if the traffic passing into Victoria Street came against the traffic lights. We all know that the property concerned is an almost square block, and there are lights to prevent traffic coming out at the wrong time into an exceedingly busy street. I ask the Minister to reconsider this matter and not to allow traffic to pour out at an uncontrolled spot into what is an exceedingly busy street.

10.18 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

I am glad that the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) has cleared away the police difficulties. I confess I began to be alarmed when I gathered he was suggesting to hon. Members that they should examine this problem on the spot. I was not clear where that would lead me in this rather complicated problem. I agree with the hon. Member that, at any rate since I have been Minister, this is the first time this subject has been raised by the process of a Prayer.

These matters are of some importance. They affect a restricted area, but from time to time they concern a number of people and I should be the first to admit that they require very careful consideration. It is also correct that in matters of detail of this kind the Minister is bound to depend to a large extent on expert advice. When we come to the difficult and increasing problem of London traffic, I do not think that there is any body of persons so experienced in the matter as the Metropolitan Police. They are in daily contact with the problem and, of course, they have every interest in facilitating the flow of traffic. They are concerned, probably as much as anyone, to reduce the accident toll. Wherever one contemplates interfering with, or restricting, the movement of people, I think that the policy we follow is wise. In this case we proceeded first by way of experiment. About 12 months ago the police thought that this spot should be subject to an experiment of this character.

Sir H. Williams

It was illegal.

Mr. Barnes

Yes, I agree; but, as I indicated, the hon. Gentleman cleared up that point earlier. Therefore, it does not represent a complication to me now. However, rather fortunately, before the illegality had been discovered, or before the matter was enforced by the persistency of the hon. Member, the experiment had been concluded.

Sir H. Williams

It went on for eight weeks afterwards.

Mr. Barnes

Oh, did it? I do not accept any responsibility for that. However, it was conveyed to me that this experiment had in fact facilitated the flow of traffic at this point. The matter automatically came before the Home Counties Advisory Committee, who always consider matters of this character and advise me before I make a regulation. At that stage we had reached the situation that the police were convinced that this was a desirable improvement. My divisional road engineer concurred with the police conclusion, and the matter went before the London and Home Counties Advisory Committee. On that Committee there are representatives of the Westminster City Council. As a matter of fact, the Mayor of Westminster is a member of that Committee. The Westminster City Council had no objection to the regulation, and this committee which advises me on all these questions of prescribing routes, endorsed the conclusion.

Sir H. Williams

Was His Worship the Mayor present at the meeting of the subcommittee when this was recommended?

Mr. Barnes

I cannot answer that question.

Sir H. Williams

I can.

Mr. Barnes

I do not know what members are present at these meetings. I had reached the stage where the police, my divisional road engineer and the Westminster City Council, who must know this spot very well, had no objection, and the body to whom I look for advice on these matters endorsed this proposal.

Let me explain the position to the House. I readily agree that in any proposal to turn a thoroughfare into a oneway street, it is obvious that the case for entry at one end against entry at the other is fairly easily decided. That is apparent in most cases. But Howick Place is a narrow thoroughfare which divides two blocks of the Army and Navy Stores. It is largely the customers of this store who use the street for parking their cars whilst shopping. There is a continual stream of pedestrians passing across the thoroughfare from one department of the store to another department.

Mr. Garner-Evans (Denbigh)

Over a bridge.

Mr. Barnes

There is a bridge, but they do not all use it; many of them prefer to cross the street. We are not dealing here with the restriction of pedestrians, but with restrictions on motor traffic.

Therefore, the question is whether the traffic should go into Artillery Row when it leaves Howick Place or should go into Francis Street at the other end. I do not pretend to advance my own personal judgment against the weight of opinion that is established on one side and the weight of opinion of the hon. Gentlemen.

Sir H. Williams

Can the right hon. Gentleman give me any weight of opinion whatsoever as to which is the right way to make this into a one-way street? Can he quote any arguments presented to the Committee which suggested that my argument is wrong and that the right hon. Gentleman is right?

Mr. Barnes

I am not unfamiliar myself with this spot. I do not pretend to be quite so conversant with it as the hon. Member for Croydon, East, who is continually using it, but I think that, when I quote the considered judgment of the police, the divisional road engineer, the Westminster City Council and the London and Home Counties Advisory Committee, it will show that there is a weight of evidence——

Sir H. Williams

Can the right hon. Gentleman read out to this House any argument which was presented by the police or the divisional road engineer, after I raised this issue, which deals with the points which I made in my speech?

Mr. Barnes

I should say that general judgments represent a strong argument, but I want to deal with the technical aspects of the case itself, and I think that my arguments will be fairly conclusive. When traffic comes out of Howick Place, obviously, it must either enter Artillery Row or Francis Street at the other end. Artillery Row is a much heavier traffic thoroughfare than Francis Street. For instance, there are two bus services using Artillery Row, which empties into Victoria Street where there are traffic lights. The case presented by the two hon. Members appears to rest on the fact that, after a vehicle leaves Howick Place and enters into Francis Street——

Sir H. Williams

The bulk of the traffic that comes into Francis Street has never gone up Howick Place, but has come down it from the other direction, so that the right hon. Gentleman has been terribly badly advised by his experts.

Mr. Barnes

If the traffic has come down Howick Place and goes into Francis Street, the only argument really rests on the danger from traffic leaving Francis Street and entering into Victoria Street. That is the kernel of the case, as I understand it, and the contention is that that creates a danger. As a matter of fact, traffic has always been coming out of Francis Street into Victoria Street, but the danger is exaggerated.

In Artillery Row, at the other end of the Army and Navy Stores, there is a traffic light which periodically, on a time basis, breaks the traffic flowing along Victoria Street. Therefore any vehicle leaving Francis Street and proposing to enter into the flow of traffic towards Parliament Square, will be subject periodically to that traffic being broken and cleared by the traffic lights near Artillery Row. Any other vehicle coming out of Francis Street and wanting to go in the direction of Victoria Station will enter the flow of traffic without any difficulty at all. What the hon. Gentlemen are asking me to do is to set aside the whole weight of evidence which has determined a great variety of these problems and which represents a very considerable field of experience—greater than can be gathered in any other direction.

I should like to conclude with this statement. I ask the hon. Gentlemen not to press the Prayer tonight. I do not approach these matters in any arbitrary fashion; my only desire is to get the greatest co-operation from all sections of the public. In view of the experiment that is being carried out and the large measure of agreement we have at the present moment, I ask that we should not upset that situation, and I will undertake to have the effect of the scheme watched for a definite period closely and continuously, and if within a reasonable period I find that the weight of evidence is on the side of the hon. Member for Croydon, East, rather than in the direction I am following—and feel bound to follow at the present moment—I shall not hesitate to come to the House with amending Regulations. With that offer, I think the hon. Gentlemen ought to be content tonight and not press the Motion to a Division.

Mr. Crouch

Does the right hon. Gentleman consider it more safe to approach the flow of traffic by turning left than by turning right?

Mr. Barnes

Ultimately it would mean that this traffic would be diverted to Artillery Row, which carries much heavier traffic than Francis Street. I ask the hon. Member to bear in mind what I stated, that the only problem here arises where vehicles are cutting over to the other side, going in the direction of Parliament Square and that the traffic lights automatically break that traffic for a sufficient time to enable them to get across.

10.33 p.m.

Sir H. Williams

The Minister has made us a fair offer, although I had hoped that he would agree to my proposal and accept the annulment of the Regulations to-night and make new Regulations after I have had an opportunity of trying to instruct his experts. I drive a car in London a great deal. The ordinary policeman never drives a oar at all. How many policemen driving from Rochester Row drove along Artillery Row and Francis Street while the experiment was going on?—one, any or none? I say, "None." Has the divisional engineer driven that way? Has he driven that way a dozen times, as I have done, and been frightened every time? I am always nervous when I drive a car into a street where there is a mass of traffic going in one direction and I want to cross that stream of traffic and edge my car into the traffic going the other way. Whenever a motorist does that, he is bound to feel nervous.

Mr. Barnes

While this is in operation, the hon. Member and I will together try out our own experiment.

Sir H. Williams

I will undertake to drive the right hon. Gentleman, because I think he would be safer than if he drove me.

Mr. Barnes

I never sit behind a nervous driver.

Sir H. Williams

I assume that we should sit beside one another. That is the only sensible way. The person on the back seat never sees anything but the back of the neck of the driver, Seriously, everyone who is familiar with this district agrees with what I say.

I am going to suggest that the police never presented to the Advisory Committee any serious argument to support their opinion. They made a decision and had not the courage to go back on it. They said, "We disagree with the proposal of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Croydon, East," but never submitted any argument at any time. If they have, a note must have been taken of it. If it was presented in writing or was an oral report, there must have been a note. I challenge the right hon. Gentleman to send me a copy. [Interruption.] Certainly. The Minister quoted certain evidence and I challenge him to send me a copy of any evidence submitted by the police or by his resident engineer. The right hon. Gentleman has said he was advised by certain people and I challenge him to produce evidence in detail to me. I am satisfied that whoever was responsible said, "This is a bad idea, but we have to stick to our original scheme."

I pass this place four or five times a day. I have never seen anybody watching there. I have never seen a policeman observing the movements of traffic. One can drive along the road, keep on the left side, turn to the left, come to the traffic lights and move into Victoria Street in a condition of perfect safety. The right hon. Gentleman has made a very fair offer and I do not propose to divide on this Prayer, which is the first that has been laid under the 1924 Act. I am satisfied, however, that so long as the one-way street is run in that way everyone forced to drive from Francis Street to Victoria Street will do so at their peril and every big vehicle in Victoria Street will be at peril. The Minister has produced no documentary evidence in support of his speech tonight.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Sir Charles Mac Andrew)

Does the hon. Member wish to withdraw?

Sir H. Williams indicated assent.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.