HC Deb 02 August 1951 vol 491 cc1684-91

2.50 p.m.

Mr. Crouch (Dorset, North)

I should like first of all to express my thanks to Mr. Speaker for selecting the subject of the Roundhouse roundabout as one of the matters to be debated today. I first drew the question of this roundabout to the attention of the House on 25th June in a series of questions which I put to the Minister, and I did so again on 2nd July. As the House is aware, we were told that there has been an expenditure of over£12,000 on this new roundabout and that a further expenditure of£1,000 is contemplated on lighting it. This is not just a matter of local interest. I understand that this is the focal point of all future roundabouts to be erected on trunk roads in this country, and it is for that reason that I sought to raise the matter in this House. It is just a coincidence that this prototype should be in my constituency.

As quite a number of hon. Members, some of them not in the House at the moment, are no doubt interested in the reason why this place is called Roundhouse, it may help if I briefly state what I have known of this spot during the greater part of my life. Originally there was a turnpike gate house there called Roundhouse. Something like 25 years ago this was pulled down to enable drivers of traffic coming from Wimborne or Bournemouth to see better and to have a better view of the crossroads. For a number of years there was an A.A. scout there during the busy hours of the day controlling the traffic. Some time just before the war, a roundabout was placed at that spot and I think it was of assistance to everyone. That roundabout was sufficiently large to enable all the wartime traffic to pass round it; it was the ordinary type of roundabout to which we are so accustomed.

Some time last year I noticed new works starting there. There was a great clearance of trees and banks and laying out of a great expanse of land which the Minister informed me in reply to a Question is no less than three acres in extent, the centrepiece alone being one acre, and something over£1,000 has been spent on laying out a landscape garden. I understand it is necessary to curtail all capital expenditure. Yet at a time when we are asked to be careful about spending fresh capital, the Minister has embarked upon these large works at Sturminster Marshall.

Part of the reason for this may be that when the Minister of Transport was originally appointed, his job was to see to the roads of the country and to take some responsibility for their upkeep, whereas today he is responsible to the House and to the country for all the internal transport of this country. That may be the reason for this expenditure taking place without the Minister having the amount of control he should have over these matters.

To give the House an idea of the size of this new roundabout, if we could put Piccadilly Circus inside the roundabout it would be lost. I suggest that the roundabout by the Lambeth Bridge has more traffic passing round it in three hours than passes round the Roundhouse roundabout in the course of a whole week. As far as Eros is concerned, it is the centre of Piccadilly Circus. I do not think it would be seen at all. As the House is aware, this was erected in memory of a former Member of this House, Sir Anthony Cooper, afterwards seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. He was, I think, one of the greatest friends the working class of this country have ever had.

This roundabout is so large that I have given the Minister an opportunity, from some photographs I have had taken, to see the difficulties which traffic experiences in travelling round it. It is so large that they get lost. I have noticed, in my local Press, that the superintendent of police is apologetic about the fact that he has to bring motorists before the bench for driving the wrong way round it. At week-ends I have seen a tar barrel placed at each of the four corners with a white arrow on it, directing motorists the right way round.

The next point I want to raise concerns the very great waste of land. This is very valuable agricultural land. If we are to have this size of roundabout all over the country, food production is bound to suffer. I suggest that enough land has been taken unnecessarily for this roundabout to graze and fatten something like three fat cattle during the course of the year. The centre alone would produce sufficient potatoes to feed 3,000 people for a week. I ask the Minister, how many roundabouts has he in the country, because if he can tell us that, then by multiplication, we can see how much the food position of the country will suffer if these roundabouts are introduced throughout the country.

My next point concerns development charges on laying out this landscape garden. I read in the Press recently that a local authority which had laid out some gardens for the Festival year have been presented with a bill from the Ministry of Local Government and Planning for development charges. Has the Minister to pay development charges for this new garden which he has laid out? How long was the work in progress? How many men were employed upon it? It seems to me that a great number of people were employed there for a considerable time and I should have thought they would have been much better employed in attending to their ordinary duties instead of embarking on this new roundabout.

I understand that this will be a dual roundabout, because I believe the Minister contemplates putting a dual highway along this road at some time in the future. My experience of driving along dual highways is that whenever we come to a roundabout we are quite rightly reduced to single file. If we are to have a dual roundabout, I want to put this question to the Minister: if two vehicles are running parallel down a dual highway and the one on the right hand side wishes to take the left hand road and the other wishes to take the right hand road, how will it be possible to avoid an accident? It would have been wiser, I suggest, to have retained the orthodox, single roundabout which we have at present.

I think one could quite easily drive around this roundabout at something like 30 or 40 miles an hour. The idea was originally that roundabouts were introduced to reduce the speed of the motorist to avoid accidents. I hope that as a result of bringing this matter to the attention of the House this afternoon, the Minister will alter his plans. I do not suggest that he should spend an extravagant amount of money in making further alterations to the roundabout, but I hope he will not embark on laying out future roundabouts of this kind on any trunk roads in the country.

3.2 p.m.

Mr. W. J. Taylor (Bradford, North)

I shall not detain the House for more than a minute or two, but I must confess that I was rather surprised to hear the account which my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch), has given of this remarkable roundabout in his constituency. The cost of£4,000 an acre appears to me to be very high indeed, and I want the Minister to tell us whether all this expenditure was duly authorised by his Department or by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the capital expenditure programme. If so, was the work carried out within the permitted amount?

The sum of£1,000 which appears to have been spent in laying out the central island of one acre is fantastically high. What sort of garden is this? Does it have crazy paving, with rose beds and a fountain in the middle or, if not, what kind of layout is it that can cost this large sum? A private garden for a millionaire could not cost very much more.

Turning to the question of traffic, has the Minister a standard rule or guide in his Department which will show him what kind of improvement should be made at any point and what amount of traffic there is? Is a regular census taken at these points and, if so, what kind of system does he adopt? From what my hon. Friend has said it appears that the traffic, while not exactly non-existent, is certainly not as heavy as the expenditure would appear to suggest. Was any census taken and, if so, what did it show?

If, as my hon. Friend has said, this is to be a prototype for islands throughout the country, I hope the Chancellor of the Exchequer will have something to say about it before approval is given. On the general subject of traffic islands, we could do with the Minister's attention in the West Riding of Yorkshire, but I hope he will not take land unnecessarily for this purpose. Was the Council for Road Safety consulted before the Minister made his final plan? It appears from what my hon. Friend has said that the roundabout is not working very well. At a week-end a row of tar barrels is placed across one highway and traffic is diverted in another direction, which indicates that there has been bad planning. In his reply, will the Minister answer those specific questions?

3.5 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

Perhaps I may first answer the point made by the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. W. J. Taylor), who suggested that the cost of the land was£4,000 an acre. As a matter of fact, the cost of land was£444. The total work, including the roundabout, eventually reached a figure of approximately£12,000.

Mr. W. J. Taylor

I am sorry; that was not the impression I was trying to give.

Mr. Barnes

I do not think it is necessary to pursue the point.

The hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch), gave the history of this spot and mentioned that before the war it was customary for the A.A. to have a scout at this junction at the busy time of the day. Everyone appreciates, I think, that whenever the A.A. went to the expense of putting a permanent control scout at any junction, that indicated that the traffic was reasonably heavy and of such a character as to need some control and guidance. It would be wrong to assume that this roundabout represents the normal design. Nothing of the kind. The normal design is a roundabout 180 feet in diameter.

Turning to the question of a traffic census, the last census here was taken before the war and at that time 4,472 vehicles a day passed. Generally speaking, if there has not been an increase in traffic at most points in the country, there has certainly not been a decline and, on the whole, there has been an increase both in the rate and the dimensions and in the loads carried. This roundabout was commenced in January, 1949, which meant that negotiations and all the preliminary work in connection with it probably originated two years earlier. It was completed in October, 1949. The number of men em- ployed was about 12. I do not think that represents any substantial difficulty. The tree planting was commenced in March, 1951, and finished in May, 1951, and in that connection six men were employed.

As far as I can see from the plans submitted to me—and I have not the knowledge of the locality which the hon. Member for Dorset, North obviously possesses—it is clear that it is an important junction of the east-west trunk road A.31 between Southampton and Exeter, which is crossed by the north-south road A.350 from Poole to Bristol, which comes into the trunk road at two distinct points; and here it appears to me, on the evidence submitted to me, that the alternative, to have made a satisfactory solution to this cross-road problem, would have meant that the two cross roads would have had to be re-aligned and reconstructed if we had had the normal type of roundabout coming in at right angles. If that had been the case I cannot see that there would have been any economy in land at all. Probably more land would have been required, and certainly if we had attempted to re-align the A.350 road to enable a smaller roundabout to be constructed, the cost of that alteration would have been more than the cost of the work involved here.

The hon. Member also referred to the proposal to spend another£1,000 on the lighting of this roundabout and junction. I would remind him that, as a trunk road is involved, the Minister carries a certain responsibility and in common law he has a liability to see that any obstruction in the highway—and a roundabout is an obstruction—is adequately lighted.

However, I do not deny at all that the position has materially altered from what it was a few years ago, and no one is more conscious than I am of the need to exercise the greatest possible economy in road expenditure and to see that it is directed always to producing the greatest benefits. In these circumstances I may have to reconsider the normal lighting scheme that we should adopt for proposals of this kind. Some form of lighting there will obviously have to be, but, as no commitments have been entered into in respect of that at the present moment, it is my intention to examine the problem to see if any economies can be obtained in that direction.

Mr. Crouch

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House if all roundabouts in the country are lit at the present time? My experience is that they are not.

Mr. Barnes

Oh, yes, if the responsibility is the Minister's, then, generally speaking, there are bollards and so on for the purpose of lighting.

The other point that the hon. Gentleman put to me was that this roundabout was so large that motorists got lost. I think he would agree that that is rather a political exaggeration in this case.

Mr. Crouch

If the right hon. Gentleman doubts my word, I will send him copies of the local newspaper containing reports of cases of motorists being brought before the local bench and of the police superintendent apologising.

Mr. Barnes

If the local motorists get lost, I do not think that that is necessarily the fault of this design. As a rule the signposting on roads of this description is sufficiently clear for any intelligent motorist to follow. That argument appears to me to be a very gross exaggeration.

If we look at some of the trunk roads and dual carriageways that were constructed between the wars, we find that the policy of construction that was followed between the wars caused, in my view, a considerable use of land that was not justified. We find wide reservations in the middle of dual carriageways, and we find wide reservations on either side. It is very apparent to me that in these islands, where land is so precious, the inroads upon the available land for a variety of purposes are getting proportionately very numerous, and I readily admit that there is a responsibility upon everyone connected with this problem to exercise the greatest possible economy in the use of land.

It is quite nice, of course, for anyone in a profession or a craft to aim at the ideal solution of any problem concerning his profession or craft, but it is clear from the experience we have had with many of these dual carriageways that the central reservations, which represent a very desirable amenity in the ordinary way, are beyond our capacity to maintain in the form in which they should be if they are to add to the beauty of the designs of the roads.

That being the case, the standards of road construction between 1918 and 1939 are now under review, and I think that in designing roads in the future we shall have certainly to examine in every possible way how we can get the needs of traffic harmonised with and related to the need for the conservation of land in every possible way. I do not at all resent issues of this description being raised, because I join with the hon. Gentleman in recognising that economy in every direction must be obtained.

Mr. W. J. Taylor

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is trying to give a very full reply to the debate. I wonder, therefore, if he will reply to the question I put to him on the subject of expenditure—whether the authorised expenditure has been exceeded or not?

Mr. Barnes

Not in this case. At the time when it was originally designed it was not governed by the same rigid procedure that has applied since the restrictions and economies necessary to control capital expenditure.

Mr. Taylor

I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman.