HC Deb 02 July 1952 vol 503 cc579-90

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

11.23 p.m.

Mr. Julian Snow (Lichfield and Tamworth)

The subject of my Adjournment Motion tonight is connected with the desirability of examining what can be done to prevent children being massacred on the roads, and those hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber and jeering about the subject are ill-advised—

Mr. Speaker

I ask hon. Members to pass from the Chamber quietly and without talking.

Mr. Snow

I was saying that those hon. Members are ill-advised because no subject is worthy of greater attention than this one.

I want to draw the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport to the problem which exists in the City of Lichfield at the intersection of two trunk roads, A 38, which is the Exeter—Leeds trunk road, and A 51, which, in local terms, runs from Stafford to Lichfield. I might add, in parenthesis, that if the Levetts Fields by-pass of Lichfield, which has been the subject of two deputations to the Minister, were accepted—it is a project which could be put into operation very cheaply indeed—much of what I have to say tonight would not arise. However, that can wait for another time.

The problem is largely, though by no means entirely, related to the school safety issue. I have evidence here from the council of the City of Lichfield, from the Staffordshire police and also from the headmistress of the school chiefly concerned—the Friary School at Lichfield. The town clerk of the City of Lichfield, in a letter to me, has said: The City Council consider that two zebra crossings for these main thoroughfares through the city are entirely inadequate and that pedestrians in the centre of the city are exposed to very great danger, having regard to the heavy traffic. The Staffordshire police say that their view is very much the same. The words, in fact, are: the police consider that the installation of zebra crossings in Friary Road and St. John's Street is the obvious solution and one they strongly support. I shall refer later to the comments of the headmistress of the school in question, although there are other schools involved. The only possibly contentious remark I shall make tonight—and it is not very contentious—is that I think in his speech of 20th June to the House, the Parliamentary Secretary—and I shall quote him—made a remark which I think may possibly be misconstrued in certain parts of the country. He said in that speech—and I quote from HANSARD, column 1800: We are convinced that it is unwise and unfair to entrust schoolchildren, especially the very young, to the purely legal safeguard of art uncontrolled pedestrian crossing. Where children have to cross really busy roads on their way to and from school, anything less than some form of positive control can be worse than useless."—[OFFICIAL. REPORT, 20th June, 1952; Vol. 502, c. 1800.] I must say that I do not entirely share that view, and one of the questions I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary tonight is this: what precisely is the role of the divisional road engineer in these cases? Because evidence which I have here—and as a matter of fact I have sent some of it to the Parliamentary Secretary for him to examine—seems to indicate that the divisional road engineer fulfils rather an arbritrary role and that local opinion is not sufficiently taken into account. Frankly, I should have thought that in this matter the opinions of parents and ordinary citizens should be given the most careful consideration. In the face of the evidence which I shall produce, I do not think this treatment has been given to them.

I propose to concentrate on two crossings, although the council have drawn my attention to three. The one with which I do not propose to deal, except in passing, is the so-called Church Street crossing, not because I do not think it is important—I know how important the local council regard it—but because it does not lend itself so happily to the argument which I wish to put forward tonight. In all these questions there is a tendency to try to analyse the problem into whether it is a school problem or an ordinary pedestrian problem. This case is a combination of the two. I will deal, first of all, with the school problem.

It so happens that this intersection of these two trunk roads is within 300 to 400 yards of a very large catchment area for school children. As a matter of fact, in the near vicinity of this intersection there is the Lichfield Grammar School, the Friary School, the Secondary Modern School, St. Michael's School, St. Joseph's School, Christchurch School and certain smaller schools. If I might take Friary School, which happens to be at the immediate intersection I was talking about, this school has itself a large catchment area from the rural and mining areas in the district, and every day 300 children come in by bus and are decanted in the immediate vicinity of the school and where these two uncontrolled crossings were before they were abolished.

In addition to that 300, 60 children or so from Lichfield itself have to make the same crossings. The danger hours appear to be from 8.30 to 9.10 a.m. and from 3.45 to 5 p.m. in respect of all children, and in addition for the 60 Lichfield children from 12.10 to 2.20 p.m., when they go home for luncheon.

From the point of view of normal pedestrian traffic; apart from the schools which embody this traffic in child pedestrians, there is quite an important communications aspect. There has been recently organised opposite the school a new bus station, and about 300 yards away there is a second subsidiary bus station near the city railway station—and there is the city railway station itself. All these three communication services supply their quota of children. Furthermore, in St. John's Street—this may seem a rather small point, but from many points of view it is worthy of consideration—there is the most ancient establishment known as St. John's Hospital where old people are housed, and they have difficulties in crossing these roads which bear a burden of heavy traffic.

In my view, whatever the Parliamentary Secretary may decide, any crossings that may be arranged both on Priory Road and St. John's Street should be also aided in their effect by the provision of railings at the corners of the intersection—fenced railings to prevent children swinging underneath them and cutting across. This will be difficult unless he will examine the question of the ancient building at the corner of Bore Street and Bird Street, which, I think, is at present used as a show room for an adjacent shop and which it seems to me might be considered for demolition.

By the side of this building and along Bird Street there is an extremely narrow footpath which will only permit one pedestrian—walking along two abreast is impossible. I took an opportunity a few days ago to stand near this particular entry into the intersection, and I saw pedestrians having to step into the roads with their backs to the oncoming traffic, and I saw one or two incidents which looked extremely dangerous. At this particular point it is my argument that railings should be provided and one building should be considered for demolition in order to give a greater view around the corner into Bore Street and wider accommodation for pedestrians.

There is another complication in connection with this important intersection. Coming from Tamworth in the direction of Rugeley, at this intersection there is what is known, I think, as an "infiltration" light, which permits traffic going in that direction to turn and go in a constant stream left along A.38—the Friary Road. Importance is lent to this particular point I am making because a member of the staff of the Friary School was herself knocked down at this point through obeying the traffic lights but being hit by a vehicle using the "infiltration" light.

I should like to emphasise that these two roads bear extremely heavy traffic. I do not know whether I am correct in saying, I think I am, that the weight of trucks along these roads has increased very considerably in the post-war period—and that it is an additional danger.

With regard to the argument of the Parliamentary Secretary in that part of the speech I quoted, about road patrols probably being the answer to all this, that does not conform with local opinion. I have described already the danger periods to which the pupils attending the Friary School are subjected. The head mistress of the school in a letter to me, and in talking about the timing of the intake and exit of the pupils, said: This very wide spread of times makes the Road Patrol system unworkable as it would mean employing two men for four or five hours of the day each. The Town Clerk, in a letter to me on the same point, said: It is contended by the divisional road engineer that patrols for school children would be more justifiable at certain of these proposed crossings than zebra crossings, but my council contend that the extra zebra crossings would meet the need far better than having to waste manpower on adult patrols. I am not quite sure that I agree with the remark "waste of manpower" because, if we could overnight produce these patrols, having trained them, and be able to pay for them, it might be a good argument that they should be employed. But we have yet to pass the legislation under which those patrols would be financed, the right people would have to be found, and they would have to be trained. I am deeply anxious that something should be done very quickly. My own view is that there is a very strong case for these crossings to be permitted.

May I add here that in respect of Friary Road, that is, A.38 up to the intersection, there is no speed limit on this road until it reaches the school gates. Having taken some trouble to examine what has been said in previous debates on pedestrian crossings—for instance, the debate when the regulations were placed before the House during the time of the previous Administration—I am somewhat perturbed that there has been some indication of undue Treasury interference in what is a technical problem.

I have heard that at the time these zebra crossings were first proposed, the then Minister of Transport, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Barnes) proposed, and was so advised to propose, that at least half of the then uncontrolled crossings should be made zebra crossings, and that this figure was cut down by two-thirds of the original figure on financial grounds. I do not know whether that is the case, but if it is, it seems to me highly improper that the Treasury should have interfered on financial grounds in this matter which affects the safety of children. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will comment upon that point.

I took the wise precaution of consulting the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents on this matter. I am advised that, when a year ago this cutting down of the proposed zebra crossings was first made, safety workers all over the country thought those cuts were far too arbitrary and condemned them in the strongest possible terms. I can do no better than conclude by quoting from the letter I have received from the Head Mistress of the Friary School, because I believe that it depicts in excellent English—as might be expected from a lady of her academic qualifications—precisely what she feels, what the staff feel, and what parents feel. The House will bear with me if I make this rather lengthy quotation. She concludes by saying: I do hope that you will be able to impress on the Minister of Transport the very real dangers to which the girls are subject and the likelihood that, sooner or later, there will be a serious or fatal accident similar to the one outside St. Michael's School, Lichfield, which led to action being taken there. These crossings are in use not only or mainly by school children, and, therefore, should not be regarded as suitable for cover by road patrols. It is, however, because the danger to school children is the one which I feel most concern about, that I put that aspect of the matter to you. I would ask you to consider, and to invite the Minister to consider, whether it is fair for parents, who send their children off at 8 o'clock each morning to travel by bus or train to school, and do not perhaps see them again until 5.30 in the evening, to have this constant anxiety about their safety at the road crossings. Is it fair that girls of 16 or 17 should have the responsibility day by day of securing the safe crossing of the travel parties in their charge? Is it fair that I, myself, or the school staff, should have the responsibility of some 375 children on what is acknowledged to be a highly dangerous corner, and where owing to the wide spread of times involved it is not possible to maintain staff supervision or to employ road patrols? I cannot add to that adequately, but I just leave these ideas in the Minister's mind. I believe that many parents today are developing an entirely understandable psychosis about the danger of their children going to and from school. I sympathise entirely with the problem which confronts the Minister, and nothing that I have said tonight must be construed as critical, except that I feel that possibly the role of the divisional road engineer needs re-examining. I hope that this particular case, which I admit is of very local interest, will receive the Minister's kind consideration and very urgent attention.

11.42 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Gurney Braithwaite)

May I say at once that I am very glad indeed that the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) has taken this opportunity of raising this subject tonight? No topic could be more important—I think this was the preface to the hon. Member's own remarks—than the safety of children on the highway; and I assure him that we have given a great deal of thought to how best they can be protected, especially when they have to cross busy roads on their way to and from school.

I propose, first, to generalise on the main problem before coming to the local application which the hon. Member has put before the House. During the recent road safety debate on 20th June, I tried to explain what we are aiming at in the new policy of pedestrian crossings, which, as the House will remember, we inherited from the previous Administration. This is entirely a non-party issue.

I do not want to occupy time by repeating what I said on that occasion except to mention again that the removal of old crossings which were in unsuitable places is an essential feature of our policy, and that we are convinced that the reduction in numbers which has been made since last summer has played an important part in restoring respect and usefulness to the crossing system as a whole. Tonight, therefore, I am grateful for this opportunity to state very briefly our views on school crossings. I have tried to explain them in recent months to several right hon. and hon. Members who have approached me individually on the subject, but it will be useful if they are more widely known through the medium of this Adjournment discussion, brief as it is.

Many crossings of the old type were laid down opposite or near schools, with the object of helping the children to cross the road safely, and in many cases such crossings were seldom used by anybody except the children on their way to and from school. They therefore constitute good examples of the type of crossing which naturally ends by being disregarded by drivers.

That has two very undesirable results. Each disregarded crossing helps to devalue the remainder, and, indeed, the idea behind the crossings. Secondly, of course, it becomes a danger rather than a safeguard for the few pedestrians who use it. It is for that reason that we are most anxious to get across to everyone who is interested in the problem the point that, while a crossing in the right place may be helpful and valuable, a crossing in the wrong place is worse than useless and can, indeed, be a positive danger. If it be true that crossings in the wrong places can be dangerous it is particularly important that we should avoid them at places where children cross. Zebra crossings, even in the best places, demand reasonable behaviour and careful judgment, especially on the part of pedestrians. Only too often we hear of pedestrians not exercising this careful judgment and of accidents or near accidents occurring.

I think that hon. Members will agree with me that if a child is told he has, priority on a zebra crossing he or she may too easily come to regard it as an absolutely safe place and it is too much to expect a child to gauge the moment when it is safe to step into the carriageway to cross a busy road. I say that in spite of all the excellent work which is being done in the schools and by the police to make children traffic conscious. But we cannot get away from the fact that their judgment is immature.

It is, therefore, wrong for local authorities and parents, or whoever may be concerned, to think that they have provided for children's safety in entrusting them—and I must use a phrase to which I think the hon. Gentleman took exception—to the purely legal protection offered by a zebra crossing. We are convinced—and we have gone into this very carefully—that where children have to cross busy roads on their way to and from school they should be under the control of a responsible, trained adult.

There are not sufficient police everywhere to go round for this purpose. For this reason we have been advocating the wider use of the traffic warden or adult patrol. They are provided at the moment by the Commissioner of Police in the Metropolitan Police District and by some local authorities in other parts of the country. Statements have been made in the House recently on this subject, but it may not be out of place if I repeat that it has now been agreed that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland should make arrangements with the appropriate local authorities for the recruiting, training and organisation of school crossing patrols, with financial assistance from the Exchequer.

These, I am sure, are the lines on which this problem should be tackled, and, as I have said, many local authorities employ these patrols already. There is a misconception, I am afraid, in some people's minds, and I should very much like to remove it, that a zebra crossing is an inexpensive substitute for this form of protection. I am sure that this notion is wrong and that the removal of many crossings near schools, which may often have seemed strange to the local people, has been the right thing to do in the interest of the children themselves.

Mr. Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

Is the Home Office to be made to pay for the school wardens?

Mr. Braithwaite

I said the Exchequer. Discussions are going on now with the local authorities. I should like, if the hon. Member will allow me, to deal with the questions of the hon. Member for Lichfield, whose Adjournment this is.

Coming now to the crossings near the Friary School, which the hon. Member asked me to consider, I wish first to examine the problem and then outline a remedy. I always think it is a pity if an hon. Member gets the Adjournment and goes away empty-handed. One of the crossings was opposite a school on the Exeter—Leeds trunk road and was within 60 yards of a light controlled junction. We have been informed it is also near a bus station. We have even examined that, too. Most of the passengers who use the buses wish to go to and from the centre of the city and they have to pass the traffic lights, where they could cross in reasonable safety. This is just the sort of place where an uncontrolled crossing is unnecessary and can prove dangerous. If one were provided vehicles would have to stop whenever a pedestrian was on the crossing and the proper working of the traffic light signals might be affected.

It also seems to me most important that drivers shall not be asked to stop twice at points very close together. Experience shows that drivers may well prove intolerant of pedestrians using zebra crossings and preventing them crossing the lights before the green signal changes. Experience has shown that badly placed crossings may well be a cause of accidents by encouraging carelessness in drivers.

The other crossing was on a major road which joined the trunk road at the traffic lights, and was opposite the eastern entrance to the same school. It was also within 100 yards of the traffic lights. Here, again, a crossing would handicap the proper working of the signal crossing and might encourage careless driving. In neither of these cases would the children gain any greater measure of safety by the provision of an uncontrolled crossing. It is always safer to cross busy roads when traffic is brought to a standstill, as it is here by traffic light signals. I realise, however, that the layout of the junction and the filtration of traffic allowed by the signals does perhaps make it more awkward than need be for pedestrians to cross. We are, therefore, having the junction examined by the divisional road engineer, and I hope that it may be possible to modify the layout to make it more convenient.

I understand that the local authority are also worried about the length of time a paid patrol may be necessary. The answer may be that a paid patrol could deal with the busiest periods of coming and going or for the times when the youngest children are there. I would like to stress again that it is only for the reason that a child using an uncontrolled crossing would not have proper protection, and, indeed, might find it dangerous, that we cannot agree to provide them on these roads. If we can make the signal controlled crossing satisfactory for pedestrians that would be best, and an adult patrol may not be necessary at all if this corrective measure is taken.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to other crossings in the city where the local authority are dissatisfied with the present situation. I did give a reply to him on 19th May on this subject. But I should not like this short debate to end with the hon. Member feeling that he and his constituency are suffering from excessive State control or rigid regimentation. The divisional road engineer is guide, philosopher and friend rather than an authoritarian in these matters. The Minister has, of course, an overriding duty and authority, but we are always loth to use it and would much rather proceed in agreement with the local authority and police alike.

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

Adjourned at Seven Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.