HC Deb 18 June 1953 vol 516 cc1341-50

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

11.30 p.m.

Brigadier F. Medlicott (Norfolk, Central)

I am glad to have the opportunity of raising, at a somewhat earlier hour than I had anticipated, the question of traffic congestion, particularly in the streets of London; a matter which has been very present in our minds in recent weeks. But, I want to make it quite clear that I am not raising the subject because of the special congestion which has been noticeable during the period of the Coronation.

I am not of the opinion that the happy circumstances of the Coronation have brought about any new traffic problem; the fact is that for a very long time past, London traffic has been getting seriously out of hand. Many people are becoming gravely concerned about the problem as a whole. On any normal day the congestion in the streets is such that traffic is almost brought to a standstill for long periods, and when there is any special event, such as the Trooping the Colour, or the Lord Mayor's Show, or a great film or theatrical festival, or any other of the events which go to make London what it is, we have this acute traffic congestion; particularly in the inner belt.

I hope that it may be possible—and I am glad to see that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is here to hear what I am saying—in spite of the crowded Parliamentary time-table, for a whole day to be given to discuss this issue of traffic congestion. The matter has been raised several times in recent months, and the Minister of Transport, or his Parliamentary Secretary have patiently discussed it in the limited time available on Adjournment Motions; but I think that a full day should be allotted to consider what has become a very serious problem.

It was raised as recently as 20th May last, and I hope I can follow up what was then said by the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) and by the Parliamentary Secretary. One point which I ask straight away is whether we can be told something about where the responsibility lies for the control of London traffic and, indeed, of traffic in other parts of the country; because this problem is not now confined to London. The creeping paralysis is seen in many other places, and some hon. Members may recall how, during the holiday season last year in many towns of the West Country, there were traffic blocks comparable to those seen in London. I should like to ask how much responsibility lies with the Minister of Transport and how much with the Home Secretary. Of course, some of the executive power rests with the Commissioner of Police, but he is responsible to the Home Secretary and not to the Minister of Transport, and this seems to be a triangular division of responsibility. Is there quite the full coordination and clear central control which traffic questions require?

Quite recently, the House was told that the estimated cost of traffic delays in London amounted to £70 million a year and that on an average day, the London buses lost 800 scheduled miles. In other words, the buses as a whole are prevented each day from travelling as much as 800 miles of the journeys which they ought to do. But that is on an average day. It is much worse on a day when there is serious congestion. For example, on one day in November, 1950, the loss of mileage amounted to 8,000 miles by the London buses alone, without allowing for time and journeys lost by private cars and goods vehicles.

The London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee, in their 1951 Report, recommended what they described as a bold policy of providing car parks in Central London. They said that for £5 million there could be constructed a series of double-deck underground parks in London which would provide room for 5,000 cars and that this would go a long way to solving the parking question in London. We ought to look very carefully at a recommendation of that kind, because if for £5 million we could go even some way towards solving the parking problem in London, which may be costing us £70 million a year, surely that is something which is well worthy of attention.

More recently, an invaluable report was presented by the working party on parking in the inner area of London. As the Minister has already told the House, that working party put forward a parking plan, involving three headings: the construction of garages below the streets, as I have already mentioned; the introduction of parking meters, and a new and balanced system of waiting regulations. I believe that some of these proposals might require legislation, and it would be out of order for me to do more than mention them in this debate; but a good deal can be done without legislation.

We are losing anything up to £70 million a year, and yet for the expenditure of £5 million we could probably reduce the delays by a quarter and thus save many millions annually. I was especially interested in a statistic given by the Minister in his last speech on this subject, when he referred to a statement made to him by an official of London Transport, who said that if the average speed of the London buses could be increased by only one mile per hour, it would save London Transport £2 million —every year, I gather— in petrol. Since most of what we spent in that way has to be paid for in dollars, I wonder that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has not made some caustic comments to his colleagues. Possibly he has already done so.

We know that this problem is one which is increasing yearly. There are already 4,500,000 vehicles on the roads of this country, and the number is increasing by 250,000 every year. In spite of this enormous increase in the number of vehicles, however, there has been nothing like a comparable increase in the amount of parking space. We imagine that we progress automatically, but it is interesting, and a little depressing, to realise that it now takes us longer, in spite of all the aids of modern science, to get from Apsley House to the Mansion House than it took the Duke of Wellington 120 years ago at walking pace on horseback.

It is true that the working party said that their three proposals were interdependent and they were reluctant that any of them should be introduced without the other two. But we must face the fact that even if a scheme of underground parks were approved today, a matter of perhaps two or three years would elapse before they could be brought into use; and meanwhile, the congestion exists and increases. The working party emphasised what we all know to be true when they said: We conclude our report by emphasising that one of the major causes of congestion in inner London is the large number of private cars parked on the streets. That is the point to which I particularly draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary tonight. I ask him whether those who are in charge of traffic matters have really faced up to the fact that they must make up their minds whether our streets are to be used for free garaging, or whether they are to be used for what, under modern conditions, ought to be their primary purpose: that is, the movement of traffic. The movement and flow of traffic is essential.

In paragraph 98 of the report of the working party there was a definite suggestion that all forms of parking or waiting should be prohibited at certain times for a distance of at least 45 feet from the more important controlled intersections. I do not think that recommendation goes far enough. It is not only at the light-controlled or police-controlled intersections that the problem of parking is serious. It happens at almost every intersection. One sees cars parked 10 and 12 feet from a corner, and little is done to get that kind of thing stopped.

I know that the Minister is concerned especially about this parking near corners, and he has pointed out that corner parking reduces the flow of traffic by about 30 per cent. If we can be told tonight that something is to be done about that I shall fee] that we are making some progress. I suggest that the Minister ought to take more drastic steps to see that cars which are parked in wrong positions can be dealt with immediately. As a result of a Question which I put to him a little time ago, I believe that powers exist to deal with this, and I am surprised that they are not exercised more often, especially in view of the times one has heard of fire engines and ambulances finding it almost impossible to get through the streets to the scene of a particular fire or accident.

What happens when cars are parked in awkward positions? A policeman, perhaps, is called, and has to spend his time between trying to disentangle the traffic and trying to find the owner of the car. In due course the motorist appears. He is told that he will be summoned, and perhaps a month later in a petty sessional court—which he does not always trouble to attend—he is fined 40s., and thinks that he has got off cheaply.

The time will come when we will have to use more immediate powers, following the example of certain overseas countries. In those countries the authorities use conveyor, or breakdown, vehicles, and when a car is left in a position where it causes serious obstruction it is taken by the authorities to an official car park outside the city. The offending motorist then has to find it, and to pay the authorities for the cost of taking it there. That may seem drastic, and I am not making the suggestion in criticism of motorists as a whole. Motorists themselves suffer most from these obstructions, and I do not think a small minority ought to be allowed to cause such a disproportionate amount of trouble.

Pedestrians, too, can contribute to traffic delays. There is the pedestrian who will insist on crossing the road when the lights are clear for cars to proceed; there is the pedestrian who hovers and cannot make up his mind; there are those who dart and those who dawdle, and those who stand about two feet in advance of where they ought to be standing, and thus hold up a whole line of traffic. All these are an impediment to traffic, and a menace to their own safety.

I should like to say much more, but I hope I have given an indication of what I think are the more serious points and of the fact that they rest so much upon the question of parking in the inner area of London. I should, in particular, like to say something about the matter which I know is present in the minds of many people, the need for road widening and improvements generally. We know that we cannot afford very much money at present but I think that as soon as money becomes available it should be spent first on underground parks. Road improvements must come, but the problems of parking must be solved first. I would begrudge the spending of millions of pounds on making our roads wider if the chief result were that they were cluttered up with even more parked cars than at present.

The real problem in London is getting the roads clear of vehicles which are preventing the free flow and movement of traffic. I suggest it is a matter in which we must have leadership from the Minister and his colleagues. It is not a matter which the police, or pedestrians, or motorists can do for themselves, because traffic, unless regulated, has many of the tendencies of a flock of sheep. I believe that the motorist will welcome clearer directions and more decisive action and I hope the Minister will give us some indication of the plans he has in mind and that he will show the courage we have come to expect of him in implementing them.

11.47 p.m.

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

I must begin by apologising to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Norfolk, Central (Brigadier Medlicott) for not being in my place when he opened his speech. It was due to the Adjournment coming on us like a thief in the night, although it was a particularly welcome thief.

As my hon. and gallant Friend has reminded us, the subject of this debate was considered only a short time ago, on the Adjournment on 20th May when the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) also raised this question and I endeavoured to deal with some of the separate problems involved. I shall not deal with those again now, but I shall endeavour to deal, as adequately as I can in the time available, with the points which my hon. and gallant Friend has put forward tonight.

If I may deal first with the question of where responsibility lies, the Minister of Transport is responsible for making regulations and the police are responsible for their enforcement. The Home Office are responsible for the Metropolitan Police—that is why my hon. Friend the Under Secretary of State to the Home Department is on the bench tonight to take notes on this debate—whereas in the provinces they are under the police authority, whoever that may be, and the Home Secretary is responsible for the efficiency of the police force as a whole.

As regards underground parking in London, to which my hon. and gallant Friend referred in some detail, I did deal with that on the previous occasion when I told the House that the report of the working party was under active consideration by my right hon. Friend who, at the same time, was most anxious not to destroy the amenities of the London squares and the trees which are a source of pride to all who know them. That was a factor which had to be carefully considered before we took action.

On parking meters, I would refer my hon. and gallant Friend to the remarks I offered on Friday last on the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, when the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut-Colonel Lipton) moved a new Clause which sought to give those powers to local authorities.

Many people, during the last three weeks, when traffic congestion in London has been so abnormal, have referred with approval to the action of the police during the period in moving cars which were causing obstruction and asked why they could not continue this admirable system in normal times. A word on this subject may not be out of place. It is not generally realised that the police were then acting under special powers conferred on them by an old Statute, the Metropolitan Police Act, 1839. That is only applicable to days of public processions or occasions of national rejoicing, and these powers do not extend to the situation we are tackling now. There are no general powers available for removing cars outside such special periods, on the grounds of obstruction. The present powers given under Section 59 of the Road Traffic Act of 1930, as extended by the Act of 1934, allow for the removal of vehicles left in dangerous positions and also broken down or abandoned vehicles.

I think it is relevant to recall that, during the discussion on the Clause in the 1934 Bill, the Minister of Transport of that day, Mr. Hore-Belisha who showed great activity in these matters, emphasised that it did not enable the police to remove a car because someone had rather exceeded the time limit during which it should have been left in the street, or was an obstruction. He also said that he wanted to be careful not to extend the powers to such an extent that they could be used in an oppressive way. That quotation makes it quite clear that, when these powers were approved by the House, it was not intended that the police should be able in normal circumstances, to act in such a way as they did during the Coronation period under the old Statute.

I think the House would also like to know that this matter was again considered by the Committee on Road Safety as recently as 1947, and I should like to quote paragraph 229 of their final Report, published in May of that year, which reads as follows: We have considered a suggestion that additional powers should be given to the police to enable them to remove stationary vehicles causing obstruction. While additional powers of this character would be welcomed by some chief constables, the police do not, in general, experience any serious difficulty in moving obstructing vehicles. In these circumstances, and having regard to the fact that any new legislation would be of a controversial character, we are of opinion that the present position might remain as it is. I should, of course, be out of order if I embarked now on a discussion of the question whether any further legislative action is necessary to widen the present somewhat restricted powers, but I should emphasise that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department who is sitting beside me has taken note of what my hon. and gallant Friend has said, and he assures me that the Home Secretary will shortly take the opportunity of consulting the police on this problem.

In my speech on 20th May, I said that parking too near intersections controlled by traffic lights was one of the most unhelpful things that anybody could do, and that we were coming to the conclusion that we should have to prohibit this practice. My hon. and gallant Friend has referred to this question tonight, and perhaps I can amplify my previous statement by telling him that this question was considered by the London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee only a few days after that debate.

The Committee had referred to them the question of about half-a-dozen specific crossings where it was suggested that the prohibition of parking might be advantageous. They did not reach any definite decision at their first meeting, but are considering the matter further, and will soon, I hope, be reporting to my right hon. Friend. If such a prohibition were put into effect in a limited number of crossings, it would give us the opportunity to see how it worked in practice, and I can assure the House that my right hon. Friend would always be prepared to consider an extension of this type of prohibition to other crossings if it proved to be of value.

Another topic to which I referred on 20th May was the introduction of "No Waiting" in many inner London streets and the experiment in unilateral waiting which is still proceeding and under close observation. I can now inform the House that the London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee have recommended the extension of "No Waiting" to certain additional streets. We hope to put this further measure into force very soon, and hope the result will prove as useful as under the initial regulations.

Finally, I should like to take this opportunity of saying another word, as I did during the previous debate, about the work of the Traffic Advisory Committee. I paid a well-deserved tribute then to what they are doing, and I should like this House to know how much we, in the Ministry, appreciate their often unrewarding labours. Although it has not yet been possible for the Government to approve the putting in hand of the more expensive measures recommended by the Committee, such as major street construction and improvement, the Committee's Report on London Traffic for 1951–52 indicates the wide range of minor regulatory measures which the Committee recommended, none of which is, perhaps, in itself very important on the surface, but which involve a great volume of close detailed work, and which, added together, represent a by no means negligible contribution to the easing of the traffic problems of London.

I am glad to tell my hon. and gallant Friend that on these many detailed matters differences of opinion between the Committee and my Department are virtually unknown. I think, however, that I ought to say frankly how well I am aware that the Committee are impatient of delay in giving effect to their major recommendations. I fully sympathise with them. I should be equally impatient were I one of their members. But, I am sure, both the Committee and this House will understand that these questions, involving a large capital expenditure, have to be weighed very carefully by the Government in these difficult times. I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend that this problem is ever in our minds. We are in no way idle in the matter. Careful thought is being given at this moment by my right hon. Friend to the most valuable report of that working party, and my hon. and gallant Friend has rendered a service in bringing this matter before the House tonight.

Adjourned accordingly at Three Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.