HC Deb 20 May 1953 vol 515 cc2217-26

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Sir H. Butcher.]

11.8 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

The subject I want to discuss on the Adjournment concerns traffic congestion in the London area. As the House will appreciate this is a question of very great concern to all people who live in and use the Metropolis. It would be convenient, in view of the short time available for dealing with a very large subject, if I based myself, in the questions I want to ask the Minister, on the recently issued report of the London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee headed "London Traffic, 1951–52."

The report points out in serious and emphatic language that, unless adequate steps are taken to relieve it, congestion might well lead to London's transport being brought to a standstill. It says that the number, power, size and weight of vehicles have outgrown the capacity of the streets, many of which have reached saturation point. Since 1938 the number of vehicles in Great Britain has risen from 3 million to 4,500,000. The present rate of increase is 250,000 per annum, of which a large proportion circulate in the London traffic area. The position has, in fact, now been reached that if traffic is to remain fluid the street system in London must be expanded to match the growth in traffic. Road improvements may do something, but the real remedy lies in large-scale widening and the replanning of roads to enable the extra traffic in inner London to circulate more freely.

As the Minister knows, there has been no major improvement in the roads of inner London since 1905, when Kingsway and Aldwych were completed, and at that time the traffic was composed almost entirely of horse-drawn vehicles. I am aware, of course, that there are large arrears of road maintenance work that have accumulated as a result of the war, and that road repairs curtail still further the road space available, and give rise Jo difficult problems, particularly when the repairs are so extensive as to necessitate the closing of streets.

Another very serious aspect of the traffic congestion in London is the fact that such a large proportion of the police force has to be diverted from other proper police duties to look after London traffic. This is a very serious strain on the available manpower. This very authoritative committee concludes by saying that unless their recommendations are carried out the alternative is stagnation in London traffic sooner or later, and, in their view, in the not very distant future.

What are the remedies that have been suggested? Some of them are contained in the recently published report of the Working Party on Car Parking in the Inner Area of London, and I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what steps the Government are taking to implement the recommendations in that report. That report put forward three concrete suggestions for dealing with this vital problem. It recommended, first, the construction of garages below and above ground. It recommends, as the first stage of the parking plan, that garages should be constructed in four London squares, Grosvenor Square, Berkeley Square, Cavendish Square, and St. James's Square. The committee says that these four garages would cater for 1,820 cars, and that two multi-storey garages would be required subsequently.

They point out that if these garages are built in London squares they would detract nothing from the amenities of the squares. On the contrary, in some cases, notably in the case of St. James's Square, it would add to the amenities, although, of course, there would be a substantial capital cost involved in the outlay that would be recouped because appropriate charges would be made. They make concrete proposals how the cost would be recouped and how the garages should be conducted in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.

Then they recommend the introduction of parking meters. It is notorious how at present cars all over crowded London streets park far longer than the permitted hours. They suggest that parking meter charges should therefore be introduced, and the rate they suggest is 6d. up to an hour, and 1s. for between one and two hours. In addition, they propose a new and balanced system of waiting regulations. The Minister, I hope, will tell us what has been the result so far of the experiment introduced in some parts of London with regard to unilateral parking.

May I indicate the size of the problem? It would be difficult to exaggerate the annual cost involved to the people of London as a result of traffic congestion. It involves additional cost, not only to London Transport, because buses are delayed and extra petrol is consumed, but also to the travelling public, who lose several hours, and the total cost, one way and another, is almost impossible to calculate exactly.

In so far as one can make an estimate of it, the figures quoted in the report submitted to the Minister give some indication of the size of the problem. The report points out that, 10 years ago, when the County of London Plan was introduced, it contained a statement that, in New York, where there is a comparable problem, the estimated cost of delays to traffic totalled £70 million a year, and it stated that, if a similar estimate were made for London, the cost would probably be found to be of the same order; that is, £70 million a year is the estimated cost of this interminable and increasing congestion in London.

Another estimate has been made of the cost of the delay within the relatively narrow radius of three miles from Charing Cross, and it is £11 million. The report goes on to say: From a study of certain calculations which were placed before us, we do not feel justified in expressing any opinion on the annual cost to the community of traffic delays in Inner London as a whole, but, as an example, it is estimated that the cost of delays experienced at St. Giles's Circus alone would amount to some £200,000 per annum. I think the House will agree that this subject is one which urgently requires the attention of the Government. It will get worse and more expensive unless it is tackled soon. The problem of finding the appropriate capital outlay must be faced, and, if it is tackled scientifically on the lines recommended in these reports, the cost can be recouped over a period of years. I hope that we shall hear what the Minister intends to do about it.

11.18 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

Unless something is done in the very near future, there is every prospect that the whole of Central London will be completely immobilised. I therefore hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell us what is in the mind of the Ministry of Transport on this very serious problem.

It is a fact that it was possible to travel from one end of Park Lane to the other 50 years ago in a horse-drawn carriage much more quickly than one can get down Park Lane in a high-powered car in this present year of grace. There has been a definite retrogression in that respect, and it is becoming much more difficult than it was before to get from one part of Central London to another.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher), to whom we are indebted for raising this important subject, gave us some figures of the cost and loss involved. May I remind the Parliamentary Secretary of one feature of the problem which was brought very much to the public notice during the lethal fog last December, when a pall hung over the Metropolis? There were thousands upon thousands of cars crawling along or virtually stationary with their engines running, the fumes from their exhausts never getting far up in the air, but being kept down by this pall of smoke and fog which was over London at the time. It may well be that that was one factor which contributed to the loss of life caused by that fog, which, it is estimated, came to no fewer than 6,000 people during the four or five weeks subsequent to the fog.

One other point, arising from the report of the Working Party, about the provision of parking meters. What I do not understand is why the provision of parking meters in Central London is apparently made dependent upon the provision of the underground garages in the four main West End Squares to which my hon. Friend referred. If the capital outlay for providing these underground garages cannot be found at the moment, what is there to prevent the introduction and the installation of these meters, which will make some contribution towards relieving the congestion that is caused by car owners leaving their cars in the most inconvenient places and causing great obstruction with which the police are apparently unable to deal? I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to hold out some hope in the not far distant future that something will be done to prevent London from being completely immobilised.

11.21 p.m.

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

For my part I wish that we had a great deal more time to discuss this vast and important problem, but I shall do my best in the time available to give the House a general picture. I am not forgetting the points which the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) specifically put. It is interesting in studying the records of the House to see the number of occasions on which this problem has been brought before us. As the hon. Gentleman has said, even in the days of horse-drawn vehicles there was a congestion problem in London, and I have here a picture of Fleet Street taken 60 years ago showing a traffic jam which would do credit to the present day; and that was long before the motor age. I would have said that it is as bad as anything that we have in that thoroughfare now.

The problem changed with the advent of motor traffic and the volume has increased quite substantially. Let us take one or two points in London. The figures I am going to quote are from the Metropolitan Police traffic census for 1952. In 1904, nearly 30,000 vehicles passed Hyde Park Corner during the 12 hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and in 1952 there were 77,000, nearly three times as many. In Trafalgar Square there were nearly 28,000 in 1904 and there were 65,000 in 1952. At Piccadilly Circus there were 27,000 in 1904 and 47,000 in 1952.

Incidentally, it may surprise hon. Members to know, as it did me when I came to look at them, the 1952 figures are not peak figures. In 79 places where counts were taken in 1935 and 1952 which were comparable there were 3.2 per cent. less vehicles counted in 1952 than in 1935. It may be that this small fall from the peak figure is due to a shift of population from the inner area of London to the outer suburbs, and it is interesting to know that some of the counts in the outer areas of London have considerably increased in some places in the last few years.

The vehicles counted at the North Circular Road junction with Hendon Way —not far from where I live—reached the highest ever figure of nearly 35,000 in 1952. This figure is only 800 to 900 vehicles short of the count at Oxford Circus. The number of vehicles counted at Eastern Avenue at the junction of Cranbrook Road reached nearly 30,000, just over 20 per cent. greater than the last count taken there in 1939. To sum all this up, there has been a 15.6 per cent. increase in all vehicles except pedal cycles in 1952 as compared with 1949, or three years ago.

Therefore, the problem of London traffic is a variable one, and although I do not wish in any way to be complacent on this subject, and can assure the House that the problem is constantly before us, I should like to say that quite a number of things have been done over the period about which I am speaking. In the first place, a number of improvements have taken place in London. There have been, for example, the building of the new Waterloo Bridge and recently the improvement of traffic arrangements where necessary as a result of the Festival of Britain, including the redesigning and reconstruction of Parliament Square, the provision of roundabouts at the south end of Westminster Bridge and Waterloo Bridge. These works, small as they are, have had a useful result.

I should like now to turn to traffic signals, a most important improvement. There has been a progressive increase in the number of traffic signals in use in London over the period of the last few years and, what is more important, the existing signals are being modernised. The new installations at Gardiner's Corner, Ludgate Circus, Wellington Street, Strand, and the junction of Kensington High Street and Church Street have all exceeded expectations in the way in which they have improved the traffic flow at these places, and the result of these installations and the modernising of equipment has been a general reduction in the times vehicles have to stop at these intersections.

To give a few instances: from observations taken by the Road Research Laboratory it is shown that the times vehicles stopped at the Goswell Road/St. John Street intersection in the City Road was reduced from 97 seconds in 1950 to 67 seconds in 1952; at the Tottenham Court Road/Euston Road intersection, from 84 seconds to 61 seconds; at Piccadilly 115 seconds to 69 seconds; and at St. Giles's Circus 74 seconds to 55 seconds. Even where the general picture is better, we have our troubles, and the Oxford Street /Great Portland Street intersection waiting time went up in 1950–52 from 33 seconds to 66 seconds— exactly double. We are, however, hopeful that we shall be able to get the out of date signal equipment in Oxford Street modernised during the current year, and this important work is now in hand.

A number of other useful things have been done since the end of the war which have also improved traffic arrangements. There has been the highly successful introduction of no waiting on a large number of the important streets in inner London which has kept the traffic moving in spite of the heavy increase to which I have referred. We are now engaged in an experiment in unilateral waiting which, I think, shows signs of being promising and, of course, we have recently seen the removal of tram tracks, which undoubtedly will assist in decreasing traffic congestion and reducing accidents as well. We have done what we can to educate the public in the best way of avoiding congestion areas and only a few days ago we arranged for H.M. Stationery Office to issue a new through route map of London, designed specially to help those who have to come through our difficult Metropolis. The result has been that, although traffic has gone up by 156 per cent. in 1952 as compared with 1949, the speed of London traffic has not declined.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) stressed the effect upon commerce and business as a result of delay, and I was given a very interesting instance the other day by London Transport who told us that if it were possible to increase the average speed of their buses in London by 1 m.p.h., it would result in a saving in fuel of £2 million. The Road Research Laboratory take regular observations along a run of 35 miles of London streets and the following is the result of their observations. In 1947, their run was done at an average speed of 11.1 m.p.h. In 1950, after the abolition of petrol restrictions, it went down to 10.9 m.p.h. In 1952 it was 11.5. In other words, the position today is slightly better than it was in 1947, despite the large increase in traffic.

The last thing I want to do is to give the House the impression that we are happy with the existing state of affairs. Indeed we are not. We profoundly hope that the economic situation of the country will allow us in the not too distant future to accept some of the important recommendations about street improvements which have been received from the London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee, and possibly to begin to make some modest street improvements in the inner area to improve the flow of traffic there, but I must point out to the House that street works in inner London are now a very costly matter.

I now turn to the question of parking, to which the hon. Member for Islington, East referred particularly. We should, of course, like to see some arrangements for dealing with the increasing number of vehicles which are parked on side streets, congesting them in such a way that traffic is thereby thrown or decanted on to the main highways, causing a general slow down of London traffic. We have just been reminded that a Working Party recently reported on this difficult problem—a most valuable document, in my opinion—suggesting building over-ground garages and a number of them under the London squares, the cost to be subsidised by the parking meters, which have been referred to, in authorised car-parks on the highway.

I was asked what the position was regarding this proposal. I can only say that my right hon. Friend is giving this report his most careful personal attention, his main preoccupation being to ensure—and I think Londoners will agree with this—that the valuable amenities of the London squares are maintained. In particular, he is going carefully into the question of whether underground garages could be provided in London squares without the loss of the fine trees which are their historic glory.

We still think there are one or two steps which the public can take which would help very considerably. Just to give one instance, it ought to be more fully understood than it is at present that to park a vehicle close to an intersection controlled by traffic lights is one of the most unhelpful things anybody can do. A single vehicle parked five yards from a traffic light intersection reduces the flow through the intersection by as much as 30 per cent. If drivers understood this and avoided doing it the flow at a number of intersections would be greatly speeded up and I should like to take this opportunity of saying, in the hope that it may receive some publicity that we are coming to the conclusion that we shall have to prohibit this practice.

Mr. E. Fletcher

At all intersections?

Mr. Braithwaite

The practice of parking near traffic light intersections.

I should like to mention, in passing. that this year we are spending £250,000, the greater part of which will be for London, on traffic lights, in installation and modernisation.

I should like to conclude with a tribute to the work of the London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee, whose patient work in advising my right hon. Friend on how to improve traffic congestion is most helpful to us at the Ministry. We have studied their reports with the greatest care. Their advice is invaluable and invariably followed in day-to-day matters of local importance, and my right hon. Friend is very conscious of the need of their advice in particular matters concerning street improvements, which have been referred to once more in their Report on London Traffic in 1951–52. We at the Ministry applaud the Committee's work and acknowledge our great debt to them.

As I have already said, I am sorry that this debate cannot go on for two or three hours. It would have been interesting to have had contributions from hon. Gentlemen representing London constituencies in general. Perhaps a Friday might provide an opportunity in which to go into this question in full. Meanwhile, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Islington, East for having raised the subject tonight to enable me to give an all too brief account of what we are endeavouring to do. It is my earnest hope that, in the not too distant future, we shall be able to take active steps to improve the physical layout for traffic in inner London, while, at the same time, maintaining the beauties of our squares, which are the pride of our people.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-four Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.