HC Deb 28 July 1954 vol 531 cc630-7

10.35 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

Over 20 years ago, as an undergraduate at Cambridge, it was my experience to listen to lectures given by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education. I must say that I found his lectures, if more informative, never as interesting as I found his speech during the last quarter of an hour or 20 minutes tonight.

Mr. Pickthorn

It is a long-term action. It is the intellectual improvement communicated by my lectures that makes possible the hon. Gentleman's appreciation now.

Mr. de Freitas

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be equally successful in sowing the seed in the mind of the Minister of Education, so that she may be able to appreciate the importance of playing fields in schools. I spent a couple of years living in a boys' club in the East End of London, where I took the boys in various games and sports nearly every evening and every weekend, and where the question of excelling was not the point. What mattered was that it gave the boys real, healthy pleasure if they could get on to an ordinary playing field. It is of that that we should be thinking, rather than whether we should be able to beat the Hungarian football team.

The point I want to raise is more restricted; it is limited to my constituency. The Parliamentary Secretary referred to 600 years of—as be said hon. Members on this side of the House would say—"Tory misrule." I shall not go into that tonight, but I must point out that for 700 years Members of Parliament have been coming here from Lincoln and complaining, as is their duty. I do not know what they complained about for the first 600 years, but I know that during the last 100 they have complained about the level crossings. It so happened that when railways were built there was a great deal of complaint about them. An hon. Member of the time—Colonel Sibthorpe, who represented Lincoln—was a great complainer. He complained about the danger public libraries would be. He complained about foreigners who came here for the 1851 Exhibition, and spoke of the danger they would be not only to the country as a whole but to the maidservants, daughters, silver and forks and knives of hon. Members. He took a poor view of everything which was reckoned at the time as progress; and especially he complained about railways.

He was caricatured in "Punch" in 1844, and shown attacking a railway engine with a lance, mounted like Don Quixote. He hated railways. It is recorded somewhere that he disliked railways like the Devil, until, in his last years, he compounded with the Devil and took a return ticket to Grantham. He disliked the railways so much that he refused to have any truck with them. But the railways came to Lincoln and laid their tracks right across the High Street. I do not know how true it is, but I have read that the City Council at the time was somewhat alarmed about it and sent its town clerk to interview the railway promoters. He was told that there would be only one or two trains a day, and he went home and told the council that there would be no trouble about it. So today, we have these level crossings, as so often happens, and everyone blames the town clerk and the Member of Parliament—of 100 years ago.

It is such a problem in Lincoln that the City Council has a special committee —the Level Crossings Committee. Anyone who has served on a corporation knows that there are certain committees in which the new boys or the very old boys are put because there is nothing much to do and it keeps them quiet and happy. But so important is this problem to the citizens of Lincoln that the Level Crossings Committee is presided over by the Leader of the Council—the most dis- tinguished citizen of Lincoln, a man who was my opponent two Elections ago—Alderman Hill, the leader of the non-Labour majority on the City Council. At its last meeting it had two Labour aldermen on it; Alderman Snook, the leader of the Labour group, and Alderman Rayment. There was also a distinguished non-Labour councillor, Councillor Bell. Clearly, it is one of the most important committees of the Council.

What is the nature of the problem? The problem is this. Lincoln is divided into two halves. Half the city is on a hill, where are the cathedral and much of the residential area. In the olden days it was almost the only residential part. Down in the plain is the industrial area. The two halves are joined by two streets, but the High Street is the principal one and it is cut and cut again by the railway. The gates of the principal level crossing are closed for 3 hours 18 minutes in the 12 hours between 7.15 a.m. and 7.15 p.m.

That was the estimate after a survey two years ago. That is the highest figure —for Mondays. The Tuesday figure is 2 hours 40 minutes. That is the lowest daily figure. These figures are two years old and are today nearer 4 hours a day. Four hours a day the High Street of Lincoln, which joins the northern and southern parts of the city, is cut in this way. And, of course, not only is the amount of time the road is closed a source of inconvenience; so are the stopping and restarting of the vehicles.

Why must the problem be solved? We are an industrial city; the roads are part of the industrial conveyor belt; and this conveyor belt is broken every few minutes by the gates being closed. Lincoln is not only an industrial city, but is the capital of the second largest and most prosperous agricultural county in England. It stands a good chance of being the first permanent site of the Royal Show, because Lincoln is halfway between North and South and is a fine city in a great agricultural county. I think it still stands a chance of becoming the permanent seat of the Royal Show, but one of the things that counts against it is the level crossing problem.

Sir John Barlow (Middleton and Prestwich)

Would the hon. Gentleman tell us on what authority he makes that suggestion about the Royal Show?

Mr. de Freitas

I welcome discussion of it. I have seen some correspondence in the farming papers about it. [Interruption.] I confess that one of the letters was from me. I am throwing that out as a suggestion. I have heard it discussed and at Windsor recently I overheard some favourable comments on this proposal. I lose no opportunity of advertising Lincoln as a good site.

Lincoln is a touring centre: the cathedral, the Glory Hole, the Carholme, the Roman remains, attract coachloads of tourists from all over the world. But they have to spend much of their time looking at the oldest rolling stock in Britain and the trains which pass and repass across the main street of the city. Industry, agriculture and tourists are important but above all it is on behalf of the ordinary citizens of Lincoln I am pleading, the men and women who live and work there. Why, because of a mistake made 100 years ago, should their lives be made intolerable by this obstruction across the main artery of the city?

What is the solution? The first step is to see that the level crossing is operated in the most efficient way; that is to say, that the police are alert in moving the traffic on as soon as the gates are up, and that the railwaymen close the gates no longer than is necessary. I have investigated both those operations. I am satisfied that the police do everything they can. I am satisfied too that the railwaymen, on the whole, do everything they can.

Some of the problems are not realised by the ordinary citizen. He does not appreciate that the railwayman closing the gates must take account of a train or engine which is some way away. There may be a gap between two trains. A train cannot start or pull up as easily as an omnibus. Therefore, the gates might appear to be closed longer than is necessary.

But the major problem remains the need for the Ministry of Transport to get busy and attempt a solution. My complaint is of lack of interest in the Ministry. On 23rd February this year, during the passage of the British Transport Commission Bill, I intervened for a few minutes and drew the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary to the need for capital expenditure by the railways to relieve the level crossings at Lincoln. I did not expect an answer then because I had not given notice of the point, but I have not even had any kind of communication subsequently from the Parliamentary Secretary.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Hugh Molson)

I have not left any letter from the hon. Member unanswered, have I?

Mr. de Freitas

No. That was a speech which I made, and I was followed by the hon. Gentleman. As he did not reply to me then I assumed that he would, as I did in both Departments I was in, go through the debate, find out what points were not covered, and write to say what had been done. I am not saying that the hon. Gentleman has left any letter of mine unanswered but I had expected a letter from him.

This letter, dated yesterday, from the Town Clerk of the City of Lincoln, shows how the Ministry have behaved. My Council are anxious to get on with the erection of the bridge across the 'Durham Ox' level crossing. That would alleviate the situation and do a great deal of good. Application was made to the Ministry of Transport as far back as Jury, 1951, for the approval to the appointment of consulting engineers. This approval, with consent to the appointment of consulting architects, was received on 13th July, 1954. That is, three years later. Three years delay. My Council are now pressing forward with all the necessary preliminary work. The Ministry of Transport has shown itself extremely reluctant to help in any way to solve this problem. At the time that the Ministry took over civil aviation, I protested in the House that it was in danger of making our great air corporations into branch lines of British Railways. My protest tonight is much more serious, because the Ministry appears to regard Lincoln as some village on Emmett's "Oyster Creek—Great Tottering" line. Lincoln is a proud and important city, and will not stand for that.

10.49 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Hugh Molson)

I have listened with the greatest interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) on the question of level crossings in Lincoln. I am sorry that this problem has been outstanding for so long, but when the hon. Member rose to raise the matter tonight I thought that perhaps it would be to express appreciation of what the Ministry is now doing to meet the wishes of the ancient city which he represents. But it seems that the hon. Member is not wholly satisfied.

Mr. de Freitas

I am not at all satisfied.

Mr. Molson

Indeed the last few sentences of his speech indicated that he was in a critical mood.

Before the war, there was a plan for dealing with the general problem of level crossings in Lincoln. Lincoln is unfortunate in that it has three level crossings. Two of these are in the High Street and one is in Pelham Street. Before the war there was an ambitious scheme for a general by-pass around all the level crossings, and a grant had been promised in 1938; but, because of the outbreak of war, that promise had to be cancelled.

During the war the City Council gave further consideration to the questions of the level crossings. In 1946, they put forward proposals to my predecessor at that time, who was a Member of the hon. Gentleman's party. At once, agreement in principle was expressed by the Ministry of Transport to those proposals which were of a much more modest nature. Instead of the costly general by-pass scheme it was accepted that the two crossings in the High Street would have to remain for an indefinite period. The City Council has made no proposals for altering the level crossings to which the hon. Gentleman referred in the early part of his speech. The scheme which it has put forward deals with the level crossing in Pelham Street.

Mr. de Freitas

That may be literally correct, but by having a bridge the traffic could go through, and a good deal less inconvenience would be caused in the High Street.

Mr. Molson

Exactly; that was the point I was coming to. While it would not be geometrically correct to describe Pelham Street as being parallel to the High Street—by the help of connecting streets they meet at both ends—it is nearly parallel with it. Traffic through the city from north or south can leave the direct route and pass along Pelham Street past the "Durham Ox" level crossing and on to the two great traffic roads leaving Lincoln for the north or north-east.

The proposal put forward in 1946 by the City Council, and accepted by my Socialist predecessor provided for a bridge to be built in Pelham Street. It was then accepted as being a reasonably practical measure which might be taken in the foreseeable future to deal with the problems which the hon. Gentleman has raised tonight. Both during the time of the Socialist Government, and in the 2½ years that this Government has been in office, there have been such limitations on financial and economic resources as to make it necessary for there to be something very much like an embargo on schemes of that kind. As a result of the new programme announced by my right hon. Friend on 8th December last year we have now been able to look forward to a time in the not too remote future when this bridge in Lincoln can be built.

Ever since 1946 the City Council has been asking for two things. It has been asking for the approval of the appointment of consulting engineers in order to make the plans and prepare the specifications for the building of this bridge, and it has also been asking for the announcement of a date when the work could be begun.

It was at the beginning of this present month that we were able to agree to the appointment of consulting engineers, and it was for that reason that I thought that, in contrast with what usually happens when hon. Members raise matters on the Consolidated Fund Bill, the hon. Member for Lincoln would have come here this evening to express his gratitude for the fact that after this long period we have been able to give our approval and agree that the time has now come for the consulting engineers to prepare plans in accordance with the proposals that were put forward in 1946 by the City Council.

I am sorry that I cannot say now exactly when the work can be begun, but we do recognise that this is a matter of great urgency, and we hope that it can be fitted into the new programme in the comparatively near future; but we have now at last been able to agree to the plans being drawn and the specifications being prepared, and I hope, therefore, that both the hon. Gentleman and the ancient city that he represents will feel that after their patience during 100 years, a substantial step forward has now been taken.