HC Deb 14 March 1955 vol 538 cc1085-94

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

10.17 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

I am raising tonight the old question of traffic problems. My object is twofold, first, to ask the Government for a realistic examination of the appalling traffic position in the country as a whole, and, second, to ask the Government to examine, with the competent local authorities, the traffic problems in Lincolnshire and the City of Lincoln in particular.

My request to the Government to do this is made at a time when public opinion is roused by the difficulties of traffic conditions today. There is evidence of that in the formation only last week of the Roads Campaign Council under the Chairmanship of Mr. Wilfred Andrews. That is an indication of the nation's feeling about this matter.

Locally, in the city which I represent, the problem is well known to all its citizens, and in recent months has been the subject of articles and news items in the "Lincolnshire Echo", the "Lincolnshire Chronicle", the Lincolnshire edition of the "Sheffield Telegraph", and the "Yorkshire Post".

To induce the Minister to give his mind to the problem, I suggest to him certain points for consideration. First, taking the problem nationally, I want him to reflect on three points. The first is that the programme which was announced at the beginning of last month in the House is really too small, and the rate at which it is set to go is too slow. I understand that it will take until 1959 or 1960 before the amount of money spent will be equal, with the changed money values, to the amount spent immediately before the war. I understand, from the calculations which I have received, that it is necessary to spend £150 million a year to reach the figure which was spent in the year immediately pre-war.

The second point on which I should like the Minister to reflect is the importance of continuity of finance. Too often in the past there have been stops and starts in road construction, and we are suffering from that to this day. The third point is how the money should be raised. I should like the Minister to reflect on the three methods available and, I hope, come down in favour of the last one of them rather than the other two.

Obviously, one can raise the money from the Revenue or by tolls or by loan. As for the Revenue, the problem is that it is the custom of the Treasury to regard money spent on roads as being money thrown away, and I see very little future for any road programme which is based on Revenue financing. There are several points to be made about tolls. I am sorry to see that the Government are so much in favour of tolls. First, I wonder if they have paid enough attention to the cost of collecting the tolls. The American figures are striking, and the figures which I have seen worked out as estimates by the Roads Campaign Council for the collection of tolls on the proposed North-South Lancashire highway come to over £100,000 a year. In any case, motorists surely have paid heavily already.

Another difficulty to which tolls give rise is that they cause congestion, because motorists have to stop while they are collected. An appalling illustration is the Dunham bridge, not far from Lincoln. There, especially in summer, there are long lines of cars waiting for tolls to be collected from motorists who want to pass over the bridge. Therefore, on every ground, I find the whole idea of financing from tolls a disadvantage to the community as a whole and to motorists in particular.

The third method of financing is by loan, and I hope the Government will give some attention to that. The advantage of loan financing is that of continuous finance. One is able to plan ahead without having yearly authorisation, and I believe this is the key to our attempt to solve the problem. I envisage a national highways authority to raise the loan, to spend it, and to work in association with the local authorities in the planning and building of the road.

I have said I was concerned with two aspects: of the national position in general and of the Lincolnshire aspect in particular. I have mentioned the Lincolnshire problem of the Dunham bridge, and I should like also to ask if there is any news about the Humber bridge. In turning my attention to the City of Lincoln, I have to apologise to those few hon. Members who are present at the moment, because it is not the first time that I have raised this matter. However, it is so important to my constituents that it is my duty to go on and on and on so long as I am within the rules of order.

The problems of Lincoln are well-known. It is an ancient city, partly on a hill. Some of our streets have to pass through Roman arches which were built only a few years after the Roman occupation. The Newport Arch has been used since A.D. 48. Those are our basic problems, and added to them we have railway level crossings which shut our main streets and cut them in half for many hours each day.

The results are that there is complete traffic chaos. The public services are affected in many ways, and because of the delays for the buses the costs per mile, as far as I can calculate, are greater than those for any city which operates fewer than 100 buses. I was interested to note that the next highest cost per mile for buses is in the City of Chester, which is also an ancient city and also notorious for traffic difficulties.

When we consider private industry, we have to remember that the city, though small, has great heavy engineering works. The roads are the conveyor belts of industry, and they are broken every few minutes. I have here a letter written a few months ago before the writer was aware that I was going to raise this matter on the Adjournment. It is from Mr. Bergne-Coupland, a director and works manager of Ruston and Hornsby Ltd., one of Lincoln's well known engineering firms.

He writes: During the last six months or so the congestion at the crossings has become very much worse during the whole of the working day. The position has been reflected in our transport operating costs which are increasing rapidly … This company with its main production shops on one side of the town has to bring the castings from the foundries at the other side of the town and the extra costs for fuel and extra vehicles that have had to be put on this work are causing us very grave concern. He writes in another letter about the railway level crossings: It puts a heavy burden on our employees, most of whom go home for their midday meal and only have one hour to do so, and it does not help their return to work on time, or their digestions by the long waits they have to make at the two main crossings in the streets of Lincoln. I think I can add, and I know he would like me to add, this other disadvantage, that if they are late on their return they are "quartered" and lose money because they are not on the job.

The ordinary citizen—and, after all, these men who work in these factories and their wives and families are the ordinary citizens of Lincoln—are the people who suffer most from this appalling position. Lincoln is the only city whose children are fed up with seeing trains because they see them passing through up and down it all day long.

These are the conditions and the results, but what are the remedies? One of the remedies is for much of the traffic to by-pass the city. It should be bypassed by a road starting several miles to the south, passing Lincoln on the east, over the railway where there is a cutting that could be bridged, and joining the main Roman road again to the north of the city. Secondly we should modernise the existing level-crossing gates in the city and present to the museum the present gates. Thirdly, we should eliminate the "Durham Ox" crossing. That will be done if the Pelham Bridge scheme is approved.

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

"Durham Ox"?

Mr. de Freitas

The "Durham Ox" is the public house by the level-crossing over which the Pelham Bridge will go when the Minister of Transport approves the scheme for the Pelham Bridge. This brings me to my next point.

Mr. Adlington, the City Engineer, the city officials and the consulting engineers, worked hard and rapidly to get this scheme to the Ministry of Transport by the middle of last month. They got it off on 12th February. They sent it to the divisional engineer in Nottingham. On 16th February, in answer to a Question in the House, the Minister of Transport gave me a very sharp answer, telling me that he had not received the scheme. Now it is perfectly true that he personally had not received the scheme, but it was in the hands of his divisional engineer in Nottingham.

By questioning I have since found that there are between nine and 10 telephone calls a day between the London office of the Ministry of Transport and the regional office in Nottingham. It is inconceivable, if the Minister were really interested in this scheme, that he did not take the trouble to ring up Nottingham to find out if the City of Lincoln Pelham Bridge scheme was in his possession before he gave the city's representative in Parliament the curt answer that he had not received it yet.

The feeling is growing in Lincoln that the Minister is deliberately delaying approval of that scheme so that it will be too late for the programme of the next financial year. I ask the Government to get moving on this scheme before we all die from exhaust fumes whilst standing at the level-crossing in a traffic block. As far as Lincoln is concerned, I repeat that Lincoln resents very much being treated as if she is a second-class village rather than an ancient city, entitled to good treatment from Her Majesty's Ministers.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. J. B. Godber (Grantham)

I intervene in support of the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas), who has put the case extremely well from the point of view of Lincoln. I endorse what he has said from the aspect of those who live round Lincoln, the agricultural producers in particular, for whom Lincoln is a vital centre. Lincoln recognises their interest in the city. It is an important market town, and there is a real hold-up of trafficon market days, which is an embarrassment to the agricultural community.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give us a promise that something will be done, for it will help not only industry and the people of Lincoln, but those from a large area round about. There is much more I should like to say, but I have no right to intervene for more than a few seconds in support of the hon. Gentleman.

10.34 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) has raised a number of points of so wide a scope that I shall not attempt to give him a full answer tonight. If his views are shared by the Opposition, undoubtedly they will set aside a Supply Day so that these matters, involving the question of the adequacy or otherwise of the Government's road policy, may be fully discussed.

The hon. Gentleman gave no reason why the Government should necessarily now spend as much upon the roads as we were spending before the war, and it is a mistake to announce great expenditure without taking into account the long preparatory period which is needed after a road has been decided upon and before expenditure can be incurred. We intend, however, that expenditure out of the Road Fund on major improvements and new construction will reach a total of about £40 million per annum when the programme is well under way. As the expenditure on such works on trunk and classified roads in 1938–39 was just over £10 million, the hon. Gentleman's requirement is approximately met. There is no reason to suppose that this Government will fail to satisfy the expectations that we have raised in the same way as the Socialist Government did in 1946. On that occasion a grandiose programme was announced which was supposed to involve the expenditure of £38 million in the first year. In the remaining five years that the Socialists were in office the total sum spent upon works of this kind was only £20 million.

Mr. Cyril Osbome (Louth)

In five years?

Mr. Molson

Yes, £20 million in five years, whereas the programme announced was for £38 million in the first year. It is, of course, easy to say that the present programme will merely relieve pre-war traffic problems, but after practically nothing has been done to the roads for 16 years it is obviously necessary that we should begin by overtaking that backlog. When that has been done, it will be possible to go on and carry out further improvements.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is chiefly concerned, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber), with the constituency problems of Lincolnshire. The hon. Gentleman has, as he said, shown great persistence in this matter. This is the second time that I have answered an Adjournment debate on the subject, and the hon. Member also dealt with it at some length in the debate on the British Transport Commission's Bill in 1954.

The hon. Member has been told that the proposal to build the Pelham Bridge is under consideration, and I hope that we shall be able to announce a decision in the very near future. I hardly think that he need have made such a point about the answer which my right hon. Friend gave him on 16th February. In fact, the scheme that he referred to had been received in our divisional office the previous day—15th February.

Mr. de Freitas

That is exactly the point that I am making. Surely, knowing the pressure that I had been exerting and that I had a Question on the Order Paper, the hon. Gentleman could have done something about it. When I was a Minister we found out about these things by telephone.

Mr. Molson

When the hon. Member considers the number of Questions that there were that day and the pressure upon the Department, I am sure he will agree that it is not really reasonable to expect that in the case of every one of those Questions a telephone call should have been put through the previous day in order to inquire whether a certain document had been received.

Mr. de Freitas

Yes, since the Ministry accepted the deadline of 15th February.

Mr. Molson

All I can say is that the hon. Member is making a mountain out of a molehill.

The improvement of the High Street, which has two level crossings, is, of course, also desirable, but it will not be urgent when the bridge has done away with the Pelham Street crossing. Pelham Street will then be free of crossings and will probably be made into a Class I road, and if that is done High Street will be reduced to a Class II road. Traffic signals have already been installed in High Street to control the northern level crossing.

A by-pass of the City of Lincoln has been thought of, as no doubt the hon. Gentleman knows, since it appears in the development plans of Lindsey and Kesteven. It is a trunk road to by-pass the city to the south-east and there is no likelihood of its being undertaken for many years.

I suppose it is because of the Dunham toll bridge over the River Trent on the A 57 trunk road that the hon. Member for Lincoln expressed his disapproval of the toll as a method of financing new construction. It is intended to use the additional funds available under the Government's new programme for the construction of new and the improvement of existing roads and no great priority will be given to the elimination of tolls.

I entirely agree that Lincoln is an extremely important industrial city and we fully and frankly recognise that at present industry and, indeed, the ordinary circulation of traffic in Lincoln is encountering great inconvenience and difficulty as a result of the railways which cross the roads. I am sorry that I am not tonight in a position to announce any decision about the Pelham Bridge, although I can once again assure the hon. Member for Lincoln that the urgency and importance of the matter is fully recognised.

Therefore, I hope that the hon. Member will be satisfied with what I have been able to say upon the subject and I am sure he will realise that it would not be appropriate, in so short a debate as this, for me to attempt to reply at length to the general arguments that have been put forward by the Road Campaign Council.

Mr. de Freitas

I did not expect the Parliamentary Secretary to reply to the general argument, but I must confess that I am disappointed that he has not been able to give any hope that the Pelham Bridge—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member is not entitled to make a second speech on this matter.

10.42 p.m.

Mr. Cyril Osborne (Louth)

Since the bridge interests my constituents, I should like to support the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) and ask my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary whether he will do all he can to see that the bridge is provided. It affects not only people coming from the north of the county who have to go through this bottleneck, but it affects people going north on their summer holidays to Skegness and other places.

The congestion is absolutely intolerable and I press my hon. Friend, on behalf of all the people who go through Lincoln, to do all he can. He has said that he will make an announcement soon. I hope he will make it really soon and that he will get on with the work.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.