HC Deb 27 November 1956 vol 561 cc357-68

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

10.3 p.m.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker (Derby, South)

My constituents owe a great deal of gratitude to you, Mr. Speaker, for allocating the Adjournment tonight to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Derby, North (Group Captain Wilcock) and myself so that we may raise the question—very important to the citizens of Derby—of the speed limit and of road casualties which are occurring on a certain section of Ashbourne Road in Derby.

Before I speak of the local problem and of the lamentable decisions which the Minister of Transport has made, may I say a few words about the general background of road accidents against which this local problem must be seen, because it is of local problems that the national problem is made up. Road accidents today—I do not hesitate to say it—have become a major social evil, ranking with slums, overcrowding of school classes, and the hardships of the old-age pensioners. I have been increasingly astonished year by year by the complacency with which the Minister and his colleagues regard this social evil and by their failure to take effective action to stop it. Even on the material ground of the staggering loss to the nation through road accidents which happen every year, I find their view very difficult to understand.

The annual cost of road accidents was first estimated while I was at the Ministry of War Transport twelve years ago. Two separate calculations were made at the request of the then Minister and myself, one by a team of skilled economists and one by the public auditor, both of which showed that the true cost to the nation then, the loss of national income, could not be much less than £70 million a year. Today, it must be nearly £200 million. If the railways killed as many people as motor vehicles kill on the roads, there would be a railway accident with 100 people killed every week all the year round. What action would the Minister take, what capital investment would he authorise, if the railways had a holocaust like that?

Alas, the casualties on the roads are still increasing. The President of the National Safety Congress, Sir Howard Roberts, told the Congress the other day that the figure for 1955–267,922 casualties, with 5,526 killed—was the highest total ever recorded in a single year. He went on to say that by the end of 1956, that is to say, this year, the total for Britain would be even worse. In the first eight months of this year there were over 8,000 more casualties than in the corresponding period of last year. Deaths, he said, are up by 213. That increase of 213 in eight months amounts to almost one a day.

Injury may be worse than death. A child may be crippled for life. A father may be rendered incapable of pursuing his trade or profession. A mother may be made a chronic invalid, confined to bed, the whole family life irretrievably ruined. All of us have, among our personal friends, seen tragedies of that kind.

Let me now turn from the background and the national problem to the local problem in Derby, especially in Ashbourne Road. This road is a trunk road for which the Minister is responsible. For one mile it runs along the north side of a new housing estate known as the Mackworth Estate. It is divided into two sections. From its junction with the ring road called Kingsway to its junction with Prince Charles Avenue, which is the principal road by which the 10,000 inhabitants of the Mackworth Estate come out to go on to the Ashbourne Road to the centre of Derby and by which they return to their homes, it is 28 ft. wide and has reasonable lighting. This section is 800 yards long.

The second section is from Prince Charles Avenue to the borough boundary at Radbourne Lane. This section is 24 ft. wide, very badly lighted, and is 1,000 yards long. The two sections together make a mile. I shall call it the Mackworth mile. Derby will soon be calling it the "Murder Mile".

At the beginning of this year, there was a speed limit of 30 miles per hour on the first section, that is to say, from Kings-way to Prince Charles Avenue. The local authority, never suspecting what it might be stirring up, applied for the speed limit to be extended to the second section, to Radbourne Lane, because it regarded both sections as being very dangerous. The Minister took a very long time to reach a decision. The council's application was made in January. In June, while the Minister was considering the application, a cyclist was killed at the junction with Prince Charles Avenue.

This accident was drawn to the Minister's attention. It influenced him not at all. In spite of local representations and in spite of letters from my hon. and gallant friend the Member for Derby, North and myself, the Minister not only refused to extend the speed limit to the second section, but he even took off the limit from the first section. He is well aware—at least, I hope so—that by so doing he has roused a storm of indignation in Derby. I have not heard a single person there defend what he has done. An eminent local personality, not of my party, said not long ago that his decision was "a most foolhardy act." The Derby Borough Council, the Watch Committee, the Highways Committee, the Chief Constable, the police, the Road Safety Advisory Committee and all the associations representing the 10,000 people in the Mackworth Estate are unanimously against him. They feel that they have a grievance against him for the way in which he and his Joint Parliamentary Secretaries have handled their demand.

I give only a few more recent examples. I wrote to the Minister on 9th August. I got a reply from the other Joint Parliamentary Secretary on 23rd August. I shall return presently to some of what he said. I considered his reply so unsatisfactory that, after local consultations, I wrote again to the Minister on 6th September. I particularly called his attention to the fact that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary had based his case on a traffic census taken in 1954. I pointed out that very many of the Mackworth Estate houses had been built since that year and that the vehicular traffic had greatly increased since then. I asked whether the census had been taken on a weekday or at the weekend, when the traffic is particularly heavy, because this is the gateway to Dovedale and the Peak.

I got no answer from the Minister for seven weeks. I received it two days before my Parliamentary Question was due to be asked in this House. He gave me no answer whatever about the traffic census; he never mentioned it. Moreover, the letter was addressed and sent, not to me, but to my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. F. Noel-Baker). The only explanation I can think of is that the Minister never read the draft which was laid before him; I am sure he did not.

I do not think that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, who sent me the first letter on 23rd August, had read his letter either before he signed it, because apart from his very doubtful traffic census figures, on which I have had no satisfaction, he told me that the decision was justified because in the three years 1953, 1954 and 1955 there had been only 31 accidents on this Mackworth mile. The Minister considered that that was quite all right.

I looked into the figures. I got details of every accident and studied them all. In fact, in those three years there were 32 accidents on this single mile, 19 of them involving death or injury. But the case is worse than that, if we add in the figures for 1956—they are going up. In three years and 46 weeks of 1956, there have been 47 accidents. In 1956, there were six more than in 1955, or an increase of 60 per cent. The Minister's decision was taken in the face of this rise.

The right hon. Gentleman's decision to de-restrict the whole of this "Murder Mile" became effective on 18th September. Look at what happened. On 24th September, there was a collision in which three vehicles were involved. Fortunately, no one was hurt, although the vehicles were badly damaged. On 23rd October, the day the Minister wrote me his letter, a child was knocked down and very seriously injured, escaping death by a miracle. Next day, 24th October, an old lady taking flowers to her husband's grave at the crematorium was knocked down and killed. On 27th October, three days later, a motor cyclist was knocked down and seriously injured. On 12th November, another old lady was killed. All of these have happened since the Minister's decision became effective. If it goes on like this, the Mackworth mile will soon be called "Minister's Murder Mile".

I venture to suggest to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, on the question of the speed limit, that 150,000 Derbeians cannot be wrong. Not only must the Minister restore the speed limit on the first section and extend it to the second section, but he must do more. He must spend more money. He ought to finish the path on the south side of the road which has been begun since my Questions were put a fortnight ago. He ought to make roundabouts at the junction with Kings-way and at the junction with Prince Charles Avenue. It is the only way of dealing with the accidents involving vehicles turning to the right, of which the Minister spoke in his letter to me. There ought to be a bridge, or some other satisfactory crossing, for people from the south side who want to go to the bus stops on the north side. There ought to be proper lighting on the second section as well.

I beg the Parliamentary Secretary to represent to his right hon. Friend that he must take some action and that Derby will not be satisfied until he does.

10.15 p.m.

Group Captain C. A. B. Wilcock (Derby, North)

I will not attempt to enlarge upon the review that my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mr. P. Noel-Baker) has just made, but I should like to underline one or two features. The County Borough of Derby, the Road Safety Advisory Committee, the East Mackworth Tenants' Association—and they represent the people who use this road—and the Chief Constable, to name only a few of those concerned, recommend that this road should not be derestricted. But it has been derestricted by the Ministry.

According to a letter addressed to the Town Clerk of Derby the road has been derestricted because, quoting 1954, the density of traffic was only six vehicles per minute. I do not know whether the Minister is aware that there has been a great increase in the number of houses in the area. I suggest that it would not be unreasonable to assume that ten vehicles a minute use the road now.

In reply to the Town Clerk the Minister, or the Ministry, said on 23rd August that there was no evidence of congestion. I mention this only because the question of congestion had never arisen. It would appear that at the Ministry there is some misunderstanding of the situation. Again, in a letter which the Parliamentary Secretary was good enough to send to me on 23rd August he said: Traffic is not heavy, a little over 5 vehicles a minute, that with patience pedestrians need find it very difficult to cross. I imagine that this letter must have been written for him; I do not think that the Parliamentary Secretary could possibly have read it. Surely it is shocking to say that pedestrians need not find it very difficult to cross the road, if they have patience.

There is one feature which I. as a motorist, do not understand. All of us in Derby are asking that this road should be restricted. As a motorist I know that it is safer not to have roads where the speed limit does not apply. There is a greater possibility of accidents if a road is not restrictive. The Minister nods. Only in the air can it be said that speed is a safety measure. We all have our tongues in our cheeks if we say that by having speed we can avoid accidents and incidents.

We are asking that the speed limit should be imposed on this road. My right hon. Friend talked about the number of accidents in the country last year. It is a shocking fact that probably we lost more killed on the roads than Great Britain, France, Israel, Egypt and, possibly, Hungary have lost in war, or massacre, during the last month. I make this request to the Minister. If he does not feel able to give an assurance that this road will be restricted, I ask him to come to Derby or to send a representative there and to hold a public inquiry. He should allow the mothers of Derby's children living on this road to come to the inquiry. Let these various organisations, including the police, say what they think on the subject.

I honestly do not believe that in this case—I have examined it very carefully—any Minister or his representative in London can know as well as the people on the spot do what should happen on that piece of road. In view of the deaths which occur on that road, surely it is the Minister's responsibility to take into account the recommendations of the various bodies which have examined the matter.

10.20 p.m.

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

The right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. P. Noel-Baker) has dealt with the matter on general grounds. He used harsh words about my right hon. Friend and myself when he said that we approach the matter of road safety with complacency. I hardly think he will complain if when I express my right hon. Friend's point of view about the matter, I do so with equal plainness.

The Ministry of Transport was established in this country in order, amongst other things, to ensure that there was instituted and maintained throughout the country national standards upon the roads. This is especially necessary on trunk roads like the one under discussion.

The hon. and gallant Member for Derby, North (Group Captain Wilcock) has referred to the fact that the local authorities may be more familiar with the local conditions than we in London can be. That does not alter the fact that there are certain general principles which have been laid down, and which we seek to apply throughout the country. In this case, it is not necessary for me to rely either on the Department in London or, even, on the Divisional Road Engineer. Until less than two years ago, I lived in Ashbourne, and used to drive on this road every Friday and every Sunday afternoon. Therefore, I am familiar with the problem, and I am personally in agreement with the advice which has been given to us by the Divisional Road Engineer.

It is the case that, without exception—I think I may say "without exception"; certainly, it is with very few exceptions—local authorities are always in favour of the imposition of speed restriction. It is not always the case, however, that the speed restriction will result in a reduction in the number of accidents.

The right hon. Gentleman has referred to the time when he occupied a position similar to mine in the Ministry of War Transport. When he was Chairman of the Committee on Road Safety, he indicated what he thought were the right lines upon which speed restrictions should be imposed. He said, in paragraph 81 of the 1944 Report of the Committee on Road Safety: If the speed limit is to be effective it must be applied with discretion so that it will attract the respect, goodwill and co-operation of the public. In the following paragraph, he said: Restriction of speed should not be imposed if the desired effect can be achieved by other means. We suggest, for example … (c) On important traffic routes the speed limit should not be imposed for the convenience of frontagers: access to the carriageway should, as far as possible, be restricted by means of guard rails and crossings at a separate level, or traffic might be controlled by means of a co-ordinated system of traffic signals. The right hon. Gentleman thus clearly indicated that it was not an answer to the problem of traffic on a straight road to impose a speed limit.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

I indicated that it was one of the things that ought to be done in proper cases. It ought to be done with discretion. Has the right hon. Gentleman done any of the things which he read out in that quotation?

Mr. Molson

I shall come to that point later. I am merely indicating now that just to impose a speed limit on a straight trunk road to which there are very few accesses is, according to the right hon. Gentleman's own Report, not the right way to deal with the problem.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

Not necessarily the right way.

Mr. Molson

In 1949 the right hon. Gentleman's successor, the hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) was Chairman of the same Committee. He went into the matter again, and in paragraph 7 of the 1949 Report of the Committee on Road Safety, he said: ' A speed limit should never be imposed, however, unless there is clear justification for it: otherwise, drivers tend to disregard it and this inevitably creates difficulties for the Police, as well as tending to bring the whole system of speed limits into disrepute. In our view, the effectiveness of any measure such as a speed limit depends primarily on the willing co-operation of drivers. This road, with which I am so familiar, stretches for a distance of about 2,000 yards. On the north side there is no development at all. On the south side. Prince Charles Avenue comes into it in the middle, and that is where a number of accidents have taken place. On the stretch which my right hon. Friend derestricted, after the lighting had been put up, there is no vehicular access at all. There is only one access for pedestrians. The further length of road, which the hon. and gallant Member for Derby. North desired to see restricted, has no access of any kind.

This is a clear example of a road on the outskirts of a town where, although there is housing development on one side of the road, the planning of it has been good; where as a result there is only one vehicular access and one pedestrian access, and in the rest of which there is no access at all. On the other side there is no development of any kind. It is a clear example of a road—in accordance with the principles laid down by the Road Safety Committee at the time when the right hon. Member for Derby, South presided over it and subsequently when this problem was again considered under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East—which is entirely suitable for fast moving traffic and where the development on the south side of the road has been so planned that there is no need for a speed limit to be applied.

Group Captain Wilcock

Would not the accident rate show that all the Ministers concerned are entirely wrong?

Mr. Molson

The hon. and gallant Member will have an opportunity of discussing that with his right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South and of explaining to him that he fell into error and that afterwards the hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East followed him into the same error.

Group Captain Wilcock

And the hon. Member as well.

Mr. Molson

I resented the tone of the right hon. Gentleman's reference to some of these accidents. For example, he has complained to my right hon. Friend that while he was considering the position, a cyclist was killed."—OFFICIAL REPORT. 14th November, 1956; Vol. 560, c. 939.] That was at a time when the 30 m.p.h. speed limit was still in operation.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

That is no reason for removing it.

Mr. Molson

Yes, indeed it is. The motorist in question was convicted of driving to the danger of the public. He was driving at the rate of 45 miles an hour, was fined £10 and had his driving licence endorsed. What is the use of imposing a 30 m.p.h. speed limit when the fatal accident which took place was due to the motorist ignoring the speed limit? I am sure he would have been convicted in exactly the same way of driving to the danger of the public, even if there had not been a speed limit.

The right hon. Gentleman complained about other accidents. He said: "Three weeks ago a child aged seven ran out into the road." When a child of 7 runs into the road, it does not make much difference whether there is a 30 m.p.h. speed limit or not. If the right hon. Gentleman will be good enough to look at the Highway Code he will find a calculation there that a car with good brakes, on a good surface, travelling at 30 m.p.h., takes 45 ft. to pull up. That is why, when we are dealing with road safety, as I have been lately—and I have gone about in the "Mind That Child" campaign—we have urged upon parents not to regard a 30 m.p.h. speed limit as a safeguard, but to see that very young children are under the care of some older and more responsible person.

Thirdly, the right hon. Gentleman referred to another accident which occurred to an old lady. She stepped out from behind a bus from which she had just alighted. The fourth case he referred to was that of an old lady, aged 80, who was killed by a bus. A bus, in any case is subject to a speed limit of 30 m.p.h.; therefore it makes not the slightest difference whether there is a 30 m.p.h. limit or not on the road.

The right hon. Gentleman also referred to the case of a motor cyclist being killed. I have no record of that accident and therefore have not the opportunity of giving an explanation of it.

The accidents to which I have referred and have explained all illustrate the fact that it is a complete non sequitur to say, as the right hon. Member and the hon. and gallant Member opposite have done, that because there are a number of accidents upon a road it necessarily makes the imposition of a 30 m.p.h. speed limit desirable.

We are concerned about the number of accidents upon this road, although it is not larger than takes place on many roads of a similar kind in all parts of the country. It is for that reason that we are putting up a concrete post and chain link fence from Kingsway to Prince Charles Avenue. We aim in that way to keep pedestrians from infiltrating on to the road from the housing estate. As the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, we are also building a footpath 6 ft. wide on the south side. These are measures which should structurally improve the road. We hope they will result in a reduction of accidents.

I am bound to say that I have thought it right to deal with this matter in an outspoken manner, although perhaps no more outspoken than the tone in which the right hon. Gentleman criticised my right hon. Friend and myself, and I think it desirable to make it quite plain that the principles laid down by the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend when they occupied my position have been justified and confirmed by experience. For that reason we see no reason to depart from them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.