HC Deb 28 April 1958 vol 587 cc153-60

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Walter Edwards (Stepney)

I am sure everyone will agree that the House has had an interesting time today. In the first place, we had a debate on important Commonwealth economic affairs and, subsequently, we had a debate on the National Health Service. After that I come to what may be described as a local matter, but it is one which I view with great concern, and I sincerely hope that the Ministry of Transport will take note of what I say.

As the Minister knows, the debate concerns a recommendation by the Commissioner of Police for London that there should be one-way traffic in two streets in my constituency. The recommendation, which I understand is supported by the Minister of Transport, is that there should be one-way traffic through Cable Street and The Highway in the Stepney parliamentary constituency. One of the reasons given for this proposal by the Commissioner of the Police, which, I understand from correspondence, is supported by the Minister of Transport, is that it would ensure a better traffic flow, and a second reason is that it would improve road safety.

As a result of a Question which I put to the Minister some time ago I have found that at least the second of the reasons bears no weight at all. If the Joint Parliamentary Secretary looks at the figures which were given to me, he will find that there was one fatal accident in these two streets in 1957, five were seriously injured and 34 were slightly injured. These compare with the figures for 1956, when there were two fatal accidents, 11 were seriously injured and 47 were slightly injured. Obviously, the idea behind the proposal for one-way traffic is not so much to improve road safety as to deal with the traffic flow.

I know this area very well. There is no less than 1¼ miles of Cable Street, if we add Royal Mint Street to it, and no less than 1¼ miles of The Highway, if we add East Smithfield to it. The pavements are not as narrow in this area as in Cable Street. Clearly, the proposal by the Commissioner of Police is that over one mile in each steet shall be made one-way traffic because of a small bottleneck in Cable Street. The small bottleneck is caused by the inefficiency of the Ministry of Transport, because for the last fifty years the local authorities have been trying, unsuccessfully, to get the road widened.

I want to return to the safety of the old people and children in the area. In reply to a supplementary question that I put to him recently, the Parliamentary Secretary told me that he had been down, and that his visit had convinced him that the pavements were narrow, and that, therefore, one-way working was justified. I can only say that when other Ministers have visited my constituency they have had the courtesy to tell me that they were coming, and have, perhaps, invited me to accompany them. I did the same when I was a Minister, and I think that it was extremely rude of the Parliamentary Secretary to pay this special visit without notifying me. That, however, is not the seriousness of my complaint.

I have already quoted figures to show that road safety is not the main reason here. I say quite definitely that the only reason for this proposal is to speed up the traffic in Cable Street and East Smithfield, regardless of the safety of the pedestrians who have to cross the road. I know this area much better than does the hon. Gentleman, after his one visit, and I know that if, as a result of one-way traffic in Cable Street and The Highway, there are more fatal accidents than there were in 1957, his will be the blame.

I am very concerned about what will happen. The Parliamentary Secretary knows quite well that, despite pressure from the Ministry and the Commissioner of Police, the people who ought to know, the members of the local authorities, have objected to this proposal for the last three years. They have not objected because they want to stop the flow of traffic, but because they want to save the lives of men, women and children in that district.

The hon. Gentleman will not be doing the road safety part of his job properly if he advises his Minister to give consent to the recommendation of the Commissioner of Police for this project. If it is carried out, parts of Cable Street that are comparatively wide, and parts of The Highway that are wider still, will be subject to one-way traffic for over a mile in a residential area, in streets which are not wide enough for a refuge to be put in the middle of the road to help people in getting halfway across. This, obviously, must mean more danger for those who have to cross the road. If there is one-way traffic in a street, the traffic must go faster, and the faster it goes the more difficult it is for even able-bodied people to dodge it, let alone children and old-age pensioners.

Another thing has happened since the Minister more or less agreed to give his consent to the proposal to the Commissioner of Police. A large number of children from the Wapping district, now over the age of 11, have now, as a result of educational reorganisation, to go across both these streets on their way to their schools. This will give rise to added danger.

I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to look at the matter again. I assure him that he is likely to cause serious danger on these roads, simply because of an attempt to overcome a bottleneck which occurs only at the top end of Cable Street near Leman Street and Dock Street. Apart from that, there is not so much difficulty for traffic. In any case, what matters first is the saving of lives. The flow of traffic comes second.

The Parliamentary Secretary should know as well as I do that local authorities in the Stepney area have, for fifty years, been trying to get Cable Street widened to make it a suitable street for traffic to pass through. For a lesser number of years, there has been agitation to get East Smithfield widened to provide for a reasonable flow of traffic. Both those schemes are now nearer fruition than they have ever been. In any event, there has been more advance made in The Highway scheme in its short life than in the Cable Street scheme during over fifty years of agitation.

If the Minister will assure me that he will not make this rash experiment until those two road schemes are put into operation, I shall be prepared to agree that he would be entitled then to apply the experiment. He has no right now to apply the experiment. I am certain from my own knowledge, and from what people who live in the area tell me, that it will be a very dangerous experiment. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to hold his hand and ask the Commissioner of Police to wait until he has much better justification for his proposal than appears to be the case today.

10.15 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

I have listened to the hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards) very closely. Let me assure him straight away that my visit to Stepney was not by any means intended to be an affront to him, but quite the reverse. I hope he will understand that if I informed every hon. Member who represents a London constituency every time I visit his constituency I should be informing half a dozen or a dozen every day, because I am often going round road schemes in London. Last Friday I must have gone through, I should think, at least twelve constituencies in London. I went there with the police to see on the spot what the physical conditions were. Had I been doing anything in a public way, I should have informed the hon. Member, as I always do when I go to an individual hon. Member's constituency. I hope he will not feel that I meant any affront to him.

We have, in fact, delayed this order. We have not made the order yet, and my right hon. Friend the Minister has delayed it until after tonight because, although we thought that this order should be made, we felt, and I felt particularly, that we should wait until after I had heard the hon. Member tonight to see whether a fresh reason came out of the debate to cause us to change our mind. Although I sympathise with the hon. Member's sincerity and with the strength of his convictions, I still do not feel that we should be deterred from making this experiment.

I will give a word of explanation to him for my feeling. I accept, with the hon. Gentleman—who knows Stepney much better than I do—that the problems of Cable Street and The Highway have been under consideration for many years and are likely to continue to be under consideration for many more years. I only wish that I could accept his suggestion that nothing should be done here until these streets are widened. If they were both widened, there would be no need to do anything, but one of the reasons why we feel something should be done is that in parts the streets are so narrow. I find when I look into the matter that the problems in connection with these two streets have considerably worsened in post-war yeras, particularly since 1955. Questions have been asked in the House and many other representations have been made outside, particularly about the Tower Bridge approaches, and the one-way systems proposed in these two streets will knit up with a greatly improved system at the Tower Bridge approaches.

Mr. Edwards

I go by the Tower Bridge approach every day. If the hon. Gentleman has been there recently, it may have been a busy day. But I can assure him that when I went across Tower Bridge and Tower Hill this morning there was no traffic difficulty whatsoever. These are only occasional occurrences. I do not blame the police for emphasising them, but it is only now and again that this trouble occurs. I do not see why the Minister should put my constituency in danger as a result of that.

Mr. Nugent

If I thought I was doing so, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I would be deterred. But I emphasise that at the peak periods, morning and evening, the Tower Bridge approaches can become very congested indeed, and that is one of the considerations, but not the only one, that we should take into account.

I certainly do not understand the opposition of the Stepney Borough Council to this proposal for the last three or four years, basically on the grounds of road safety, which the hon. Gentleman has eloquently expressed tonight. He and the borough council feel that the increased speed of traffic will be dangerous to the local residents. I know that they feel that perhaps we could have solved the difficulty with a lower speed limit. I do not think that that is possible. On the contrary, we not only expect an improved traffic flow, but also improved road safety. I agree that that is a matter of opinion, because no one can prove it until it has happened.

The present accident figures to which the hon. Gentleman referred, although they show a downward trend for 1956 and 1957, are still alarmingly high. Not only are they high, but they are unusually high in the incidence of accidents to pedestrians on the pavement. Taking the accident picture in cities, and in London in particular, the number of accidents to people on the pavements in these streets is exceptionally high. This result, I have no doubt, is to some extent due not only to the narrowness of these streets, but also to the narrowness of parts of the pavement.

These roads, as the hon. Member knows, are used by a large number of heavy vehicles, increasingly so in the last ten years. When these vehicles are passing each other, both moving, they must leave a certain amount of freeboard between them. There is bound to be, at the narrower points where the pavement is also narrow a certain danger to pedestrians on the pavement. The pavements are narrow and the street is in parts only about 18 ft. wide. Sometimes the overhang of a large vehicle actually overhangs the pavement. I agree that this does not apply over the whole distance, but it is one of the features in that neighbourhood.

On the other hand, waiting vehicles sometimes oblige the opposing flow of traffic to mount the pavement in order to pass each other. Certainly, our experience with one-way streets elsewhere in London does not confirm the fears of the hon. Member and of the Stepney Borough Council that there will he excessive speeds and increased accidents, but rather the reverse.

Traffic flow is certainly an important feature that we must always have in mind. Every vehicle that moves is a danger, but we live in an age of movement and speed—we cannot avoid it. There is no doubt that traffic is often held up there due to waiting vehicles blocking half the street. Then, one lane of traffic is held up while the other flows through. Somebody gets impatient and there is a delay. Not only is there loss of time, but, human nature being what it is, when there are delays there is loss of temper, too. Human judgment goes to the wind, and there is then a fruitful cause of accidents.

One of the points I wish to make to the hon. Member is that traffic delays are the enemies of load safety. They are not only the enemies of industry and commerce, but the enemies of road safety, too, because they put the drivers in the wrong frame of mind to be cautious and sensible.

I have mentioned the Tower Bridge approach, where there are many conflicting traffic movements which we can improve by a one-way system. These two streets, which run parallel for about 1½ miles, only a short distance apart, with a number of interconnecting streets, have a promising lay-out for a one-way system. I assure the hon. Member that we have much experience of trying one-way streets. Our divisional road engineers, the Metropolitan Police, the City Police and all of us have a great deal of experience of where one-way streets will be of benefit and advantage and where they will not. In the light of that experience, we really believe that this experiment will be a benefit in this particular place, and not a danger and the reverse of a benefit as the hon. Member fears.

There will be safeguards. The experiment is for only six months to start with. It will be closely watched both by the police and by our divisional road engineer's staff to see how it works. If there are any unexpected difficulties or dangers, we can stop the experiment at any time. After six months, it will be continued only if we are satisfied that there has been real benefit from it, only if the hon. Member's fears and anxieties have been proved unfounded by experience.

Before starting we shall put up plenty of signs, of course, which will show what the new directions are. We shall also as far as possible explain to the local people what is intended and what the experiment will entail so that they will understand just what is involved. I should think all that will take two or three months before we shall be ready to start it.

I quite agree with the hon. Gentleman that one of the main dangers to pedestrians is crossing traffic, but there is some advantage, if one is having to cross traffic, in having to cross it in only one direction, for then one has only one way to look. At the present time pedestrians there have to look both ways.

Mr. Edwards

It is not difficult to see, because the road is not wide.

Mr. Nugent

I agree it is narrow, but it is certainly an advantage to have to look one way only.

I think that Stepney Borough Council really can be assured that its view has been considered fully and at length over the last three years, not only by my right hon. Friend but by his predecessor as well. Everybody has thought about this, and a large number of experts have come to the conclusion that it is right that we should try it. Stepney Borough Council, as the hon. Member will know, has won the reputation for itself on traffic matters of being somewhat independent. That can be a credit, but not if it is carried to a point where it handicaps the traffic interests of its neighbours and of the metropolis as a whole. It then becomes the reverse. I am sure the hon. Member does not wish it to be so, but wishes Stepney to be in the lead as a good neighbour and generally to make its contribution to the improvement of traffic conditions and to the general benefit of road safety as well, because traffic congestions are the enemy of road safety.

I ask the hon. Member to think again, to accept that there are sound reasons for this, that it has been given much consideration, and that his fear that we are prepared to risk the interests of the safety of his constituents is really unfounded. I am continuously concerned with road safety matters, and I should certainly not agree to this if I thought it would add to the dangers. I am persuaded that it will reduce the dangers and improve the traffic movement. I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept my assurance, and to give the scheme a trial. We shall watch it closely, and if we are wrong we shall change it. Our experience elsewhere is that this kind of experiment has positive advantages for safety and traffic generally, and I ask the hon. Member to accept the assurance that I have given him.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.