HC Deb 21 April 1959 vol 604 cc322-8
Mr. Blenkinsop

I beg to move, in page 84, line 7, at the end, to add: (2) Any rural district council or parish council may erect and maintain direction posts of such size and type as may be approved by the council in or adjacent to public footpaths (not being footpaths at the side of a highway repairable by the inhabitants at large) and bridlepaths with the consent of the owner in fee simple of the land on which it is proposed to erect the same and of any person having the control or management of such land. The exercise of these powers shall be subject to the provisions of the Road Traffic Acts, 1930 to 1956, and to any regulations made or any general or other directions given by the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation in pursuance of the said provisions. Unfortunately, this is not a Privilege Amendment and, presumably, will not be treated in as privileged a way as an earlier Amendment which my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) so successfully managed to drive into this granite Bill. I am, however, encouraged by my hon. Friend's remarks. It is possible, or has been possible, to make Amendments in the Bill provided that they refer, apparently, to the planting of trees.

Although there are a number of words to it, this is a modest proposal that parish and rural district councils should have the right, not to plant trees, but to put up direction signs in suitable places for footpaths. I do not see why, if parish councils can properly be given power to plant trees, they should not be given power to put up a modest number of direction signs—not a lot of them, because I do not like too many of them—for footpaths. To use the words of a famous book which, I hope, most of us have read, the Bill becomes "curiouser and curiouser" as we go along.

In many cases, the Bill is re-enacting various provisions that have become general usage in Private Acts of Parliament which have been generally accepted by local authorities throughout the country. All that the Amendment does is to put into this legislation proposals that have been accepted by a large number of county councils and other authorities in their Private Acts. It has been accepted by so many local authorities as to become almost standard practice, and I am now only giving the Parliamentary Secretary a little shove to encourage him to make it standard practice.

These provisions are contained in almost identical words in the Kent Act, 1955, the Gloucester Act, 1956, the Hertfordshire Act, 1935, the Cumberland Act, 1948, the West Riding of Yorkshire Act, 1941, the Nottinghamshire Act, 1951, the Berkshire Act, 1953, the Cheshire Act, 1953, and the Derbyshire Act, 1954. It seems impressive that all these notable local authorities should have found it desirable to take powers to enable parish and rural councils to put up direction signs, where they desire them, for footpaths.

In view of that great evidence of desirability, and of the success of my hon. Friend—a success that should not stand alone in this field—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will gladden all our hearts by now jumping up and saying that in this case he feels that direction signs, like trees, should have his special protection and support, and that he is prepared to agree to this modest Amendment.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

My hon. Friend's acceptance of the Amendment, either now or on Report, would be gratefully received in many parts of the country. People are having a lot of difficulty in keeping footpaths open—indeed, they are forcing their way through undergrowth to make sure that the footpaths are kept for the public. A signpost put up in many parts of the country, as they have been Yorkshire and Berkshire, would be a valuable means of keeping open the footpaths. Ramblers are in favour of this Amendment, so perhaps my hon. Friend can tell us that he hopes, on Report, to find a way of accepting it.

Mr. Nugent

I agree that direction signs for footpaths across country are very convenient indeed, and that it is easy to get lost without them. I also concede the claim of the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop) that this provision is found in much local legislation. I congratulate him on the thoroughness of his research, which enabled him to enumerate the good company in which it is found. Even so, I am unable to advise the Committee to accept his Amendment.

I feel particularly persuaded by the consideration that was given by the Reading Committee, to the general problem, and by the comment made in paragraph 57 of its Report in regard not to this particular Amendment, but to something not substantially dissimilar. In that paragraph, the Committee said: …we felt that as Parliament had granted additional powers to parish councils as recently as 1957 in the Parish Councils Act of that year, it would not be right for this Bill… In the light of that comment, I find it difficult to advise the Committee to accept the Amendment, sensible though it is in itself. I did not take part in the deliberations on that Bill. Why this Amendment was not made then I have no idea, but I feel that, in the circumstances, as this matter has been so very recently and fully discussed by the House, which decided to leave the law as it is—by which local Acts can provide for it if local authorities wish to do so—the right thing is to leave the law as it is.

I am only sorry that the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East was not himself a member of the Joint Select Committee, on which he could have exercised his persuasive powers with, perhaps, success equal to that of his hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies). In the circumstances that I have described, I feel that acceptance of the Amendment would be contrary to the spirit of the Report of the Committee, as I understand it. Whatever personal sympathies I may feel, that Report must be my guiding light in carrying this Measure through the Committee, and advising hon. Members how we should proceed. Reluctantly, therefore, I must ask the Committee to reject the Amendment.

Mr. Ede

The rubric to the Clause indicates that it reproduces Section 24 of the Highways Act, 1835, and for the sake of greater accuracy I have provided myself with a copy of that Section. It reads: The surveyor of every parish, other than a parish the whole or part of which is within three miles of the General Post Office of the city of London, shall, with the consent of the inhabitants of any parish in vestry assembled, or by the direction of the justices at a special sessions for the highways, cause (where there are no such stones or posts) to be erected or fixed in the most convenient place where two or more ways meet, a stone or post, with inscriptions thereon in large legible letters, not less than one inch in height, and of a proper and proportionate breadth, containing the name of the next market town, village or other place to which the said highways respectively lead, as well as stones or posts to mark the boundaries of the highway. containing the name of the parish wherein situate; and the surveyor of every parish shall, at the several approaches or entrances to such parts of any highways as are subject to deep or dangerous floods, cause to be erected graduated stones or posts as he shall judge to be necessary for the guiding of travellers in the best and safest track through the floods, and also to secure horse causeways and foot causeways, by posts, blocks, or stones fixed in the ground, or by banks of earth cast up or otherwise, from being passed over and spoiled by waggons, wains, carts, or carriages; and the said surveyor shall he reimbursed, out of the monies which shall be received by him pursuant to the directions of this Act, the expenses of providing and erecting and of keeping in repair such stones, posts. or blocks already erected or fixed, or which may hereafter be erected or fixed. When one sees the abbreviated form in which Section 24 now appears in the Bill, I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary: what happened to the rest of it? While recognising that some of it is now archaic, it is important that there should be a clear understanding of it. As far as I know, until tonight it has been the duty of the highway authority, which has succeeded the parish surveyor, to erect a post with the kind of information thereon which is prescribed in that Section.

For the purposes of the Highways Act, 1835, a footpath was a highway, and as far as I know it still is. It would be of the utmost help to people going on their way, whether by car or by use of a footpath, to be certain that the direction post gives the sort of information prescribed in the 1835 Act.

I hope that the proper marking of signposts will be among the matters which the Parliamentary Secretary will note as requiring legislation in the amending Bill about which he has been negotiating with my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East. I hope that the question of the signposting of roads where two or more ways meet will be regarded by the Ministry as of the utmost importance.

Mr. Blenkinsop

After hearing my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), it is perfectly clear to me, if to no one else, that my proposal is modest in the extreme compared with the changes that have apparently been made at an earlier stage. I find it impossible to accept the Parliamentary Secretary's view that there is something completely and utterly sacrosanct about the form of the Bill and that we should not make modest proposals which have the general good will of hon. Members on both sides. I appeal to the hon. Gentleman not to make heavy weather of these very modest proposals and to agree that we are merely clearing up the provisions which seem to have been desired in the days when the original Act was passed. I hope that he will take that point into account when he replies.

Mr. Ernest Davies

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary must be a most unhappy man. Again, in speaking to this Amendment, he has made it quite clear that he sympathises with its purpose. He said so. He favours it and supports it. He himself is a countryman who walks around the countryside and requires these signposts. He considers that parish councils should provide them.

Having said all that in support of the Amendment, he proceeds to reject it. Our proceedings are becoming quite a farce. Hon. Members who have had the ingenuity to put down these Amendments and all we have discussed so far have been very reasonable. It is ridiculous that the hon. Gentleman should tell hon. Members that he supports them, that the law should be so-and-so but we cannot have them. It is quite extraordinary that parish councils have not got these powers today. They had the powers which my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) read from the Act, which this Measure will supplant and in a great number of local Acts these powers are readily granted. As, from year to year, they are incorporated in local Acts, I cannot see any force in the argument that because there was general legislation in 1957 an Amendment of this type cannot be made to this Bill.

The suggested extension of powers of parish councils to which the Joint Parliamentary Secretary referred in quoting paragraph 57 of the Report of the Reading Committee went much further than this Amendment. The Committee was considering giving powers to parish councils to improve and maintain footpaths. That was something which would go further than merely power to put up signs for footpaths. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary must salve his conscience. He cannot allow his conscience to get into the state into which it must be getting at present. He should consider whether when we have finished the Committee stage we can postpone further consideration of the Bill and have a Report stage in which these minor Amendments can be considered. Perhaps he will consult the Minister and see whether that is possible.

Mr. Nugent

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) for his consideration for my conscience. Certainly, my conscience is clear, although I am very conscious of having my withers wrung on all sides— [Laughter.] By both sides, certainly at the back of my withers. It seems ungrateful to keep having to say, "No" to a proposal which in itself has much to commend it.

It is true that I walk about the countryside and, in another capacity, have responsibility for footpaths in my parish. For many years I have been chairman of my parish council. I am continually interested in seeing that the footpaths are kept open, a task which, as the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) will recollect, in Surrey is by no means an easy one. In answer to his interesting researches about the 1835 Act, I have discovered that the powers of the surveyor have devolved on highway authorities and the powers and duties of highway authorities with regard to the erection of direction posts—that is, traffic signs—are covered by provisions of the Road Traffic Acts.

Therefore, they are not reproduced here, but, as a matter of interest, in Clause 105 there is part of the 1835 Act, an interesting part. It is the provision of posts to indicate the depth of flood water. So at least we have part of the historical record still preserved. I only hope that flood water will not appear on the roads and require posts to indicate its depth.

I am not able to go further, despite the eloquent plea of the hon. Mem- ber for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop), than to say that this point will be recorded and will be considered for the future when we reach the substantive legislation. Personally, I sympathise with its merit.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. Blenkinsop

In view of the assurance that I have been given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 105 to 126 ordered to stand part of the Bill.