HC Deb 03 November 1959 vol 612 cc987-98

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

10.15 p.m.

Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett (Croydon, North-East)

One of the remarkable features of the House of Commons is the speed with which it can turn from debating great affairs to the consideration of comparative details. Unfortunately, the process is one which is accompanied by a certain amount of noise. However, I hope that I have positioned myself close enough to the Government Front Bench for my points to be heard.

I rise to call attention to certain difficulties which have, unfortunately, arisen in my constituency in connection with the control of traffic. Although the examples which I shall give are taken exclusively from my constituency, I have no reason to doubt that similar problems arise in any urban area, or, perhaps I should say, any suburban area.

Perhaps I might at this stage say that I wonder whether to congratulate or to commiserate with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary on his having exchanged the exciting realm of air traffic for the tremendous drudgery of administering the roads and the traffic connected with them.

Under the existing law the responsibility for establishing such things as traffic lights, roundabouts or pedestrian crossings is one that is shared between the Minister of Transport and the local authority. I dare say that my right hon. Friend would prefer to have a more centralised arrangement. However, that is something which cannot be pursued tonight as it would involve legislation. We have to take the law as we find it and do our best to make it work.

My first complaint is that the existing machinery is not working at all satisfactorily. Indeed, I submit that the degree of control which the Ministry of Transport is seeking to exercise is excessive and unreasonable. It seems to us in Croydon that the Ministry officials wish to have it all their own way and to override or ignore the views of the local councillors who serve on the highways committee. I do not know whether it is generally realised, but not even a halt-sign can be erected without permission from Whitehall, and I am advised that such permission is not willingly or quickly given.

The consequences that follow this reluctance to delegate to local authorities have been most strikingly illustrated in the case of a single road junction in my constituency. For the sake of the record, and for that only, I am referring to the junction between Spring Lane and the Lower Addiscombe Road.

The story, which began over five years ago, can be briefly summarised. It was in June, 1954, that the accident prevention committee of the council instructed the borough engineer to prepare alternative plans for a roundabout or traffic lights at the junction. There followed informal discussions, I understand, between the council's officers and the Ministry, as a result of which plans for a roundabout only were submitted. However, in April of the following year the council gave instructions that proposals for traffic lights were to be submitted to the Ministry, and in May, 1955, the Ministry was informed that the council was not prepared to accept a roundabout.

Then a very considerable delay followed, partly, I think it fair to say, due to financial restrictions which came into force about that time, and it was not until July, 1957, that the Ministry's formal approval was again sought for traffic lights. In November, 1957, the Ministry replied suggesting that there should be a roundabout. In January, 1958, the council reiterated its preference for traffic lights. It followed that up in May of the same year by more detailed proposals accompanied by estimates of the cost.

In September, 1958, the Ministry again suggested a roundabout. In October, 1958, the council again confirmed its preference for traffic lights and it was in January of this year that the town clerk wrote to me and asked if I could persuade the Minister to receive a deputation.

As a result of this, in February of this year, my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Nugent), who was then the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, in fact received a deputation of the councillors concerned. As anybody who knows my hon. Friend will realise, he listened with the greatest patience and courtesy to all the arguments, which I may say, were deployed at considerable length. But all to no avail because, after four months had rolled by, the then Joint Parliamentary Secretary wrote to me, in June of this year, to confirm that the Ministry still insisted on a roundabout. In the following month the Ministry was informed by the council (hat it did not intend to construct a roundabout and there the matter stands to this day. So we see that a period of live years' argument has resulted in nothing whatever being achieved.

This is not an entirely isolated case. Similar difficulties are occurring both at another junction a short distance away and just outside my constituency and with regard to certain additional pedestrian crossings which the council would like to erect. More than that, no less than 500—in fact more than 500—of my constituents recently petitioned the council for the establishment of two additional pedestrian crossings in Long Lane. But, as far as I can understand, the council is afraid even to suggest that to the Ministry because the yardstick of the number of people who cross the road at a given time is much higher than actually prevails.

Unless and until the law is changed I respectfully submit that my right hon. Friend ought to be more willing to defer to local opinion, to the opinion of the local authority. By all means let his officials warn, by all means let his officials advise. Let us also ensure that the views of the Ministry are laid clearly and properly before the council before it takes a decision. But after all that has been done, and if a local authority still sticks to its particular project, I submit that unless there is an overriding reason to the contrary, the Ministry should agree. We on this side of the House stand for greater local authority in local affairs.

My second point concerns the nature of the policy on which the Ministry often insist particularly with regard to a preference for roundabouts over traffic lights. The Croydon Council in its final letter in connection with the junction to which I have been referring told the Ministry it felt that the desire of the Ministry is to speed the flow of traffic at all costs. That is to say, regardless of safety. Let me say at once that I do not believe that to be so, I would not accept that for a moment. But at the same time it is undoubtedly the fact that the dangers which local councillors apprehend from establishing a roundabout at this type of junction has been recently and tragically illustrated at another junction not more than a mile from the one to which I have been referring. It is a junction where, I think, three roads meet the Addiscombe Road and where a roundabout has been established. Already there have been a number of accidents, one, unhappily, a fatal accident. I have no doubt that had a properly worked out scheme of lights been fitted at this junction it would have been cheaper and safer.

It only remains to ask why it is that the Ministry's experts insist on roundabouts rather than traffic lights and so rashly oppose the establishment of additional pedestrian crossings when these are asked for. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will correct me if I am wrong, but I think the reason may lie in an altogether false assumption about the speed of traffic. Can it be that because these roads lie inside a controlled area the Ministry's experts imagine that the traffic proceeds at a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour? I assure the House that that is not the case. Everybody must recognise that a 30 mile per hour limit is not seriously enforced—one might almost say not enforced at all—in areas of this sort.

In suburban areas, especially during the silent hours, the bulk of the traffic proceeds at what I think is commonly called the speed of the road, which is much nearer 50 miles an hour than 30. That being so, roundabouts which were established in comparatively narrow roads, and at junctions where there would be no concensus of opinion as to which was the major road, become exceedingly dangerous when entered by vehicles travelling at high speed. In the same way, pedestrian crossings which might not be needed if the speed of the traffic was limited to 30 miles an hour become essential for elderly people and children when higher speeds are used on the roads.

I do not make any pretence of being any more law-abiding with the speed limits than the average motorist. After all, the time that one wastes on the roads in the more central districts, which as a rule are choked by parked cars, naturally induces a certain sense of impatience and tempts people to speed up when they get to areas when the roads are clearer. Nevertheless, I will support any decision to enforce speed limits rigidly, provided the enforcements are universal and uniform. Although it does not lie with my right hon. Friend and his Department to see that the law is enforced, I beg him to accept traffic lights in urban districts rather than roundabouts because they are very much safer.

I very much regret that the first intervention that I have made in a transport debate since my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) became Minister should be in such a critical vein, but I know he will acquit me of any intention to attack him personally in any way. Having said that, I repeat that these matters are causing grave concern to the public and a growing sense of dissatisfaction among the councillors who give their time to this sort of work. I would be failing in my duty if I did not bring this matter to the notice of Parliament. Indeed, when I was canvassing during the recent election I found that the danger on the roads was the biggest—and I would almost say out and away the biggest—issue which is troubling the average elector in a place such as Croydon.

10.29 p.m.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker (Derby, South)

I rise to say a few sentences in support of what the hon. and gallant Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett) has said. I agree that the officials in Whitehall exercise too strict a control over the local authorities. They ought to rely more on the judgment of the people in the local areas who understand the position, who give their minds to it all the time, and whose duty it is to protect the public of their towns and boroughs from dangers which arise. I hope that the Minister will look into this in the spirit which the hon. and gallant Member has suggested.

The hon. and gallant Member has told us a tragic story about a certain road junction in Croydon. I could give a story almost identical about a road junction on the Nottingham road in Derby, and there are other junctions in my constituency and Derby, North where, in my view, traffic lights are most urgently required.

I could tell a story about the Ashbourne Road, which came to be known as the "Murder Mile" before certain engineering works were carried out after a long period during which I agitated on the question in the House. We were promised a speed limit of 40 m.p.h. on that road eighteen months ago. Still nothing is done. I know, if I may use the term, the bureaucratic reason for that delay, but the delay is wholly unjustifiable and the Ministry ought to do what all the local authorities, including the chief constable, still desire, namely, impose not a 40 m.p.h. but a 30 m.p.h. as they have requested.

On the question of traffic lights, the hon. and gallant Member is perfectly right in saying that death and injury on the roads is becoming one of the gravest social evils, quite as grave an evil today as the slums of which the Home Secretary spoke so eloquently a few moments ago. I hope very much that the Ministry's policy will be changed, that it will no longer consider the question of traffic lights in terms of the few thousands of pounds it may cost but rather in terms of the lives and injuries it may save.

10.31 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Hay)

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett) was kind enough to refer to the fact that this was my first appearance at the Box in this capacity, and kind enough also to say that he was not sure whether to congratulate me or commiserate with me in having to deal with these complex problems. In the very few days that I have been looking at these matters I have noticed that every man is his own traffic expert. We do not lack good advice, given from the point of view of those who give it. I would say on behalf of my right hon. Friend and myself that we shall value very much the views of hon. Members on these problems, particularly when they deal with local difficulties in their own constituencies.

My hon. and gallant Friend drew attention to a number of matters concerning traffic in his own constituency, which is a highly built up suburban area where the traffic passes along main arterial roads often quite quickly and in excess of the speed limit. He has drawn attention to the fact that we have a difficult problem to face in reconciling the expert views of our own engineers, who must necessarily look not merely at the local problem but also at the national situation, with the views of local people who may have entirely different ideas of what is necessary. All I can say, with my very short acquaintance with these problems, is that we shall certainly look at all the points made and that if there is any way in which we can reconcile the claims of these two distinct types of people we will certainly want to do it. My right hon. Friend, who comes fresh to these complex problems, is anxious to get progress, and I shall refer to that later.

As my hon. and gallant Friend has said, one of the main problems that we have to face in dealing with these comparatively small matters—I am not talking now about the great major road campaign—is how we deal with the installation of some of these traffic control devices and with works of minor improvements. As a consequence of legislation over the years, we have an extraordinary combination of different possibilities when it comes to installing different types of traffic devices. Reference has been made to traffic lights, roundabouts and pedestrian crossings. The situation simply is that if a local authority wants traffic lights it proposes that to the Minister, and the Minister, on the advice of his divisional road engineer, may authorise the installation of traffic lights. If he does so, he is obliged to pay the local authority a 75 per cent. grant if it is a Class I road or a 60 per cent. grant if it is a Class II or Class III road.

In the case of a pedestrian crossing, the divisional road engineer must be consulted and must authorise the installation of a crossing, and a grant follows. For a roundabout the situation is entirely different. Here it is entirely within the local authority's own discretion whether it has a roundabout or not, because the local authority pays for it. On the other hand, if the divisional road engineer recommends that there should be a roundabout, we pay a grant. Take, again, the problem of traffic signs. The installation of a "Halt" sign must be authorised by the divisional road engineer, but if it is a "Slow—Major Road Ahead" sign, there is no need for authorisation. These are examples of the very confusing pattern which can lead, and I am afraid often does lead, to deadlock and delay.

The case mentioned by my hon. and gallant Friend of Lower Addiscombe Road and Spring Lane is by no means unique. Here our divisional road engineer suggested that this T junction—it is that type of junction—should be served by a roundabout. The council preferred traffic lights. We could not agree to traffic lights because it was our advice—and I ask the House to accept that our engineers give the best advice they can—that traffic lights would slow the traffic at this point and that what was necessary was a roundabout, where traffic would not be slowed to such an extent and where safety would be equally assured.

It is undoubtedly the case that where traffic lights are installed on a fairly fast road, as those of us who have personal experience as drivers know, the change in the traffic lights causes a driver to apply his brakes quickly, whereas he sees a roundabout a good way ahead, for it is usually fairly well signed, and he therefore has a greater opportunity to take the necessary action to slow down. Another point, on which I need not delay, is that with traffic lights there is a temptation for many drivers to try to jump the lights as they change to amber.

This argument in the Croydon case went backwards and forwards for some time, as my hon. and gallant Friend said, but I am glad to be able to tell him that we have resolved it. It is always painful and tedious to have differences of opinion with local authorities on how best to impose the traffic control which the growing traffic makes necessary at a difficult point. To cut a long story short, we have agreed with the Croydon County Borough Council to approve a traffic light installation at this junction. We have received the full details of the intended lay-out and the method of operation so that it can be approved for financial grant, and I hope mat the installation will be successful.

I want to proceed further, because this story highlights the appalling problem which we face in the Ministry of the fragmentation of powers over traffic between different authorities. My hon. and gallant Friend said that this attitude of the Ministry is somewhat excessive and unreasonable in some cases and that we try to do too much. Let me remind the House of the position in London. In London we have what is called the London Traffic Area, within 25 miles radius of Charing Cross, and in this area the Minister of Transport is the traffic authority. This goes back to an Act of 1924 which, incidentally, we promoted mainly to get rid of the pirate bus. The Minister is the traffic authority.

Let no one imagine that he is the executive authority. He is hampered in acting with any speed or vigour by statutory obligations to consult at least three bodies on every traffic matter, however trivial. He must consult the London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee. He must consult the police. He must consult the local authority concerned. There is often a whole host of other bodies which also have to be consulted, and even the simplest traffic matter takes an inordinate time to put into effect.

We are looking at all this because our belief is that what is needed in London at any rate is a uniform traffic policy for the main built-up area of London.

In the evidence that we have submitted to the Royal Commission on London Government we made a number of suggestions. Anyone who wants to examine those suggestions can find them in the memorandum of evidence from the Ministry of Transport, which has been published, and I shall not go into all the detail of that now. As I have said, what we are anxious to do is to obtain if we can, a special executive agency to deal with London's traffic, and it may well be that as time goes on we shall have to try to get similar executive agencies for others of the main conurbation areas.

My right hon. Friend is looking into the whole problem as a matter of urgency because this is a matter, frankly, that will not wait. We cannot wait. We have to move.

Perhaps I may now turn to the point of the speed limit which, I think, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby, South (Mr. P. Noel-Baker) mentioned—my hon. and gallant Friend certainly did. The fact is that the 30 mile an hour speed limit is frequently not observed by motorists. As will be realised, the question of enforcement is not for me or for my right hon. Friend but for the police, but perhaps I may be permitted tonight to give the House some news about the 40 mile an hour speed limit experiment.

The House will recollect that under previous legislation my right hon. Friend's predecessor instituted the experiment of a 40-mile limit on a number of roads on the periphery of London, and the Minister has powers under the Road Traffic Act, 1956, to bring a general 40 mile an hour limit into use after the Departmental Committee on Road Safety has given its views on the results of the experiment. This experiment was begun in March, 1958, and while it has been in progress, the Road Research Laboratory has been conducting a series of traffic engineering surveys, and the police have also very greatly helped and cooperated in carrying this out. The general picture we now have from the detailed statistical and analytical reports from those bodies is that the experiment is proving very successful, indeed.

The results have been looked at by the London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee, and it has endorsed the reports. The next step is that the reports will be considered by the Road Safety Committee early next month, and if that Committee, too, endorses the experiment the Minister will report to Parliament, as he is obliged to do by Statute, with the views of the Road Safety Committee and tell the House what he proposes to do.

I myself believe that it is perhaps in this field of adjustments of speed limit that we can get over a number of these problems, because, undoubtedly, where we have a limit of 30 miles an hour it is not being observed by the motorist. The results of the experiment so far show that if, instead, there is a 40 miles an hour limit the motorists observe it, and there has already been a very appreciable reduction in the accident rate as a consequence. It may sound a little paradoxical to say that that occurs if the limit is raised but, oddly enough, by putting it up by 10 miles an hour to 40 miles an hour the accident rate is reduced somewhat, and that limit is observed.

In conclusion, I may say that my right hon. Friend, to whom very generous references have been made tonight, has been in office for only a fortnight or so, and has made it perfectly clear in a number of statements to the Press and to others that he does not intend to pronounce in detail upon all these traffic and highway matters until he has fully examined this situation and has made up his own mind as to what should be done. When he has done that, he will move—and he will move fast.

My right hon. Friend is well known in this House for his vigour and originality, and, goodness knows, we shall need vigorous action in this traffic matter. We may be unpopular in a number of quarters as a result of what we shall have to do. We shall have to use unorthodox and original ideas. We shall have to be imaginative, because nothing less will do. This problem in our cities and towns has to be beaten before it beats us and, Mr. Speaker, beaten it will be.

I am quite sure that, however difficult the problems may be, or however many differing views there may be as to the solution of this or that part of the problem, we shall carry both this House and the public with us in these matters if we show vigour, imagination and determination. That is what my right hon. Friend intends to do.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a quarter to Eleven o'clock.