HC Deb 27 July 1960 vol 627 cc1726-33

Lords Amendment: In page 19, line 3, at end insert new Clause "A": A. In subsection (4) of section twenty-six of the Road Traffic Act, 1960, the words 'if the restriction does not prevent loading or unloading for more than six hours in all in any consecutive period of twenty-four hours' shall cease to have effect.

Mr. Hay

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

As this Clause has been the subject of a certain amount of apprehension and misunderstanding, it may be as well if I briefly explain what it sets out to do.

Under the existing law, which is contained in the Road Traffic Act, 1956, local autihorities have very wide powers to make orders regulating traffic. In respect of orders imposing bans on loading and unloading, however, the powers of local authorities are subject to one very important restriction, which is, in effect, that they cannot ban loading and unloading for more than six hours in any given period of twenty-four hours. I have already referred to this restriction in a debate on a previous Amendment. The present Clause proposes to sweep away this restriction, which is now contained in Section 26 (4) of the Road Traffic Act, 1960. In consequence, if the House decides to agree with the Lords in the Amendment the power of local authorities to make orders restricting loading and unloading will be unfettered.

At first sight this may seem quite arbitrary, but it has to be remembered that we have always taken the view that local authorities should be trusted to act with discretion in the exercise of powers of this kind. In case they do not, I would remind the House that the Minister of Transport already has wide powers to revoke, vary or amend orders of this kind. The provision was inserted as a safeguard when the Act of 1956 was going through Parliament, and the House may be interested to know that, so far as we can trace, no Minister of Transport has ever been called upon to exercise this revisionary power.

The limitation on bans on loading and unloading to a maximum of six hours in any twenty-four, as the House probably realises, has some rather serious snags. It stops local authorities from establishing clearways, an experiment which we are trying out with increasing success on the open roads throughout the country, even where such clearways are desirable, if there is any chance that the restriction could impede anyone's right of access, which a clearway order, quite obviously, might do. Further, experience in London, where there is no legal limitation on loading and unloading bans, has shown that it is often more effective, in the interests of traffic, to impose restrictions of this kind over a short length of road for a long period rather than over a long length of road for a short period. This is how we work, for example, in Mayfair at the moment. As the law stands at present, however, local authorities outside London cannot follow the example which my right hon. Friend has been setting in London, because it is in London that he is the traffic authority.

We therefore came to the conclusion that we should accept this addition to the Bill. I think that local authorities can be trusted to act reasonably. After all, local authorities are responsible to their ratepayers, and it is quite often the case that the bigger ratepayers are the people who own commercial and business premises that will be substantially affected by the loading and unloading bans, so that there are already means to check cases of any excess or abuse of that power.

I realise that some hon. Members, and indeed some commercial interests concerned, have legitimate apprehensions about what would happen under this Clause. I have already referred to the powers which my right hon. Friend has to revoke, vary or to amend local authority traffic regulation orders, but the difficulty about this is that he cannot intervene until the order has actually been made, and it is possible that by that time some damage might have been done.

We have given a great deal of thought to what should be done to safeguard the legitimate interests of commercial operators. What we propose is this. We shall try to modify the procedure regulations which local authorities have to observe when they make traffic regulation orders. When they are making these orders, they will have to comply with the code which the Minister will lay down in a Statutory Instrument, and which we will call the procedure regulations. The exact details of these regulations must be a matter for discussion between my right hon. Friend's Ministry and the associations which are representative of the interests principally concerned in this business.

What we will propose to do, if this Clause is adopted in the Bill and if the Bill receives the Royal Assent in this form, is to consult with the appropriate associations on a formula on the following lines. If I may quote from the proposals which we have it in mind to make in the formula, they run as follows. Where a local authority proposes to institute a ban on loading and unloading on any particular road or any particular area for more than six hours in any twenty-four, that is to say, anything beyond its powers under the existing law, and objections are made to the order and are not resolved, the local authority will be required to hold a public inquiry, and, further, will have to send to the Minister of Transport a copy of the inspector's report of the inquiry at least a month before it actually makes the order.

I think that will ensure that my right hon. Friend will have ample notice of any possible misuse of these powers by local authorities. Frankly, I shall be very surprised indeed if my right hon. Friend ever has to intervene, except, possibly, in some quite exceptional case, and I hope that the House will accept my assurance that safeguards of this nature, in our view, will be sufficient to protect the proper interests of those who make their livelihood from commercial transport. There are a number of other cases. There is the case which was mentioned only this afternoon about the building trade, which might wish to load or unload building materials on a site. This would also be adequately covered by the formula which we have in mind.

I regret having taken a long time to explain the new Clause, which is a difficult one, and on which some of my hon. Friends have put down an Amendment. I hope that in view of my explanation of what the Clause sets out to do, and in view of the safeguards which we intend to bring in by way of incorporation in the regulations, the House will agree that the Clause as it now stands represents a logical and sensible step forward.

7.15 p.m.

Mr. Percy Browne (Torrington)

I must first declare my interest as a commercial vehicle operator myself. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for the assurances which he has given, because as he amended Bill came from another place it was obvious that it was wholly unacceptable, for the reasons which my hon. Friend has given. Having said that we should have a right of access under the Road Traffic Act, 1960, and having provided that these bans were to be allowed for twenty-four hours, the situation was bound to be unsatisfactory. We wanted a safeguard whereby the Minister, if a local authority went mad, could intervene before the order was made rather than after. Having had that assurance from my hon. Friend, I am now perfectly certain that nobody will have any cause to worry in the future.

Mr. Mellish

I should like to thank the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for the very clear explanation which he has given of their Lordships' new Clause, and for the assurances which he has give n. I ought to tell him that we on this side of the House felt rather like his hon. Friend and thought that if there was one Amendment which we were likely to have a row about, it would be this one. I am most grateful that the hon. Gentleman has seen the matter in this way.

When we talk of restrictions on the roads—and we were talking earlier about the ticket system—too many people tend to believe that the roads are for the benefit of the private motorist. It is often forgotten in this House that thousands of our fellow countrymen earn their living on the roads, and they are among the finest drivers. Most motorists will agree that they get more courtesy and understanding from the lorry drivers than from anybody else, and these restrictions very often make their job very difficult.

Arguments have been made about loading and unloading on our highways, and I see the logic of them, because so often it does create congestion, particularly on main roads. I emphasised in Committee and I repeat now that this is where we often see a mutual understanding between the police on the one hand and the lorry drivers on the other. A sensible policeman will always recognise the wretched plight of the lorry driver, and will usually say "Don't be too long here; get away", and will try to be co-operative. I wonder whether the ticket system will continue that kind of relationship. I can assure the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that the trade unions will welcome the new Clause. I hope that they will taken advantage of the good will that has been expressed here and that, through their organisations, the Minister will be made aware of any sound objections which they may have. Therefore, on this side of the House we support him in what he is now proposing.

Mr. Robert Mathew (Honiton)

I also should like to thank the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for having explained this new Clause so very clearly. I am sure it will do much to dispel the apprehensions which were, in my opinion, wrongly expressed both by the road haul age business and at first be some of the trade unions concerned.

Throughout the country, we have traffic conditions in many cities and towns which are every bit as grave as in London, and, as the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has explained, this new Clause will bring the powers of the local authorities in these cities and towns broadly into line with the powers already existing in the London area under the Road Traffic Act, 1960. In particular, difficulties have occurred near road junctions where there was a suitable alternative access and where lorry drivers could unload in a suitable side street. I am sure that the safeguards so clearly explained have dispelled those fears and I should like—

Mr. Mellish

No one on this side of the House would defend a lorry driver who failed to take his vehicle to the rear of a factory if that were possible or who failed to unload it out of the way of the traffic if he were able to do so. But the vast majority of lorry drivers are not able to take advantage of such facilities and have to unload in the main road. They cannot help that, it is just how things are.

Mr. Mathew

I agree with the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish).

I wish to add my welcome to the Amendment and also to say to my hon. Friend, the Member for Torrington (Mr. P. Browne), whose constituency is in the best county in England, that we must assume that local authorities act reasonably. We know from experience that almost always local authorities do act reasonably but occasionally insanity overtakes them as it also, from time to time, affects certain Ministries.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

As a representative of a Middlesex constituency I cannot allow to go unchallenged the claim that Devon is the best county.

There has been perturbation about this matter and the question of loading and unloading is an extremely difficult one. The other day when I was walking up Piccadilly I saw a new site being developed, and it would have been impossible to carry out that development without having a lorry standing in the roadway outside the site for considerable periods, even though we all want to see Piccadilly a clearway for most of the day.

If one motors up the Edgware Road in the morning, one sees furniture being brought into the large number of furnishing stores in that road and other lorries being used to collect the empties from the public houses. One cannot go more than a few hundred years in most main roads at certain times of the day without seeing a number of lorries whose drivers are engaged in perfectly lawful business loading and unloading, and therefore it will be extremely difficult for any local authority to be ruthless in this respect and to declare that the main streets must be entirely free of traffic loading and unloading for long periods.

The safeguards mentioned by my hon. Friend are reassuring, but I was not sure what he meant by the inquiry being held by local authorities. Is the inspector to be appointed by the Ministry of Transport or will he be a local inspector? Will the inquiry be under the control of the Ministry or is it a matter for the local authority to report back to the Ministry? We should like to get that clear.

Mr. Ede

I was proposing to ask the same question. From what was said by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, it was clear that he was giving us only a sketch of what is in the mind of the Minister. Who would appoint what he calls the inspector? I realise that it would be wrong to attempt to get too many details from the hon. Gentleman at this stage, but will the matter have to come before the House for confirmation when the Ministry has drafted a scheme? Secondly, when the scheme is made, will the local authority have some guidance in the Ministry document about the sort of person who will hold the inquiry? It may be an engineer or, to use the new phrase, a "traffic engineer", but will sufficient guidance be given to the council regarding its share of the scheme and so warrant the action of those hon. Gentlemen oppostie who have decided not to move the Amendment which they had down to this Lords Amendment? We wish to now something mare than the vague sketch which the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has given to us.

Mr. Hay

By leave of the House, may I thank hon. Members for the welcome which they have given to what we intend to do in relation to a somewhat difficult matter and in the light of the Amendment made in another place. I can clear up the anxieties and doubts which may exist about the holding of the inquiry and the appointment of the inspector. These matters are to be dealt with fully, and I trust comprehensively, in the procedure regulation to which I have referred. I have already seen a draft of the procedure regulation. We have produced a draft letter which will go out to all the representative organisations should the House agree to this Amendment. If the Bill receives the Royal Assent tomorrow, as we hope, the letter will be issued and we shall take account of the suggestions and comments which are made.

When the regulations are made, I am advised that they are laid before Parliament and are subject to Prayer and the negative procedure so that there will be ample opportunity for the House to review what we suggest in the regulations and to comment on them. The inspector will be appointed by the local authority, but it is intended that we shall have a panel of suitable people from which the inspector will be appointed.

Question put and agreed to.