HC Deb 13 March 1963 vol 673 cc1489-98

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

10.15 p m.

Mr. T. W. Jones (Merioneth)

It is fortunate for our country that the extraordinary weather which we have experienced over 10 successive weeks recently is a very rare and periodical phenomenon. The freeze-up which we experienced will probably rank as the worst in living memory. Many reasons have been given for the cause of it, but I would not subscribe to the reason advocated by an old friend of mine the other day, who assured me that we should not get a change in the weather until we had a change of Government. However, I appreciated his observation, because the Government are very expert in freezing up.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer froze up wages and salaries two years ago. We have had the freeze-up of capital investment as a result of which school teachers, railway workers, shipbuilders and steel workers were all caught in the freezing blizzard. Of course, it is now apparent that, in an effort to raise the party political temperature, the Government have decided to bring about the thaw, and the date of that will be 3rd April, when we shall have the Budget, and the balmy breezes will flow through this Chamber from the Treasury.

As I have said, the national freeze-up which recently overtook the country for 10 weeks was most exceptional. It has involved county councils in very heavy and unbearable expenditure. As a Welshman, I am concerned tonight about the large rural counties of Wales in general and of Merionethshire in particular. As the Minister is aware, the ever-increasing expenditure of county councils is being strained to breaking point. We learned from the Press last week that the Caernarvonshire bill has now topped the £5 million mark. It is equally true that every county council representing rural counties in Wales is harassed today by crippling financial obligations. Therefore, my plea tonight is on behalf of those large rural counties in Wales whose rates are already very high and which will be called upon to face considerably increased expenditure to cover the cost of snow clearance and road repairs due to the devastating effect of the prolonged frost.

I have a feeling that my plea will not fall on deaf ears. I note that in a written reply on 31st January the Home Secretary said: Throughout the icy spell local authorities generally have done a good job in the face of quite exceptional difficulties. The arrangements to cope with severe conditions will, of course, be reviewed by the Government in the light of this winter's experience, to see whether further improvements are practicable."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st January, 1963; Vol. 670, c. 222.] I am aware that the Home Secretary was thinking of the problem in terms of civil defence, but I base my optimism particularly on the reply given by the Minister at the end of January. He said: Local authorities in county areas receive Exchequer grants in respect of their expenditure on maintaining classified roads. The normal grant allocations include some provision for snow clearing, salting and gritting and the repair of frost damage. I am, however, prepared to consider sympathetically applications by these local authorities for additional allocations to take account of their unusually heavy expenditure this winter."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th January, 1963; Vol. 670, c. 168–9.] That is fair enough as far as it goes, as were the replies given by the Minister last week in this Chamber.

There is, however, one snag. The Minister referred only to classified roads. Unfortunately for the large rural areas of which I am speaking, they are responsible for hundreds of miles of unclassified roads, the cost of the maintenance of which falls entirely on the local rates. Yet, these are the very roads which must be kept clear as they lead to the remote villages, and unless they are cleared, whatever the cost may be, the people in them will not be able to survive in the type of weather which we have had this winter.

Let us take as an example the county that I have the honour to represent, Merioneth. This county has over 900 miles of roads and, incidentally, no fewer than 232 bridges. Of these roads, 332 miles are unclassified and the maintenance of them falls entirely on the local rates. In Caernarvonshire, there are 485 miles of unclassified roads and in Denbighshire no fewer than 751 miles. The cost of snow clearance on the unclassified roads of Merioneth will be approximately £8,000 and the cost of gritting those roads will be about £2,000. It is, therefore, safe to assume that an extra £10,000 will have to be found to deal with the unclassified roads alone, with not a penny piece of grant from the Government.

Even if there is no return of the former climatic conditions, it is estimated that the total cost of snow clearance in Merioneth will be about £65,000. I am not forgetting that, apart from trunk roads, all the remaining classified roads are only partially grant-aided. I understand that the percentage of grants is as follows: class 1, 75 per cent., class 2, 60 per cent., class 3, 50 per cent. Merionethshire has 296 miles of class 3 roads, and the cost of snow clearance and gritting on those roads alone will amount to no less than £15,000. As these roads qualify for only a 50 per cent. grant, it follows that £7,500 will have to be borne by the local rates. This is an alarming figure, as I am sure the Minister will agree.

I ask the Minister whether he is prepared, for this financial year at least, to increase the grant considerably for class 3 roads. I have found that in Denbighshire the total cost of snow clearance and repairs of class 1, class 2 and class 3 roads will be at least £163,000, of which not less than £64,300 will have to be borne by the local rates. The figures that I have given are staggering and certainly call for urgent Government action.

When a calamity overtakes any foreign country too poor to meet the cost, I am proud to think that Great Britain is always to the fore to assist such a country financially. It is right and proper that we should do so. It is in the same spirit that I appeal to the Government to render special assistance to these harassed county councils in Wales which are struggling to fulfil their obligations.

On the question of payment for snow clearance and frost damage, for which high-lying rural counties are responsible, it is inequitable that the full expense should have to be borne by such counties when more fortunate low-lying counties, often with greater financial resources, suffer considerably less financial loss.

Comparison might be made with the hill farming subsidy. Indeed, the Agriculture (Improvement of Roads) Act, 1955, has been gratefully accepted by upland counties for the purpose of improving unclassified and unadopted roads. The question of heavy and exceptional maintenance such as has occurred during the past winter, and particularly during the recent 10 weeks, is still unresolved. The full cost of the work falls upon the ratepayers. People do not anticipate such weather as we have had this year, and it is not estimated for at the beginning of the financial year. Therefore, the full cost of clearing the snow and repairing the effect of frost damage falls entirely on local ratepayers. I need not remind the House that we have heard a great deal only this week about rates and the increases in rates.

In a winter such as this, the county council is obliged to use the grant intended for maintenance and repair work to meet the cost of snow clearing. The money for which the county council budgeted has had to be used to clear the snow and repair the roads. Unless further grant is forthcoming, men will have to be laid off because there will be nothing in the till with which to pay them. It is a serious situation nowadays to find the unemployment figures still soaring, and this will happen in these rural areas. What is more, these men are skilled in their work. Once they leave the employment of the county council, it will be difficult to persuade them to leave some other employment which they might obtain to go back to the roads.

The Minister might consider the possibility of heavily subsidising the purchase of salt so that the county councils could be encouraged to store sufficient stocks of this commodity at various points in their counties at the beginning of winter—indeed, in the middle of summer. It would help that industry and certainly, if it was subsidised heavily, it would be a great encouragement for county councils to have the salt ready at hand to tackle the problem immediately it occurs instead of, as happened during the recent 10 weeks, many places being unable to get salt when the snow was two or three feet deep.

It would not be too fantastic to introduce even electric road heating on steep hills and particularly on bridge approaches. I understand that the cost is about £2 per square yard. Bridges have proved themselves to be very dangerous during the 10 weeks of bad weather. I am sure that an experiment of this kind would pay for itself. It is done at football grounds and I understand that the Everton Football Club is about to do it, so that never again will weather such as we have had prevent matches being played.

I appeal to the Minister with great confidence to take extraordinary measures to deal with an extraordinary situation. I trust that in his reply he will make a declaration this evening which will cause a ray of spring sunshine lo cast itself through the gloom of our council chambers in Wales.

10.30 p.m.

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

In the course of what I think the House will agree was a very felicitous speech the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. T. W. Jones) has given the Government not only the credit for having caused the bad weather but the credit for being able to bring spring a little nearer than perhaps it would otherwise be. It is the first time I have ever heard the Government blamed for the weather, although we get blamed for everything else that goes wrong in the country.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes (Anglesey)

What about 1947?

Mr. Hay

I welcome the opportunity given by the Adjournment debate to say something about the problems which have been presented to the local authorities by the recent abnormal bad weather. I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman for having given me notice of some of the points he intended to raise and, more particularly, of the figures he intended to quote.

According to all the experts, this has been the severest winter, at least in the centre of England and Wales, since 1740. En all parts of the country roads were blocked by snow for days on end. The South and South-West were particularly hard hit. Devonshire had more snow than in any year since 1814, and, as will be remembered, many towns and villages were cut off and found that the only method of communication, whether for supply or for relief, was by helicopter. Further north, severe winters like this are less exceptional, but, even so, in only four comparable years in this century was the weather as bad, and in one of them, 1929, there was comparatively little snow.

So it was not, therefore, surprising that there was a considerable interruption of normal transport services both by road and by rail, and on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and myself I should like to put on record in the House a tribute, in which I am sure all hon. Members will share, to all those who worked so tirelessly and for such long hours and for such long periods to clear snow and ice and to restore communications and to keep them open. Some people worked for 15 hours or more at a stretch—without a break—and some of them for many days on end, and the nation owes them a very deep debt of gratitude.

I turn now to the position of the local authorities on whom the brunt of snow clearing fell during the bad weather and on whom the burden of road repair to put right the damage done is now falling, should like to put on record the Answers which my right hon. Friend and I have given to recent Parliamentary Questions, and I hope that these Answers have given them some reassurance. I should like to remind the House in particular of the Answer which I gave to a Question on 6th March, the text of which perhaps I may be allowed to quote: We have invited the county councils to let us have estimates of the additional expenditure they will have incurred on classified roads in the present quarter because of the exceptionally severe weather. We will then consider, as my right hon. Friend has already promised, what additional grant assistance can be given. It is too soon to expect any worthwhile information about frost damage."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th March, 1963; Vol. 673, c. 386.] That remains the position, except that I can now add that local authorities have since been notified of their grant allocations for next year. Their extra expenditure will be a first charge against these allocations. At the same time they have been invited to tell us if they want more. Some of them may not, for they may prefer to reduce their programmes of normal maintenance and minor improvement and thereby lighten the burden on the rates. For many, if not for all of them, there should be some saving because much of the routine work which would normally have been done in January and February could not be done owing to the bad weather. But I repeat that when we know if the local authorities need extra money we shall consider to what extent extra allocations of grant can be made.

Before coming to the issues of classified and unclassified roads mentioned by the hon. Member, I should like to say something about trunk roads, where snow clearing is done by the local authorities acting as the Minister's agents for maintenance. They are paid at the beginning of each quarter for the work they are expected to do during the three months, and they get the full cost, plus 6 per cent. for their administrative overheads. Agent authorities plan their year's programme in such a way as to keep some money in reserve for winter maintenance in the last quarter of the year, but this year, for obvious reasons, they did not earmark enough. Returns made by our divisional road engineers at the end of February show that, taking the country as a whole—and this, I repeat, is only for trunk roads—an extra sum of £868,000—over three-quarters of a million £s—will probably be needed by the end of March, and that figure takes account of savings by local authorities where normal maintenance work could not he undertaken in the bad weather.

Arrangements have now been made for the necessary payments to be made from the Vote during the current financial year, and trunk road repair work done in the next financial year will be a charge to the Vote provision for that year. When we know how much extra work is entailed, and how far the regular programme of maintenance and minor improvement has had to be reduced as a result, we shall consider, in conjunction with the Treasury, whether extra money should be made available.

I turn now to the classified roads. Here, as the hon. Member has said, grants are paid for all maintenance work, including winter maintenance, at a rate which depends on the classification of the road. The hon. Gentleman gave the classification figures—either 75 per cent., 60 per cent. or 50 per cent.—and the local highway authority bears the remaining cost. That, of course, does not apply in London or in the county boroughs. Snow clearance and similar work is normally included in "maintenance" for this purpose.

Local authorities plan their expenditure for the whole year in relation to their allocation at the beginning of each financial year in April and, again, they earmark part of the money for winter maintenance. Here, too, they will obviously not have earmarked enough for this winter. So, if they claim extra money for their exceptional heavy expenditure on winter maintenance this year, they, will claim it at the end of March, and in will be a charge on our Vote provision next year. They already know of their grants allocations for next year, and we have been able to allocate to them the full amount that they asked for last September. As I have said, if they want more money, they can let us know, and we will consider their requests. But some may prefer to cut back their normal programmes of maintenance and minor improvement to avoid burdening the rates.

As to unclassified roads, about which the hon. Member principally spoke, it is true, as he said, that there is here no direct grant aid for counties, either Welsh or English. It is also true that this position may bear somewhat hardly on some authorities, but there are, I think, two points that have to be borne in mind. The first is that the cost has to be borne somewhere, and by someone, and it would have to be established beyond any doubt at all, I think, that special grants would be required by the Government. It would have to be shown that the burden on the ratepayers was such that the taxpayer should take it on. That would be rather difficult to establish in view of the very widespread area over which the expenditure was incurred, because virtually the whole of the country suffered in this bad weather. Moreover, it is important to remember that local authorities can spread the load by raising loans, and we will consider any application for loan sanction which is made through our divisional road engineers in the normal way.

The second point to bear in mind is that many local authorities will, in fact, receive rate deficiency grant. This is particularly true of some of the Welsh counties. The hon. Member for Merioneth said that that county has spent £65,000 on snow clearance, £8,000 of it on unclassified roads. We calculate that a reasonable estimation of how the total of £65,000 would be split between direct Exchequer grants and the county's own expenditure is that the Exchequer would pay £40.000, and Merioneth £25,000. But the county gets rate deficiency grant at the rate of 55.7 per cent., so that the county rates are likely to have to bear, not £25,000 but only £11,000. The Exchequer will bear the remaining £14,000 through the rate deficiency grant. So the total borne by the Exchequer in direct grants and rate deficiency grant will be about £54,000 out of the total of £63,000 which the county actually spent.

I have similar figures for Denbighshire which the hon. Gentleman also mentioned where the rate deficiency grant is 28.2 per cent., and here the rateborne expenditure seems to be somewhere around £71,000 out of the £163,000 spent. This can be contrasted with some of the county boroughs where no direct grants are made for maintenance and minor improvements, and no rate deficiency grant is payable either.

Against that, of course, the rateable value is probably higher in most county boroughs and the capacity to pay is greater than in sparsely populated areas like Merioneth. But, on balance, I think that things will work out pretty well.

The House will be interested to know that we are reviewing the lessons to be learned from these recent experiences. Our divisional road engineers are reporting on the situation in their areas. Inside the Ministry of Transport we have set up a working group under the chairmanship of a deputy-secretary to review the whole situation, including organisation, technical standards for preventing ice and for clearing snow and investigating the adequacy and the location of the physical resources, such as depots, snowploughs and similar equipment, deposits of salt and grit, and so on. We shall also be reviewing the responsibility and the performance of the local authorities to see whether extra help or assistance or improvement is needed.

If possible, we must ensure that if by chance next winter we are faced again with similar conditions to those through which we have passed this year we are ready, and that our organisation is adequate to make use of the lessons which we have learned from our recent experiences.

May I in the few moments that remain say a word about the other point in particular that the hon. Gentleman made concerning the use of electric road heating? As I think he knows, we already use this on an experimental basis on steep hills and bridge approaches in some places. We have about a dozen sites up and down the country where this is done, though none of them is to be found in the rural areas.

Installation costs are not high if electric heating is installed when the road is constructed. They came out at about £3 a square yard and not £2 as the hon. Gentleman said. But that assumes that there is a supply of electricity adjacent to the site. However, if we have to install the heating on an existing road it is more expensive because we have to dig up the road and make it up again after installing the heating. The cost then comes out at £4 a square yard, and the running costs are high. The Hammersmith flyover has cost £3,000 this winter, so for those reasons I think there is a limit to what we can be expected to do in using the technique, although we shall not ignore it in suitable cases.

I welcome the opportunity which I have had tonight to put on record the facts about our experiences. Finally, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the subject, I hope that what I have said will be of some value in reassuring the local authorities throughout the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.