HC Deb 27 November 1963 vol 685 cc281-8
The Minister of Transport (Mr. Ernest Marples)

Mr. Speaker, with your permission, and that of the House. I wish to make a statement.

Professor Buchanan's Report on Traffic in Towns and a Report by Sir Geoffrey Crowther's Steering Group are now available to hon. Members. They will be on sale tomorrow.

Everyone will need time to consider these Reports, which have taken three years. We are all greatly indebted to the authors for their original and stimulating studies. They try to show what will happen in our towns when nearly every family owns a car. They examine ways of reshaping towns over the next fifty years so that we can enjoy the benefits of the car and also civilised urban living.

Cars are a boon. But they have now started to choke movement and, indeed, to threaten the quality of urban life. Buchanan offers two main ideas for re-planning towns. First, main traffic should be canalised into a "primary road network". Here, traffic takes precedence. Secondly, the rest of the town should, be planned as "environmental areas". Here, the quality of living comes first. So planning of traffic and planning of land use must go together. This would make it possible in the smaller towns—at a cost—to provide for the use of cars to whatever extent their owners are likely to want. But in the larger towns, Buchanan says, this is just not physically possible, however much money is spent. He therefore stresses the importance of public transport.

We accept Buchanan's basic approach that a balance must be struck between the growing needs of traffic and the quality of urban life. Our long-term planning will be shaped accordingly. The Government are tackling the immediate problem in four main ways.

First, transport surveys: The Buchanan Report lays down the principles. The next step is to translate them into practice in each area. We need to know, especially in the conurbations, the future demands for transport, its relation to land use, and the: right balance between public and private transport. For this purpose we must have comprehensive transport surveys of an entirely new kind. Government, local authorities and public transport operators must be in this together. Such a survey is already well under way in London. Other surveys are in progress in Merseyside and Tyneside and will soon begin in the conurbations of Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and Tees-side.

Secondly, local government: Each area has its own distinctive problems and will have to make its own decisions about traffic and the quality of urban life, Local authorities will need help and guidance. They will need strengthening. The reorganisation of local government—already well advanced in London and in hand for the rest of the country—will help to produce a structure better able to cope with major traffic and planning problems. To guide and advise local authorities the Government have created an Urban Planning Group.

Thirdly, increased resources: Spending on urban roads is rapidly increasing. This year it is £50 million. It will rise to £140 million a year by 1970.

Fourthly, public transport: Public transport must offer an acceptable alternative to the private car, especially for travel to and from work. Outside London this is predominantly a bus problem. But in some areas suburban rail services play an important rôle, and that is why the Beeching Plan, in the main, avoided suburban services in the list of closure proposals. But even those that are in the list cannot be closed without my consent. Before I reach a decision on any of them I shall secure the views of the local authorities and others concerned with the area transport surveys. I am sure that with these Reports we shall now be able to evolve a system of public transport by road and rail in our cities which will meet the needs, of the travelling public.

Mr. Speaker, towns and cities all over the world are facing the problem of rapidly increasing car ownership. There is no simple solution. As Buchanan says: it is …a social situation requiring to be dealt with by policies patiently applied over a period and revised from time to time in the light of events. These are wise words, and we should do well to keep them in mind.

Mr. Strauss

I am sure that everybody in the House—certainly all those Members on this side—will agree with the Minister that we are indebted to Professor Buchanan for his remarkable Report, and to the Crowther Committee for pioneering the Report and for steering it and other reports on the transport situation. I also think that Her Majesty's Stationery Office deserves congratulations for the remarkable and most attractive way in which it has presented this very technical Report.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

At £2 10s.

Mr. Strauss

Yes, at £2 10s.

I want to ask the Minister one or two very simple questions. The first one is an obvious one: can we have an undertaking today that Parliament will have an opportunity of discussing this Report, which will vitally affect all the towns and the people in the British Isles?

Secondly, the Minister made various comments about the Report, and I hope that he will not take it that if we do not controvert them today we necessarily agree with what he said, or accept his assertions. It seemed to me that on the whole his comments were rather dampening and complacent, and showed no sense or urgency at all, whereas the Crowther Committee stated emphatically that urgency is all-important.

I should like to know whether the Minister can give an answer to the key recommendation contained in paragraph 52 of the recommendations of the Crowther Steering Group, which says: if the task is to be done at all and our cities are to be saved from strangulation, a new executive agency of some sort will have to be created. We are convinced that it cannot be done by any existing agency or any joint body formed from existing agencies. Have the Government come to any conclusion on that key recommendation?

Lastly, in the light of the recommendations contained in the Report, will the Minister revise his views about the layout of Piccadilly Circus?

Mr. Marples

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the Stationery Office has done a remarkably good job in illustrating and producing this Report. The question of discussing the Report is a matter for the Leader of the House. Personally, I should welcome any discussion that we could have.

On the question of urgency, it is fair to say that the Government acted long before the Report was produced, because Colin Buchanan was appointed long before Beeching was on the railways, and I knew the way in which their thoughts were tending. Therefore, we set in train these comprehensive transport surveys as quickly as we possibly could. In London, where, as Minister of Transport, I have power, the survey has already been in hand for well over twelve months. I have now persuaded most of the local authorities for the conurbations to carry out such a survey. We have shown by our actions that we mean to be urgent.

With regard to paragraph 52 of the Crowther Report, as a first step we are now reorganising local government. We have to see how that works in practice. However, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that, if it does not work in practice, we must have another agency because, whatever happens, this plan really must work.

As to Piccadilly Circus, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government said yesterday that the L.C.C. was coming at the official level to see both his Ministry and mine.

Mr. Webster

On the point about complacency, I note that my right hon. Friend has said that he will spend £140 million in 1970 as compared with £50 million on urban transport problems. Yet in paragraph 444 of this very admirably produced Report Professor Buchanan says this: All the indications are that to deal adequately with traffic in towns will require works and expenditure on a scale not yet contemplated. Has my right hon. Friend contemplated producing a rolling programme for ten or twenty years for the increase in urban development mentioned in the Report? Has he any comment to make on this?

Mr. Marples

There is no doubt that quite substantial sums of money will be required. We have to rebuild the centres of our towns, anyway. The great point is to ensure that we develop them on the right lines to come to terms with the motor car. That is what this Report is about. Let us take first things first. We must have the surveys. We must then project forward to what type of buildings we are to have. Then I think will be the time to make decisions about resources and cash.

Mr. Wade

I welcome the Report and also the decision to carry out a comprehensive transport survey, which is so long overdue. With regard to the immediate problem, is the Minister aware that in many industrial areas, particularly in the north of England, one of the most serious causes of congestion is the heavy traffic passing through the centre of towns? This is often a more serious problem than private cars. Can he give an assurance that high priority will be given to the construction of by-pass roads drawing off this heavy traffic from urban centres?

Mr. Marples

If the hon. Gentleman reads the Report very carefully, he will see that Professor Buchanan deals with the question of by-pass roads. It will be found that by-passes are more effective in very small towns than in very large towns. If the hon. Gentleman looks at it very carefully, he will see what is in the Report on this. We shall, of course, most carefully study what Buchanan says before we decide what action to take.

Mr. R. W. Elliott

Will my right hon. Friend say how the Government will assist local authorities in the all-important traffic surveys? Does he contemplate subsidisation for urban public transport?

Mr. Marples

I think that subsidisation must wait for a time. It may or may not be necessary. The very first thing to do is to build up a good and attractive public transport system. The Government have already been in touch with all the bus operators to see what steps we can take physically to bring this about.

As to traffic surveys, the central Government are making a substantial contribution to the expenses, as well as supplying technical "know-how" and initiating the projects.

Mr. Manuel

In his statement the Minister mentioned repeatedly the questions of planning and controls. Is he aware that the Prime Minister, in his recent broadcast, stated that the creation of a new Britain would be brought about by planning without controls? Should not the Minister meet the Prime Minister and agree on a concerted programme?

Mr. Marples

I will read that speech with great care.

Sir R. Thompson

In the light of what my right hon. Friend said Professor Buchanan had to say about traffic congestion, and accepting that Dr. Beeching advanced that, in the main, closure of suburban transport lines should be avoided, will my right hon. Friend set his face rigidly against the closure of lines which help commuters to get into London and out again every day?

Mr. Marples

The decision to close opposed passenger services was deliberately left to the Minister under the 1962 Act. If a proposed closure—that is in Appendix II of the Beeching proposals—seems likely to conflict with the right overall solution, I can and I will refuse consent and where necessary, as I said in my original statement, I will consult those concerned with area transport services before making a decision.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I accept the need for comprehensive transport surveys to be carried out by local authorities, but would not the Minister agree that there is a danger here that the surveys themselves might be used as an argument against the modernisation of certain railway lines? Would he agree that the modernisation of the lines on the south bank of the Clyde, for example, ought not to be blocked simply because a comprehensive survey has been agreed by the local authorities there?

Mr. Marples

I think that any comprehensive survey of this sort in the eight major conurbations is really bound to produce more modernisation of railways than less.

Mr. Hocking

Will my right hon. Friend say whether people living in these cities will be consulted about the way their towns are to be redeveloped? Will he bear in mind the importance of the motor car in the country's economy and not discourage it too much?

Mr. Marples

It is a question of holding the balance between the motor car and first-class living conditions in cities. It is not an easy balance to hold. Whatever decision any Minister of Transport has to make is unlikely to please everybody. It is this balance which it is so difficult to get.

Local authorities will have a say, and they must have a say, in what happens in their own areas, because each area has its own distinctive characteristics and problems. Each area must decide what balance it wants. It must strike its own balance between the needs of traffic and the quality of living that it desires.

Mr. K. Robinson

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the statement in the Report of the Crowther Steering Group that deliberate limitation of the volume of motor car traffic in our cities is quite unavoidable? If he does, how can he possibly square that with his ill-advised decision to reject the Holford plan for Piccadilly Circus?

Mr. Marples

I know the hon. Gentleman's indignation over the Piccadilly Circus plan, where he calls me anti-pedestrian and the motorist calls me anti-motorist because I do not provide sufficient room for motorists. We have already said that we shall discuss this problem with the L.C.C., and I think we had better await the outcome of those discussions.

As to the limitation of motor cars, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Hocking) that we must try to plan our towns so as to give the maximum use of this great and beneficial invention, the motor car, which at the same time, if it is proliferated too much, will strangle us. We must do all we can in our towns to come to terms with the motor car. Therefore, there will have to be some limitation—it is a fact of life.

One and a quarter million to 1½ million people come into the centre of London every day. Less than 10 per cent, come in by private car. Is it conceivable that the other 90 per cent, could come in in the same way?

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate this without a Question before the House.