HC Deb 10 December 1965 vol 722 cc869-78

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. Harriet Slater.]

4.0 p.m.

Sir John Vaughan-Morgan (Reigate)

I should first like to apologise to the hon. Gentleman the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport for keeping him here on a Friday to deal with what is not an unusual subject. The subject of pedestrian crossings in the Borough of Reigate is a parochial matter, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, it is a subject of intense feeling, understandably, in those who find it a risk to life to have to cross the road in the township in which they may live.

The present policy with regard to pedestrian crossings was established 14 years ago and is now in my view, too inflexible. It was started by Circular 668 of June, 1951 from the Ministry of Transport, when the then Minister, Mr. George Barnes, announced that it was his policy drastically to reduce the number of crossings; that the proliferation of crossings was creating disrespect on the part of the motorist; that there were too many crossings and that many of them were in the wrong places. I think that everyone accepts that policy as entirely right; it is the manner in which it was achieved, and the rather drastic and inflexible way in which it has been adhered to over the years that has caused the trouble.

There was an arbitrary flat reduction throughout the country of approximately one-third of the crossings then existing. In Reigate, the number was reduced from 24 to 8, and subsequently to 7. Of those 7, 4 are what might be called "linked crossings", in that they are around the same cross-roads. In effect, there are only five areas in the borough where pedestrians can cross in safety and with precedence over motorists. This is in a borough of 10,000 acres—which the Parliamentary Secretary will no doubt be able quickly to translate into an area of approximately 15 square miles—and a population of 55,000

The composition of the borough is rather unusual in that it is made up very largely of linked towns and villages. Within the borough there are Reigate, Redhill, Merstham, Earlswood and Southern Earlswood, and it is with these parts that I am particularly concerned today. Each has its own shopping centre, where residents need to cross frequently, and none of them is in any way segregated from trunk road traffic. All of them lie astride either the A.23, which is the London-Brighton road, or the A.217, which is the alternative road to Brighton and carries traffic from the West of London through Reigate. Traffic on both routes is congealed in a traffic block at the junction with the A.25 or, when relaxed from the traffic block, it rejoices in murderous speed.

It seems to me very unfair that the borough should have been reduced to seven crossings. Since I intended to raise the matter, I have noticed that in Sloan Square, London, there are no fewer than eight pedestrian crossings. One can either circumnavigate Sloane Square all round the edge, or cross it from one side to the other in order to get a taxi or buy some flowers in the middle. One can cross in every direction in complete safety. That is a marked contrast with my own borough. The borough has always shown very great responsibility in its choice of crossing and in its approach to this subject.

The general cause of the dissatisfaction which undoubtedly has for a long time existed among local authorities is the straight unfairness of the original flat overall reduction across the board regardless of the degree of responsibility which had been shown. It would seem as though the motto of the Ministry was, "From him that hath too many, the same percentage shall be taken away as from him that hath a reasonable number". Inevitably, since 1959, there have been applications for reconsideration by the Reigate Borough Council. At the moment, it is asking for three extra crossings. I am astonished at its moderation, which is characteristic of the helpful approach which I think it has adopted throughout towards the Ministry's policy, sometimes in the teeth of pressure from the public. From my personal knowledge, I might even add others, but I should have no responsibility in so doing.

The three cases at issue are these. First on Horley Road, on the A.23, in Southern Earlswood at the junction with Tollgate Avenue and Hanworth Road. The first application for this to be considered was in 1947. It has twice been renewed and always been rejected. Since 1947, traffic on the A.23 has—I do not know whether doubled, trebled or quadrupled. In 18 years, the population has enormously increased. I am given to understand that around this site there is an average of 32 accidents a year.

The second case which I should like to cite is on the London Road, in Redhill, on the A.23, near the junction with Gloucester Road, where two alternative sites have been proposed. The first application was made in 1956 and was rejected. There has been the same increase in both population and traffic. The difference is that there is an average of 15 accidents a year.

The third case is on the London Road, in Reigate, the A.217, near the station. An application was made in February, 1960, and was turned down with the same monotonous regularity. This is a very busy crossing. I wish to quote from a rather poignant letter from a constituent writing of this place: It is almost impossible to cross the road now that traffic has increased to the present extent, yet all elderly people from the old people's flats must go to the Post Office every week to get their pensions, etc. School children and blind people—of which we have many up here—are in great danger, as also the elderly people mentioned. All these three cases have apparently been rejected because they do not conform to the rather rigid criteria laid down.

I wish to refer to a speech made by the Parliamentary Secretary in the House on 23rd March reported in c. 483–4 of the OFFICIAL REPORT. To paraphrase part of his speech, he laid down four rules. I do not cavil at two of them in any way. The first was that a pedestrian crossing should not be too near any other crossing. The second was that any proposal should be supported by the police on the ground of road safety. This is probably the right approach, although how Sloane Square can be fitted in with the first one I do not know.

The other two rules are, first, that there should be a sufficient volume of traffic to make it difficult for pedestrians to cross the road, and, secondly, that the number of pedestrians must be sufficient to ensure that the crossing would be in fairly constant use.

In my view, it is the combination of these two which causes the inflexibility of approach of which I, and I think many local authorities, complain. Let me cite an example to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. On the A23 at Merstham there is a pedestrian crossing. A few miles to the South at Southern Earlswood on the same road there is no crossing. I can see no difference between the two communities. Why is there this distinction? It is presumably because there are not so many people crossing, which I would doubt anyway. Yet in the case of Southern Earlswood there is in fact infinitely greater danger. There is far greater danger in crossing the road because of the far greater speed of the traffic released from the inevitable traffic blocks further along the road. The volume of the traffic on the A.23 is virtually the same, whether it is north of Redhill or south.

Before making two practical suggestions, which I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will think are not unhelpful, I wish to submit that this is a case of a Ministry responsibility and rightly laying down policy. It is a policy which over the years has caused a great deal of friction with local authorities. At the moment I believe that the Minister is to receive a new approach from the Association of Municipal Corporations. When this happens, the onus is on the Ministry to look very carefully at its policy to see whether it is right or whether the administration is right.

It is in connection with this attitude that I make my two suggestions to the Ministry. First, where, as in these cases, the local authority and the divisional road engineer are at loggerheads—there is nothing personal about this—could not there be an appeal to the Minister which could be heard in situ by an official from his Ministry, who could advise the Minister whether this was an exceptional case in which he should allow some degree of flexibility, having heard the case of the local authority? The grievance of councils is that their applications, based on their local knowledge and their authority, are rejected by the divisional road engineer, who sticks to the rules. Their applications are spurned by distant figures in Whitehall, a term of art which in this case includes Southwark, who cannot possibly know the local conditions.

Secondly, rumour has reached me that the Ministry is at long last questioning its own policy and is conducting an experiment in two towns where the number of pedestrian crossings is being substantially increased. They are very lucky towns and very lucky Members of Parliament, because they will not have to raise that matter on the Adjournment. These results are to be compared with other towns where no increase has taken place. I make only this comment. Why only two, which must be very unrepresentative of the very large number of local authorities? Why not at least three, one of which could be the Borough of Reigate, which has ridiculously few crossings, whose present demands are so very modest and which, in my view, has shown throughout these years great responsibility of approach to this subject.

4.13 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

I know that there is considerable concern among the public at large about pedestrian crossings and that it is a matter which bothers quite a number of hon. Members. Therefore, as the right hon. Member for Reigate (Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan) in opening the debate raised the question of general policy, before coming to the position in Reigate and particularly to the suggestions made by the right hon. Gentleman, I should like to say something about policy on pedestrian crossings in general.

I hope that I can convince the right hon. Gentleman, the House and the public that we are not inflexible on this matter and that in the Ministry of Transport we are not judging arbitrarily about numbers but that it is essential to have a national policy on the subject of pedestrian crossings. Experience has proved that, and the criteria for it are not easily worked out. I do not believe, and I do not accept, that we are at loggerheads with the local authorities on the matter.

The point is that if we are to have these crossings placed for the benefit of pedestrians and in the interests of road safety we must have in mind all the time the conditions in which drivers will readily and universally respect them and yield precedence to pedestrians when they encounter crossings. This is the reason for the first condition, mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman, and why, first, we have said that there must be a sufficient volume of traffic to occasion real difficulty for pedestrians to cross. Otherwise, if it is found in practice that pedestrians can easily find gaps in the flow of traffic to cross the road in safety, drivers soon become aware of this and they tend not to give precedence to the crossing. The crossing falls into disrepute and the last state is worse than the first.

Second, there must be a sufficient number wishing to cross to ensure that the crossing is in constant use, because again it is important that the respect of the drivers is continually cultivated. Third, we must ensure that there is a sufficient distance between the site and any adjacent crossing or other stopping place. Fourth, it is desirable that the local police, who have an intimate knowledge of the site and who are the people upon whom we depend for the enforcement of safety measures, support the view that a crossing should be placed there.

Fifth, the layout of the site must be suitable for a crossing. For example, if there is a bend or a hump in the road a driver's view of a crossing could be so restricted that it would not be advisable to provide one at that spot. On the other hand, if the road is wide it is generally better to instal central refuges, but for these the carriage-way should be at least 44 foot in width. Sixth, there must be a natural focal point at which pedestrians wish to cross.

Putting all these points together we must make our judgment. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Sloane Square. It depends greatly on the number of people on the pavement and the road when one judges one place against another. The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned some of the historical background. Pedestrian crossings were first introduced in the 1930s when highway authorities were free to instal as many as they wished. There was a great demand for them. A very large number were installed over a decade and as the number of crossings increased the respect for them, I am sorry to say, diminished. By the late 1940s it was generally agreed that there was a dangerously low level of observance of crossings by drivers, owing to their multiplicity, and this was what led to the decision in 1951 by the then Government to make a drastic reduction in order to produce a drastic rise in the level of respect for the crossings by drivers.

As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, there was a very big reduction, by about two-thirds, which was extremely drastic and was opposed by many people. The "zebra" striping and the central control of the siting of crossings were introduced at that time. Experience since then has generally been that the level of respect for crossings has increased. The measures then taken were effective and, where crossings were placed, the majority of drivers yielded precedence as they should.

The question of judgment as between the analysts at the centre who gather in the figures of pedestrian and vehicle counts and so on and the people on the spot and what they want is bound to be difficult, but, as I said before, if we are to have a national policy, there must be national criteria on which it is based and they must be applied rigorously, mainly by the divisional road engineers, irrespective of the places with which one is dealing.

There are often particular demands for particular sorts of people, but, here again, we take the view that crossings should not be provided for the particular use, for example, of children, or elderly or disabled people. Their needs ought to be met by other means, for example, by the institution of school crossing patrols.

That is the general picture and those are the criteria, but I emphasise again that we are not inflexible and we do not want to be arbitrary in our application of them.

I come now to the position in Reigate. I am in some difficulty here as we have not been able to carry out a thorough investigation of all the points raised by the right hon. Gentleman. As many hon. Members know, we usually make exhaustive and sometimes quite lengthy local inquiries when they approach us about pedestrian crossings. I was a little surprised to find that the right hon. Gentleman had not written to us at all about the subject of his complaints today except for a letter in January, 1962. We have, therefore, had only a very short time, the time from the giving of notice by the right hon. Gentleman of the particular points he proposed to raise until today, to investigate the local position in Reigate.

Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan

With respect, I telephoned to the hon. Gentleman's office to give him specific notice, and the question of crossings has been raised in correspondence with his Department, giving the figures, over many years. I am somewhat astonished to hear what he says.

Mr. Swingler

I was only pointing out that although the right hon. Gentleman, of course, gave me notice that he would raise this matter on the Adjournment, there is usually a background of correspondence between the Member and the Minister on the points involved, sometimes going over quite a long period, before they are actually raised in debate so that the Minister has already acquainted himself with the background details.

There are, at present, seven uncontrolled pedestrian crossings in Reigate and the right hon. Gentleman has pressed for three more to be authorised, and we know of complaints which have been made to the divisional road engineer on this subject. I understand that relations between the divisional road engineer and the Reigate Council have been quite close and satisfactory in discussion of these issues, and I cannot, from my present information, accept that there is the conflict suggested by the right hon. Gentleman between our views and the views of the council.

Since November, 1964, the council in Reigate has made only one application about pedestrian crossings to the divisional road engineer. It is true that this one was rejected. Two other applications came from members of the public. In one of these cases, the council appeared to share our view that a crossing was not justified. In the other, the divisional road engineer has asked the council to carry out a pedestrian and vehicle count, and we have not announced or taken a decision on the subject.

I now deal with the particular cases. There is the case at South Earlswood on A.23. A petition signed by 670 residents was addressed to the Minister in April, 1965. The conditions were considered by the divisional road engineer in consultation with Reigate Council. The council told the divisional road engineer a pedestrian count had been taken in 1961 and that it doubted whether even now pedestrian numbers on the road would justify a crossing. Nevertheless, we have agreed to widen the road at this point and provide a chain of central refuges. We believe this to be a contribution to pedestrian safety because it will enable people to cross the road in two stages concentrating on one direction of traffic at a time. The present position is that land is being acquired.

The next case is London Road, near Gloucester Road, Redhill. This has been the subject of correspondence between the divisional road engineer and the council for some time. At the end of 1961 it was the subject of correspondence with the right hon. Gentleman. The evidence is that the pedestrian usage is insufficient to justify a crossing. A vehicular and pedestrian count was taken on 19th November, 1964, and submitted with the council's application of 26th November, 1964, showing that during a 10-hour day there were about 7,500 vehicles northbound and 6,700 south-bound and 399 pedestrians. There is a very strong view that there is no natural focal point on this road at which pedestrians would wish to cross. There are traffic lights at the junction of A23 and A25 just south of Gloucester Road, and further signals are to be provided at the junction of A23 and Frenches Road, about 400 yards north of Gloucester Road. These two installations will serve to create gaps in the traffic flow in both directions on A23, to the benefit of pedestrians at Gloucester Road.

The third case is Earlswood Common, near Earlswood Mental Hospital. Various letters have been addressed to the divisional road engineer, and applications for a crossing have been turned down on the ground of insufficient usage. But the divisional road engineer asked the borough council on 1st November to carry out a special pedestrian and vehicular count, and we will analyse the results and reconsider the placing of a crossing at that point.

Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan

I did not raise that point.

Mr. Swingler

To come back to the point of inflexibility, in regard to the first case we have agreed with the Council that some action should be taken in placing central refuges. In the second place we cannot find a natural focal point, and at present pedestrian usage does not seem to justify the placing of a crossing. In the third case, not raised by the right hon. Gentleman, we will see what the result of a new count is and judge on that basis.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, in spite of his allegations about inflexibility, that we have very recently organised an experiment on pedestrian crossings, which shows that we are in process of reconsidering policy. We have deliberately relaxed the criteria in two towns, with the agreement of the local authorities, in order substantially to increase the number of pedestrian crossings. The results will be compared with those in two other towns where we are not increasing the number. It is an experiment. That is why we are carrying it out only on a small scale. This is deliberate. We do not wish to multiply the number of crossings and diminish the respect of drivers for them.

We are prepared to publish the result of this experiment and to judge it very carefully, and, if the consequence of the experiment in the two towns shows that it is possible to grant many more pedestrian crossings without reducing safety on the road, we shall immediately be prepared to reconsider all applications from all other places on that basis. At present, however, we have not the evidence. We have only the evidence of what happened in the past when there was a considerable multiplicity which led to a more dangerous situation. These are the reasons why, although we recognise that strong local anxieties exist, we still feel that the criteria which I have set out must continue to be carefully applied.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.