HC Deb 01 June 1965 vol 713 cc1674-84

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

11.1 p.m.

Mr. Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)

I hesitate to detain the House at this late hour on the day after an all-night sitting; but, having been successful in the Ballot and thus having the opportunity of addressing the Parliamentary Secretary, who very courteously has come here tonight, I do not want to risk being unlucky the next time.

The question which I wish to raise is a constituency matter, but it does have wider implications. It is the raising of a speed limit from 30 miles an hour to 40 miles an hour on a length of the London Road from Cunningham Hill Road to Drake's Drive. This is part of the A.6 trunk road, which was the main trunk road before the M.10 was built. It is still used by a great deal of through traffic, particularly heavy commercial vehicles which are attracted away from the M.1 by cafés near London Colney. The road is flanked by extensive residential development, which is still increasing, and there is anxiety on the part of my constituents and the St. Albans City Council, who have been opposed to these increases all along. There is a large and increasing child population on either side of the road and many children have to cross the road to go to the Francis Bacon Grammar School or the Cunningham Hill School or to catch a bus.

There is no pedestrian crossing, although I know that the Minister has in mind the possibility of a subway at a later stage. At present there are occasions when it takes a pedestrian some 10 minutes to cross the road.

Long before the speed limit was increased to 40 m.p.h. the illuminated bollards in the middle of the road were knocked down and demolished with monotonous regularity by vehicles travelling at too high a speed. There are two factories in the vicinity, and this results in much crossing traffic, particularly cycles, and there has been a great deal of concern since the Minister first proposed the raising of the speed limit.

The history commences with a letter from the City Council on 27th March, 1963, in which it expressed to the Minister its view that it was wrong to increase the limit. It drew attention to the amount of crossing traffic from Milehouse Lane to St. Vincent Drive and vice versa, especially cycles going to the R.A.C. works in New Barnes Avenue. The City Engineer took the trouble to measure the flow of cyclists crossing this section of the road at various times, and the figures that he gave to the Minister are rather instructive. For instance, between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. 453 cyclists crossed the main road. Between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. there were 292, and between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. there were about 420.

The City Council at that time drew attention to the fact that the new outer ring road was being built, or being sign-posted, and that traffic would be turning right into Drake's Avenue across oncoming traffic leaving St. Albans in a southerly direction. The Minister's reply of 8th January, 1964, which was somewhat belated, in answer to a letter of 27th March, 1963, said that this road was intermediate in character, between the rural and fully built up sections on either side, and therefore forms a natural transition between an unrestricted length and one subject to a 30 miles per hour speed limit. Surely it is not always the case that one has to have this transitional speed limit of 40 m.p.h. between a 30 m.p.h. area and a de-restricted area?

It was stated by the Minister that observance of the speed limit was poor but speeds were not generally high. I should have thought that either the law was being broken, or they were within the law, and one does not take a satisfactory view of them breaking the law.

It was said that the volume of vehicular and pedestrian traffic was not high, but when was this measured by the Ministry officials? Were they there between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. when much of this traffic was coming through, and at other peak hours? Or did they have their own sample times in the middle of the day?

It was said in the letter that the accident record was not unfavourable for this class of road. Does one have to wait until the accident record is unfavourable before the Minister will listen to the representations of the local authority which has greater opportunities of observing conditions on the road than have his officials?

We then had the statement that a higher speed limit would be unlikely to lead either to an increase in accidents or to a substantial increase in vehicular speeds, but should result in a better standard of enforcement. That causes me to ask three questions. How can it be said that there will be no increase in accidents? The mere fact that one is increasing the limit to 40 m.p.h. means that traffic will be able to move more rapidly along the road, and therefore in all probability it will attract more traffic on to the road which would otherwise have gone on to the M.10. If there is an increased flow of traffic, there is likely to be an increase in the number of accidents.

It was said that there would be no substantial increase in vehicular speeds. My experience of driving in an area with a 30 m.p.h. limit is that a lot of other drivers pass me doing 40, no doubt reckoning that if they see a patrol car they will have time to slow down before they are checked for speeding. I find that even when I drive at 40 m.p.h. I am passed by vehicles, some of them heavy commercial ones.

Then there is the statement about "better standards of enforcement." I do not see how one can say that the right way to get better enforcement is to move the speed limit up so that the motorist who is driving too fast is no longer doing so. It seems to me that the only satisfactory method of enforcement is to increase the number of police patrols, but that is a separate matter which will have to be pursued at another time.

The City Council wrote to the Minister on 13th February, in reply to this letter, saying how concerned it was at his determination to carry out his decision, and it drew attention to the fact that it considered that the danger of increased accidents was out of all proportion to the time saved by motorists. I think that along this section of the road about 30 seconds would be saved by travelling at 40 instead of 30—that is, if the driver stuck to the speed limit. A driver's speed is generally checked by the traffic lights further along, in the centre of the town, so that 30 seconds would probably be lost at the traffic lights later.

The City Council felt that the Minister should have been more ready to be guided by its views, and it asked him to look again at the matter. It asked that representatives of the Minister should come down to the site and meet members of the council. This was done, and the council was grateful that these arrangements were made.

It was at this stage that I came into this dispute, and I wrote to the then Minister in February, 1964. I had a reply dated 16th March, in which I was told that the object was not to enable drivers to travel more quickly over this particular length of the A6 road. But, if the object was not to encourage more speed, I wonder what on earth was the object in increasing the speed limit. The argument was put to me that the Minister was trying to make speed limits more realistic and that, if seen to be more realistic, there would be a more willing compliance on the part of drivers. It was suggested that, seen in this light, the removal or raising of the limit in appropriate places was calculated to improve road safety.

But the main burden of my argument, and that of the City Council, is that this is not appropriate in a highly residential district with schools on one side of the road, and with children crossing at a number of places. However, the Minister sent his representatives, but I was then disturbed to find that the local council felt that its representations on the subject were given very little weight. The impression got about that the Minister's mind had already been made up.

On 25th February this year, I presented a petition containing 1,100 signatures, or some 95 per cent. of those people canvassed in the immediate vicinity on this subject, but we have found that, over and over again, in these matters of local traffic regulation, whether it be for pedestrian crossings, traffic signals, and so on, the local authority may take one view while the Minister and his staff always seem to turn it down, and that then, only a year or so later, the Minister suddenly decides to accept the view of the local authority.

This was so in the matter of the construction of the ring road around St. Albans when the widening of roads, and so on, had to be carried out. The City Council asked for traffic lights at the main junctions and after two visits to the city, the Minister agreed to lights in some places but not in others. After a year or so had passed, the Minister agreed to more traffic lights. There are two crossings on this ring road which need lights and, in the end, I suppose we shall get them; but why all this long delay, with a great deal of ill feeling created betwen the local authority and the Ministry? A great deal of time is wasted and, since time is money, there is a waste of money, too.

This has happened in the case of repeater 30 mile-an-hour signs on the ring road, put up by the Road Safety Council. The Minister has ordered the removal of these signs as "unauthorised traffic signs", but the Council has refused to comply and, in the end, I suppose the Minister will agree. Then we shall have what the right hon. Gentleman will call "authorised signs". Could not the Minister have another look at this particular section of road, and say that he is prepared to accept representations of the City Council in the light of the experience gained from the operation of the 40 m.p.h. limit over four or five weeks? Great and wasteful delays in time and money are caused where the local authority has such great knowledge of local conditions and can observe them by day and night, but the Minister takes a completely opposite view. The local authority is in a good position to decide what is best for its own traffic conditions.

11.15 p.m.

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

The Ministry has a considerable file of correspondence with the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew), the City Council of St. Albans, and some of his constituents. I well understand the anxieties and feelings which have been expressed. Some of the things said by the hon. Member have very wide implications, and perhaps we can discuss them at some time in a wider debate.

The rôle of local highway authorities is a most important one, because they are the men on the spot, who know the conditions and who have to advise us as to what should be done. Nevertheless, there is a persistent need to establish national standards of respect by motorists for signs and regulations—national standards for the management of traffic and for the regulation of the highways. A very important part of our job in the Ministry is the reconciliation of the judgment made by those who have responsibility for highways locally with the need for national standards that we are attempting to establish. I hope to be able to convince the hon. Member tonight and, through the House, his constituents, that the action we have taken in connection with the speed limit in London Road is justified, and that the fears expressed by the local residents are groundless. Nevertheless, we are always ready to consider repesentations based on the facts.

First, I want to make a few general observations about the problem. I am sure that the House and the country would agree that the most important thing about speed limits is that they should be observed, and fixed realistically so that they will be observed. Then they can be enforced. It is this basic idea which prompted the general review of speed limits which the Ministry of Transport started some time ago, under my right hon. Friend's predecessor. It was clear then that many 30 m.p.h. speed limits were being widely disregarded—we have all had experience of that—because they were unrealistic in the light of the conditions on certain stretches of road.

Part of the review was and is directed towards the careful examination of places where a 40 m.p.h. limit might be more realistic and more widely observed and respected by drivers and, therefore, in the end, safer for road users, because they would know where they were. This was the point that I endeavoured to explain at some length in a letter I wrote to the hon. Member recently, and there is nothing on the general point that I can add to that.

I now turn to the salient points about this stretch of road. It is about 900 yards long, forming part of the A.6 trunk road between the junction of Cunningham Hill Road and Green Lane. It is a straight piece of road, somewhat undulating, and it varies in width from 26 ft. to 40 ft. There are 7 ft. wide footpaths on either side, and intermittent verges up to 15 ft. wide. As the hon. Member said, the development on the road is described as intermediate in character—intermediate in the sense that it is something between a fully built-up and a rural road. There are only two accesses on the north-east side and only one on the south-west, although, on this side, the houses fronting the road have individual accesses, and I am advised that the lighting is up to Group A standards.

The hon. Member has described the history of this controversy in some detail and I do not wish to repeat it. After very careful consideration of all the objections, which I have examined myself in the records—they lasted from March, 1963, to October, 1964—the Minister decided to make the Order, which eventually came into force on 20th April this year, raising the speed limit on this 900 yards stretch of the A.6 from 30 to 40 m.p.h. I should inform the House that the police were entirely in favour of this measure, and gave their advice from the beginning of the discussions.

We feel that a great many other factors also support us in this decision. The speed check taken on two separate occasions in April last year revealed that a large proportion of the traffic in both directions was already travelling at almost 40 m.p.h. and was not observing the 30 m.p.h. limit then in force. In raising the limit to 40 m.p.h.—

Mr. Goodhew


Mr. Swingler

I take the hon. Member's point about enforcement, but we have to consider whether it is on the one hand possible to enforce the 30 m.p.h. limit, or, on the other hand, whether we should keep up with the actual behaviour of the traffic, a majority of which was already travelling between 30 and 40 m.p.h. We have a great deal of evidence to show that raising the speed limit in cases like this makes no appreciable difference to the speed of the traffic.

I will now deal with some of the individual points of objection. It is said that a large volume of traffic crosses London Road from Milehouse Lane, on the south-west, into St. Vincent Drive on the north-east, and vice versa. Our traffic count confirmed this, though it showed that the total volume of traffic on the road is not at all heavy, but careful observation—and there has been careful observation at these points—has shown no danger or difficulties in this move.

The hon. Member made a point about pedestrian crossing facilities. Again, the counts which have been taken show only light pedestrian traffic. As the hon. Member said, the greater part of this is crossing by schoolchildren. Talks are taking place locally about the provision of a school crossing patrol, and this, as the hon. Member will know, is a matter which must be settled locally. We have also asked the Department of Education and Science whether the local authority would be prepared to contribute 75 per cent. of the £30,000 which we estimate would be needed for a subway, since the schoolchildren would be the main beneficiaries. We are certainly prepared to enter into discussions in order to do that, to ensure maximum safety for the schoolchildren.

Otherwise, observation shows that pedestrians have little difficulty in crossing this road, and this will certainly not increase. As I have said, we expect little change in actual vehicle speeds as a result of raising the speed limit.

Turning traffic at the junction of the newly signposted ring road at Drake's Drive is also said to be a problem. We have in mind a scheme for widening 250 yards of the London Road near this junction, but this will depend on a number of factors, including the availability of funds.

Dips in the road are said to obscure oncoming traffic, but our officials who have been to the site feel that vehicles come into view while still a good distance from anyone who is crossing the road. As the hon. Gentleman said, the accident record does not indicate any special danger. I agree, but I emphasise that it is not the case that there must be accidents to justify any change. The change that is taking place here is justified, we say, by a realistic observation of the behaviour of the people using the road.

I cannot see why raising the speed limit will in any way encourage heavy lorries to go through St. Albans instead of using the motorway. There will still be a 30 m.p.h. speed limit in the town centre and the motorway is manifestly better for through traffic. I cannot imagine that drivers will willingly go through St. Albans instead of using the motorway.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of enforcement and I agree that it has been a problem. That is why we have been in close consultation with the police about a realistic speed limit on this road. The hon. Gentleman said that this will be a transitional limit, between a 30 m.p.h. road and an unrestricted road. The problem occurs in many areas. We must take account of the natural behaviour of drivers in deciding upon a speed limit that can be enforced. The idea here is that a 40 m.p.h. speed limit is reasonable and realistic in the conditions that prevail.

Mr. Goodhew

Does that mean that if experience shows that traffic is travelling at nearer 50 m.p.h., the Minister will then change the speed limit on this road to 50 m.p.h. and so bring it into line with current behaviour?

Mr. Swingler

It does not mean that. We must take into account a speed limit that is enforceable, that will be respected and that takes into account the motorist and the pedestrian. We have made our decision on the basis of the survey of traffic volume and the number of pedestrians crossing the road.

As I said at the outset, we are prepared to keep this matter constantly under review. If it should prove that the raising of the speed limit will not ensure safety on this stretch of road, we will be prepared to consider changing it. We are confident at present that a 40 m.p.h. speed limit will be enforceable and respected by motorists. I must, therefore, tell the hon. Gentleman that at present we see no justification for reconsidering our decision, a decision which was taken after long and thorough investigation and consultation. However, we will be prepared to consider any matters regarding road safety to which our attention is drawn.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Eleven o'clock.