HC Deb 09 December 1968 vol 775 cc156-67

9.30 p.m.

The Joint Parliament Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Bob Brown)

I beg to move, That the Special Roads (Classes of Traffic) (England and Wales) Order 1968, a copy of which was laid before this House on 20th November, be approved.

Mr. Speaker

I have suggested to both sides of the House that we take this Order and the Special Roads (Classes of Traffic) (Scotland) Order, 1968 together. If there is no opposition, that is what we shall do. The Minister will move the first one only, but we shall discuss both.

Mr. Brown

I think it may assist the House if I explain briefly what these Orders do and then the reasons for them. The English and Welsh Order amends the Fourth Schedule to the Highways Act, 1959, which was previously amended by the Special Roads (Classes of Traffic) Order 1961. These provisions lay down the different classes of traffic which may or may not be allowed to use the motorways. The Scottish Order is substantially the same, but relates to the Scottish legislation.

I should perhaps make one small point at the beginning. In response to a request in the Special Orders Committee in another place we propose a slight change in the Explanatory Note to the English and Welsh Order to make it more helpful. The second paragraph will now read: This Order, by adding to Class II of that Schedule breakdown vehicles of up to 11½ tons in weight and disabled vehicles drawn thereby, will enable them to use motorways. There are, in fact, eleven classes of traffic, but only traffic of Classes I and II is normally allowed to use the motorways at all times and for all journeys. Classes I and II consist of private cars, motor cycles, buses, lorries and vehicles used for carrying abnormal loads when they are specially authorised. Class II also includes a number of vehicles belonging to the Armed Services.

The only breakdown vehicles now in Class I—and so allowed unlimited use of the motorways—are those with an unladen weight of up to 7¼ tons. Bigger breakdown vehicles may sometimes use the motorways, but only to recover vehicles that have actually broken down on the motorway itself. They may not. for example, be used to bring back along a motorway a vehicle that has broken down somewhere off the motorway. The effect of these Orders is to allow some of these larger breakdown vehicles—those of up to 11½ tons unladen weight—to use the motorways at any time, just like other breakdown vehicles. It does this by putting them into Class II.

We feel that there are very good reasons for making this change. In the first place, operators have claimed that the present situation causes them considerable inconvenience, and substantially increases costs to an important sector of industry. Secondly, the alternative routes that they are compelled to use often pass through densely populated, highly developed, and highly industrialised areas. When they are on these other roads, these large vehicles cause considerable congestion and frustration, and so increase costs for the community generally. We feel that it would be of general benefit if these vehicles were allowed to use the motorways freely. They have, in any case, been widely used in the past on motorways to recover broken down vehicles—so far as we know without any mishaps. It seems an anomaly that, whilst they have been used so successfully already, their presence on the motorways is still legally restricted.

Before agreeing to this change, I think the House will wish to be assured that there will be no ill effects on motorway safety. We have, of course, thoroughly examined the performance and capabilities of these vehicles and we have drafted the Order in such a way that the vehicle will have to be fully equipped with mud guards, springs and pneumatic tyres. It will also have to have a highly efficient braking system.

The vehicles will therefore be safe in themselves. They are also no bigger, or slower than many vehicles already using the motorways and they can maintain a speed of 45 m.p.h. when unloaded and up to about 35 m.p.h. when towing. They should therefore, fit into the stream of the other slower sorts of commercial traffic reasonably well in the inner lane on the motorway. Obviously, we should not want to see large numbers of these vehicles on the motorways and I can assure the House that the number of vehicles affected by this concession is small—probably not more than a few hundred. And, of course, they will not all be on the motorways at the same time. We do not think that they will cause any significant difficulties for other motor vehicles on the motorway. We have, of course, consulted with all the interested organisations on this proposal and I am glad to say it has been almost universally welcomed.

But it has been suggested that we should widen the concession and allow a number of other types of heavy vehicles to use the motorways freely. We are prepared to look into this, but I can see some dangers in allowing on the motorways vehicles which are usually longer and heavier and slower than the vehicles we now have in mind. The limited proposal we have made should endanger no one, but we should want to look further into any wider concession. For this reason, we intend next year to carry out a general review of the Classes of Traffic Order when the other vehicles will of course be considered. This is a complex and difficult subject—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must not pursue an amendment to his own Order on this Order.

Mr. Brown

In spite of what I was saying and what I intended to say, Mr. Speaker—meanwhile, it would be wrong for us to hold up this comparatively straightforward amendment, which will remove an anomaly which is particularly tiresome and costly for industry. I do not think that there is any fear of its causing danger to other road users.

9.37 p.m.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)

As the Minister has said, the Classes of Traffic Orders which we have had in recent years have not been noted for fierce and fiery debate. The last such Order we had was in 1964, when we discussed the question whether we should add perambulators and dogs on leads to Class IX. This is a more significant Order. It is subject to the affirmative procedure.

At present, breakdown vehicles of only up to 7¼ tons are allowed on motorways. There has been a considerable increase in the size of the normal road haulage vehicles using the motorways and in those circumstances a need has arisen for larger breakdown trucks on the motorways. This is part of the problem. If for no reason but the increase in the size of haulage vehicles there would have been a need for this Order. On the other hand, the Minister has rightly referred to the other reason. If one of these trucks has to travel a considerable distance to reach the site of a breakdown it is inevitable that it will cause congestion on some of the more minor roads. This is a very serious problem.

In those circumstances, it is clearly right that the Government should take some action in the matter before we have a general review at a later stage. I was particularly glad that the Minister gave an assurance on safety because, bearing in mind the speed of vehicles on motorways and the liability of accidents occurring, it is important that every possible safety precaution should be taken.

I have three questions on this non-controversial Order and would be glad if the Minister of State, Scottish Office, could deal with them. First, why have the Government decided on the figure of 11½ tons unladen? Inquiries by me and my hon. Friends reveal that there is a large standard breakdown vehicle of about 10 tons in general use. Is the Government's figure intended to cover all the known types of breakdown vehicle, or are they providing for those which are planned? In addition, I wonder whether this allows for technical developments and the larger sizes which are coming along.

Second, what is the extent of the problem? If a vehicle of 7½ tons requires to go on a motorway to deal with a breakdown, this is normally done in consultation with police authorities, so there must be a figure of the number of these vehicles concerned. Could the Minister of State give any figure? The Parliamentary Secretary was right to say that this problem might grow and that the numbers of these vehicles could expand because of the increasing size of road haulage vehicles.

My third question relates to the Scottish Order. Probably it has been brought forward to let us know that the Secretary of State is still there, but I wonder why this has been done. This is a largely hypothetical question in Scotland. There are 500 miles and more of motorway in England, but the Scottish figure is very small. What number of miles of motorway in Scotland will be affected?

I am also interested in the question of motorway links with bridges. Because of our geography in Scotland, there are large bridges, like the Forth and the Tay Road Bridges, across estuaries and we have not yet given up hope of satisfactory motorway links with them all. What will be the position when a large breakdown truck travelling on a motorway requires to use one of these bridges? Will it be free to cross a bridge linking motorways? What regulations will apply? It would be ridiculous to allow these breakdown trucks to go on motorways and then subject them to a tedious diversion around a bridge.

I am also interested in the anomalies between classifications, comparing Scotland with England and Wales. Under Statutory Instrument No. 1210 of 1961, classes 10 and 11 in England and Wales deal with motor cycles with cylindrical capacities of less than 50 c.c. and invalid carriages. In Scotland on the other hand, both these are included under Class 8, under Statutory Instrument No. 1084 of 1964. Do these Orders remove this anomaly? If not, why has not the Minister taken the necessary steps?

This is an important step which should be taken, to remove a minor anomaly. Subject to satisfactory answers to these questions, we will fully support it.

9.45 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Berry (Southgate)

I also support this Order. As the year comes to an end, it is extraordinary to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) saying something non-controversial and to see the Minister of State making ready to reply in like vein.

I am interested in what these large vehicles do before and after using motorways. I am all for them using them, and for there being more motorways, but once they are on the motorways, they will cause congestion and trouble. Will special arrangements be made with the police when they travel? Will the B.B.C. broadcast warnings to the public? Some access roads to motorways, quite apart from bridges, are on the narrow side. Can these heavy loads travel on them? The Minister said that they were only 100, and obviously they will not all be travelling at the same time. Nevertheless, they will cover a considerable amount of ground, and I should like his assurance that they will not cause congestion, not only on the motorways but on other roads.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cath-cart asked for details of motorways in Scotland. Wales too, is sadly lacking in motorway miles, and this is very important. Another point is to do with the lighting of these vehicles. Will they be specially lit? Under existing regulations they are not very well-lit, particularly from behind. Even at 70 miles an hour, one can approach these slow-moving vehicles quickly and this might lead to trouble. Should not new regulations be made? I am glad that there is to be a review, but surely the answer now is to pass this Order and to start on more motorways as soon as possible.

9.47 p.m.

Mr. Charles Mapp (Oldham, East)

I have several points to raise. I do not approve of these vehicles being treated unilaterally. The issue is whether there is a case for the extension of the use of motorways for additional types of vehicles, and if there is whether this should be dealt with in isolation. To that extent I do not agree with the Ministry. This should have been deferred until some other census had been made. I have heard nothing to justify this proposed action. The Minister talked about the obvious congestion on the Al and other major trunk roads but produced no evidence to support his case and I was somewhat unconvinced. It is true that there are accidents which lead to the slowing-up of traffic.

Will these heavy repair and casualty units come from existing repair stations on the motorways? If so, what evidence have we of that? Will they be confined to the heavy vehicles from those repair points or will others be brought in from elsewhere? We are talking about ponderous and difficult vehicles, travelling at about 20 miles an hour. It would no: worry me as a motorist on the slow lane, but it worries me when I think of what could happen in fog conditions. Is there a case for this unusual user to travel, in the main, on the motorway shoulder? Would not this be much safer for all?

It is becoming accepted practice in the transport trade for "casualty" and similar vehicles which are likely to be performing unusual movements on motorways and other roads to be painted front and back in bright colours to warn other road users of possible danger. In granting this exemption, we should require all vehicles of this type to be vividly coloured and well-illuminated to ensure that we are not creating more hazards than we are trying to cure.

9.51 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)

I will not reiterate the points raised by my hon. Friends on this matter, because I wish to be brief, but I comment on the remarks of the hon. Member for Oldham, East (Mr. Mapp), who wondered why we needed an Instrument to apply only to a special class of vehicle and not more generally. The answer was provided by the Minister, and it is on this subject that I wish to make a brief intervention.

It is not generally appreciated in this country that we are nearly at the stage when some of our motorways are reaching saturation point. When that point is reached it will be extremely dangerous for all road users and it will be more difficult for breakdown vehicles to reach the scene of an accident. I recall being on a German autobahn south of Frankfurt on a double two-lane motorway without hard shoulders when there was a bad accident quite a long distance ahead. The resultant congestion was so bad that even the road through Honiton on a busy day would not be more congested. Adequate facilities were not available to enable breakdown vehicles to get to the scene of the accident and clear up the mess.

It is important when accidents occur on motorways that the damaged vehicles are removed as quickly as possible. I therefore welcome the provisions of this Instrument because they will make it easier for appropriate breakdown vehicles to get to the scene of an accident, remove damaged vehicles and release the motorway for use. However, we do not want unnecessarily to multiply the number of vehicles already using our motorways.

Thus, while it is necessary to have a sufficient number of breakdown vehicles to avoid congestion, we do not want to authorise too many heavy vehicles of all sorts particularly when near-saturation point is being reached.

9.54 p.m.

Sir Ronald Russell (Wembley, South)

I support the Order and I am glad that the Parliamentary Secretary said that the Explanatory Note relating to the England and Wales Order is being amended to correspond with the Instrument applying to Scotland. The original Explanatory Note said nothing about motorways. It is important that the Note is amended because this is legislation by reference and it is therefore not fully intelligible to the average person. I am glad, therefore, that the omission is being rectified.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Geoffrey Wilson) I am concerned about the number of heavy vehicles of the type we are discussing which will be on double two-lane motorways. I have in mind the M4 and particularly the overhead section of it from Chiswick to a point about four miles further West. On that section of the motorway lorries of this size could easily block the carriageway in both directions.

Arising out of that aspect, what will be their speed when towing vehicles? We have been told that it will be up to 35 miles an hour. Do these vehicles not only tow but carry broken-down, disabled vehicles in the same way that some of those enormous transporters used for abnormal indivisible loads carry transformers and the like? Or do they only tow? If they carry vehicles, that makes a difference in the weight per axle—does that make any difference to their speed?

Is there a limit to the weight which bridges carrying motorways over other roads and carrying access or other roads over motorways can take? Some of the older motorways, such as the Preston by-pass—which was, I think, the first—were possibly built to standards different from those of later motorways. Does that make any difference? Is there any section of any motorway on which it would be dangerous for these vehicles to travel?

9.56 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I do not welcome the Order because, as has already been said, the motorways are becoming extremely congested with the existing traffic. This traffic is building up week by week, month by month, to alarming proportions and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wembley, South (Sir R. Russell) has just said, some of the two-lane sections are getting into a very choked and critical condition, especially at rush hours.

My hon. Friend referred to sections of the M4 which are two-lane, but I want to ask about another section of another motorway—the bottleneck 17 miles north of London near the junction of the A41 and the M1. The M1 was our first motorway, and for several miles it is still only a dual carriageway both ways. If these heavy vehicles are to be allowed to get on to the M1 before reaching the end of the two-lane section the congestion there, which already at peak hours slows to a crawl, as I know, will be absolutely frightful.

I also do not particularly like the Order because in it the Minister is performing one of the more elementary errors of traffic control. Good traffic control lays down that one should, wherever possible, try to keep the very fast and the very slow traffic apart, yet here we will have vehicles of excessive length rumbling along at about 20 miles an hour allowed to use the same roads as vehicles speeding along at 70 miles an hour.

I also oppose the Order because of the very alarming accident rate on the M1 which has risen very steeply in the last six months. If the Minister is not aware of the statistics he should ask his backroom boys at St. Christopher's House just what the accident rate is on the Ml in the Midlands, towards Leicester, in recent months. If he studies the statistics, as we have, he will realise that an Order asking for more heavy, large and slow vehicles to be put on an already overburdened and congested motorway, which in parts is narrowed to dual carriageway only, is not a good Order.

9.59 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Dr. J. Dickson Mabon)

This very short, useful debate has brought out a number of the problems which the Government faced when they decided to bring these Orders to the House. It is quite true that people are getting worried about the congestion and what is termed the saturation of the motorways, but everyone will recognise that the breakdowns on the motorways themselves are a serious cause of congestion. One has to weigh in the balance the removing of what one hopes will be temporary obstacles as quickly as possible against the possible effect of these heavier vehicles, going up to the top weight for light locomotives, themselves using the roads. This is the very difficult decision the Government have had to make.

I readily admit that in Scotland it is not such a great problem, but it would be a mistake if the Scots, considering the problems our English friends have, did not agree to go along with them in making an Order of a comparable kind. It would lead to great confusion among users of the road if they found quite different regulations applying once they crossed the Border. Uniformity in certain things is desirable, and it certainly is in road regulations. The Statute under which the Scottish Order is made is different from that giving powers for the English Order. I believe the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) will agree that it does not follow that if there are discrepancies and anomalies in various English and Scottish Acts which we have inherited at this time we should not take advantage of the opportunity to clear up and remove some of those anomalies.

I agree that it would be a good idea if we could clear up all these differences. There are nine classes in the Scottish Order and 11 in the English Order. I agree that we should try to put that right. The House will not be surprised to learn that we have been pressed to include more than these vehicles in this Order. On balance we think it would be a mistake to concede to that request at this stage. Perhaps to concede it at all would be a mistake, but at this stage it certainly would be wrong to include other vehicles.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East (Mr. Mapp) asked about the origin of these vehicles. It would be difficult to ascertain that. We decided to classify them according to the provision in: he Act right up to the legal limit for light locomotives. Someone argued that we should go beyond 11½ tons, but that would bring us into the category of heavy locomotives, and the speed of these vehicles is greater than that of heavy locomotives. Up to 1955 there was no requirement to fit front-wheel brakes to them and they might be considered to have inferior braking systems. Although there was some demand for including heavier locomotives for contractors, bulldozers and so on, I am sure the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) would be shocked if we included them in an Order such as this.

The hon. Member for Southgate (Mr. Berry) referred to congestion on other roads where these vehicles are allowed to rescue vehicles that have broken down, and the necessity to get them off motor roads as soon as possible. I believe this Order will help in relieving congestion. The number of vehicles affected is estimated by the Ministry at perhaps not more than 500. That is a quite significant figure governing these vehicles within the definition of a light locomotive.

I was asked by the hon. Member for Cathcart about motorways in Scotland. The mileage in Scotland is now 37 as compared with two miles four years ago, so it is significant to have a reference to this matter in a Scottish Order dealing with motorways. We have 131 miles of dual carriageway as opposed to 88 miles four years ago which is a significant advance.

I was asked by the hon. Member for Wembley, South (Sir R. Russell) if I could give some indication of the speed limits for light locomotives in certain circumstances. On general purpose roads it is 20 m.p.h. and on motorways 70 m.p.h. With a two-wheel towing implement it is only 12 m.p.h. on general purpose roads and 20 m.p.h. on motorways under the Construction and Use Regulations. I admit that that is a criticism. I readily concede it. When the towing vehicle is on its own the limit will be 20 m.p.h. on general purpose roads and 70 m.p.h. on motorways. When there is a disabled vehicle on the towing implement it will be 12 m.p.h. on general purpose roads and 70 m.p.h. on motorways.

My hon. Friend referred to the fact that a desirable rate in practice on the motorway was 35–40 m.p.h., and if that was encouraged there would be insistence on such vehicles using the slow lane for travelling in order not to delay other travellers.

We have no desire in connection with the Order to suggest that there should be special police precautions. If there are peculiar circumstances, we readily admit that such might be desirable. But it depends on the nature of the crash and the vehicles being towed away. Nevertheless, there will not be special arrangements governing this.

I am much obliged to the House for its friendly reception of the Order.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Will the hon. Gentleman deal with the question of bridges linking motorways?

Dr. Mabon

There is no difficulty here. If there is a commercial toll, it will be applied. There is no difficulty about loads or anything like that in relation to motorway bridges.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Special Roads (Classes of Traffic) (England and Wales) Order, 1968, a copy of which was laid before this House on 20th November, be approved.

Special Roads (Classes of Traffic) (Scotland) Order, 1968 [copy laid before the House 20th November], approved. —[Dr. Dickson Mabon.]