HC Deb 19 March 1970 vol 798 cc822-30

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

2.46 a.m.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Test)

This is the debate the House has been eagerly awaiting for the last four weeks. We are not discussing just the question of a speed limit on a road. I was asked on television the other day whether I thought it right that Parliament should discuss one road in one town, and my reply was that this would be a poorer place if there were no opportunities for hon. Members to raise matters of vital concern to their constituents.

But this is not just a question of a speed limit on a road. It involves an important principle: the relation between national and local government. It is the old argument of whether Whitehall knows best. The proposal to increase the speed limit from 30 m.p.h. has become a decision since I lost the original Adjournment debate. We are talking, therefore, about a decision rather than a proposal and an example of bureaucracy at its worst. I will outline the events which led me to having to raise this tonight.

It started with the Green Paper, "How Fast?" It is a good document but deals in general terms and could not take account of individual circumstances in individual areas. Arising from that document, in April, 1969, a meeting was held at the request of the Ministry at the Civic Centre, Southampton, when the Ministry put forward the view that the statistics available at that time indicated that there should be an increase in the speed limit in the Avenue and in Burseldon Road in Southampton. Arising from that, the city engineer reported to the public works committee meeting on 12th June, and that meeting, while agreeing to the proposed increase in Bursledon Road, resolved that no action be taken to raise the speed limit to 40 miles an hour along the Avenue.

The first point I want to make is that this was not merely a decision taken by councillors: it was taken on the professional advice of the city engineer and his department.

On 2nd September last year a letter was sent to the town clerk saying the Minister had in mind making an order raising the speed limit to 40 miles an hour. This was considered by the public works committee at meeting on 11th September. The council decided to disagree with the proposal and wished the limit to remain at 30. Eventually, however, it called for objections from organisations, and it received over 20 objections. The objections came from all sorts of organisations as widely diverse as the Chamber of Commerce and the Trades Council. If one can get a chamber of commerce and a trades council to agree to anything, then I am sure it must be right. So the council obtained a large number of objections.

Indeed, I understand that the only letter which it received in favour of the proposal was from a motoring organisation—or perhaps two motoring organisations. In passing I may say I am a member of one of the motoring organisations, and it certainly did not consult me before it wrote to the council that letter supporting the increased speed limit.

Anyway, the position now is that against the wishes of the city council and of the local residents and of the local organisations the Minister has gone ahead and made the order to increase the speed limit from 30 to 40 miles an hour.

There are three points I wish to emphasise very strongly. The first is this. I know the road extremely well, for I have lived in the town all my life, and I personally strongly believe that the decision is a wrong one. I know that the Minister in his reply will say that the speed limit along the Avenue is not properly observed and that the average speed on the road is not 30 miles an hour but something like 38. I would not dispute that, but what I would argue very strongly is that now that the speed limit has been raised to 40 miles an hour the average speed will rise to something like 45 or 48 miles an hour, and an average speed of 45 or 48 miles an hour on that road is positively dangerous.

I know that it will be said that statistics prove that a speed limit raised to 40 miles an hour leads on the average to an actual speed of 41 or 42 miles an hour. But that is a general statistic. It does not take account of local circumstances.

The local circumstances here are that the Avenue, that stretch of it of which we are talking, goes through the Common, which is Southampton's Hyde Park. In a built-up area where there is a limit of 40 miles an hour motorists have to be careful and, naturally, they do not normally travel at 50, because they know the dangers, but when they come to what looks to them to be a glorious open space the temptation is to put the foot down. I argue very strongly that the average speed on the Avenue will now become in the region of 48 miles an hour. Is this dangerous? Well, again, the officials who advised the Minister about this, and the Minister himself, do not have the local knowledge which the city council has, and so they have not appreciated the dangers.

The Common can be described as a children's playground. As a child I played cowboys and Indians there, and other games—but that was when I was a little older—and nearby is a school, which I had the honour to attend. Many children cross the Avenue four times a day on their way to and from the school, and they would be in additional danger if the speed limit were increased.

Even if I were not utterly convinced of the case I am putting forward, I would still oppose the Ministry's decision because it would be wrong for Whitehall to impose its will on the local council against the wishes and advice of local organisations. The decision cannot have been taken with the idea of speeding up traffic, for the time saved in travelling at 40 m.p.h. down this stretch of the Avenue instead of 30 m.p.h. would be about seven seconds. It is simply a desire by Whitehall to achieve conformity. Having produced a document containing general criteria, the Ministry insists on everybody falling in line and conforming to those criteria.

The only argument that carries any weight is that put forward by the police, who say that they cannot enforce the 30 m.p.h. speed limit. But I do not believe that they would be able to enforce a 40 m.p.h. limit either. The police were recently asked to provide a crossing patrol at certain hours on that part of the Avenue which extends a little further north, called Bassett Avenue, which at present has a 40 m.p.h. limit. The police replied that, in their view, it would be too dangerous to provide a police crossing patrol on that stretch of road. This is an indication of what will happen if the 40 m.p.h. limit is extended in the way proposed.

Even if the Minister still thinks that the speed limit on this road should be increased to 40 m.p.h. and wishes to overrule the virtually unanimous view of every local body—there is no political dispute over this; both sides of the city council are agreed in this matter—he should at least be prepared to hold a public inquiry so that every local organisation which wishes to object can state its case.

Several years ago the then Minister wanted to remove the speed limit altogether from the Avenue. A public inquiry was held, a large number of objections were submitted and the independent inspector came down on the side of the objectors, and the 30 m.p.h. limit remained. I recall several organisations to which I belong giving evidence on that occasion. The Minister has said that, having considered the objections, he is not prepared to hold a public inquiry because, in his view, the objections are based on misconceptions. In my view the misconceptions are firmly on the side of the Minister and his advisers. This is because they have not got the local knowledge of the councillors, the professional advisers to the council, and local organisations.

I hope that, even at this late hour—I know that the Order has been made, but the council still strongly object to it—the Minister will be prepared to withdraw the Order that has been made.

3.1 a.m.

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

I am well aware of the concern which my hon. Friend feels about the speed limit on this road, and I am grateful to him for raising the matter today. I should have been more grateful had he been able to raise this matter a fortnight ago, because we would then have been in our beds at this hour of the morning.

I have not, I am afraid, been able to meet all my hon. Friend's wishes, but I hope I shall be able to persuade him that we have not taken the action we have taken lightly, and that, above all, we do not think that it will be against the interests of the citizens of Southampton whom he represents.

I think that it will help to put the matter into perspective if I relate it to my right hon. Friend's general policy with regard to speed limits. In July, 1968, the Department issued a Green Paper called "How Fast?", to which my hon. Friend referred, which dealt with the whole subject of speed limits and which led to a very full discussion with more than 30 interested organisations. These organisations included the Association of Municipal Corporations, of which Southampton City Council is a member.

After these discussions my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Marsh) made a statement on speed limit policy in this House in which he said that the Government proposed a package of measures to ensure that limits were set and kept at realistic levels. Within this broad policy he proposed a greater use of 40 m.p.h. limits in towns on roads carrying main traffic flows.

My right hon. Friend went on to say that speed limits depended on enforcement and that realistic limits should themselves make enforcement easier. Also he said that the Department proposed shortly to issue to local authorities new criteria for all levels of speed limits, and that we would ask them to keep their limits under review to ensure that they were reasonable and accepted as such by drivers. These criteria and advice on implementing the new speed limit policy were contained in a circular issued to all speed limit Order-making authorities in April of last year.

I accept a great deal of what my hon. Friend has said about the judgment of local authorities on these matters, and no one can argue that we do not delegate as much as possible to local authorities. But speed limits, which are mandatory and whose infringement can lead to severe penalties for drivers and even to the loss of their livelihood, must be based on a nationally-agreed and nationally-accepted policy. That is why, although we have delegated to local authorities within the last year complete Order-making powers over non-principal roads, we still keep the right to give consent to proposals made by these authorities on principal roads. Similarly, my right hon. Friend retains within the provisions of the Road Traffic Regulation Act what are known as default powers; that is, the power to issue a direction to a local authority to make an Order and, if the local authority refuses to do so, to make the Order himself.

The reason for this is obvious. Speed limit policy must be national and it must be consistent. The new policy was worked out after many months of discussion with all the interests concerned and represents a consensus of opinion. We would be lacking in a sense of responsibility towards those authorities who do co-operate in our policy and who are trying, as many are trying, to make their limits reasonable, realistic and enforceable, if we were not prepared, on the rare occasions when we have to do so, to exercise this power, and I stress that it is on rare occasions that the Minister exercises this power.

I now turn to the road in question. The Avenue, Southampton is a principal road, and the Southampton City Council, subject to the Minister's consent, is the speed limit Order-making authority for it. It carries the main volume of traffic to and from the north into the city. It is wide and well-lit, and it runs, as my hon. Friend said, through one of Southampton's main amenity areas, the parkland known as the Common. At the moment this road is legally restricted to a limit of 30 m.p.h. Immediately to the north it becomes Bassett Avenue. This length has a speed limit of 40 m.p.h. It is an interesting fact that speed readings on both these roads show that the speeds at which vehicles travel on them are virtually the same. A high proportion of cars travel along both stretches at approximately 40 m.p.h., and my hon. Friend has conceded this.

I understand my hon. Friend's concern that raising the limit on the length through the Common will cause the speed of vehicles to rise sharply. I understand it, but I am sorry that I cannot share it. Studies which we have made in the Department show that this does not happen. We have found that where speeds are well in execess of the legal limit of 30 m.p.h., raising the limit to 40 m.p.h. does not cause any significant rise in speeds on the road, and often results, contrary to popular belief, in speeds decreasing. Raising the limit gives the police a reasonable chance of enforcing it. At the moment the 30 m.p.h. limit on the Avenue is disregarded by between 72 per cent. and 95 per cent. of drivers on different stretches of the road. In other words, only one car driver in four at the most is observing the limit. I cannot believe that these drivers, most of them local people, are all driving dangerously.

My hon. Friend referred to the request by Southampton for a public inquiry. We have carefully considered this request, but we have come to the conclusion that it would not be likely to bring any new material evidence. The proposal has been duly advertised locally and nationally, and the citizens of Southampton have had an opportunity to express their views. Only a relatively small number have done so. The question has also had a very full airing in the House today. We think that the time has now come to bring this lengthy procedure to an end, and to make the Order.

The situation has completely changed since 1957, when a public inquiry was held. Then the Minister was legally obliged to hold an inquiry before de-restricting a local authority road. There is now no such obligation. Secondly, in 1957 the only alternative to 30 m.p.h. was complete de-restriction. We now have 40 m.p.h. limits intended for precisely this sort of road. It is significant that the 1957 public inquiry recommended that the road should be de-restricted. There were five public inquiries in Southampton at that time. Four roads were de-restricted, but the Avenue was not, for reasons best known to the Minister at that time.

Because we are confident that raising this limit will not cause any significant rise in speeds, and thus will not increase danger on the road, the loss of amenity to which my hon. Friend has referred so movingly will not, we are confident, take place.

My hon. Friend mentioned special facilities for pedestrians. Naturally, in reaching our conclusion, we did take full account of the problems of pedestrians. But, as I have said, we do not expect that raising the limit will lead to any significant increase in speeds. Therefore, it should not lead to any increased difficulties for pedestrians. It would be for Southampton to consider, if it wished to, whether the flows of pedestrians justified any special facilities.

There is another point and I think that it is important. A 40 m.p.h. limit must be signed throughout with small 40 repeater signs, and these remind drivers that they are in a limit, whereas a 30 m.p.h. limit, where there is street lighting, cannot legally be signed with repeaters. It may well be that it is the use of these repeaters themselves which often lead drivers to respect the higher limit better than the lower. On an open stretch of road such as this a driver might believe that he was in a de-restricted area. But, whatever the reason, we have found that where speed readings show that drivers are disregarding the 30 m.p.h. limit flagrantly, a 40 m.p.h. limit often, in fact, reduced speeds on the roads concerned; and because we have found that speeds do not rise in these cases, we have no reason to expect any increase in the accident rate—which, at 2.2 per million vehicle miles, is I am glad to say, below the average for a Class A road. I hope I have now done something to allay my hon. Friend's fears. I can assure him that after careful study of the case I am satisfied that they are unnecessary fears.

It is now nearly two years since we suggested to the Southampton City Council that this unrealistic limit should be raised. Since then the proposal has been thoroughly examined, by our own divisional road engineer, by the Southern Road Safety Unit and by the Hampshire Police. From all of these the proposal received support, and the police believe that they can enforce the new limit satisfactorily.

My right hon. Friend has specifically consulted my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department about this and he has been in touch with the Hampshire Constabulary. They have assured him that they will give this road the same attention as other restricted roads having regard to its accident rate, complaints of excessive speed made by the public, and their assessment of its hazards in the light of its importance as a principal radial route.

When eventually, after we had issued them with a direction to do so, Southampton advertised the proposal, it received 23 objections—not a very large number for a city of that size. We examined these objections very carefully.

They were all based on the understandable—but mistaken—belief that if the limit went up by 10 m.p.h., so would speeds. As I have said all our experience is that these fears are groundless. We shall, of course, keep the operation of the new limit under close observation, but we do not expect it to have any harmful effect either on accidents or on amenity.

My right hon. Friend has the power, which I have already referred to, to revise speed limits himself if he considers it necessary in the interests of nationally agreed policy. We have done our best to explain this policy to Southampton but it has declined to change its view and has refused to make the Order to raise this limit itself. This must, therefore, be one of the rare occasions when my right hon. Friend steps in and requires an authority to conform to national policy. He would not be acting rightly towards the great majority of local authorities which co-operate with him in implementing this policy if he did not do so in this case. My right hon. Friend has, therefore, himself made the Order which will raise the limit on this road to 40 m.p.h. I am sure my hon. Friend will not think it discourteous that the Order has been made before this debate. My right hon. Friend would not have taken such action had the debate taken place when originally arranged. My right hon. Friend is satisfied that this is the right decision, not only in the interests of the users of the road, but also in order to increase respect for speed limits in Southampton and elsewhere as a real road safety measure.

I have already in correspondence told my hon. Friend that we will keep the operation of the new limit under constant review. Police enforcement with a 30 m.p.h. limit simply was not a practical proposition whereas the new limit is enforceable. Finally, I repeat the assurance I have already given that after a reasonable period of time—say 12 months—if the facts prove Southampton right and the Minister wrong, then, of course, we would not be so hidebound as not to concede the point and revert to the status quo.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a quarter past Three o'clock a.m.

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