HC Deb 23 June 1972 vol 839 cc958-70

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

I raise this subject of the increasing problem of heavy vehicles on our rural roads partly because it is a matter of critical importance to my own constituency but also because I believe it to be a matter of general importance to the country as a whole. It is, of course, far more than a rural problem. We are facing the impact of a nationwide lorry crisis, and I believe it is a problem of such magnitude that, even allowing for the energy and sympathy of my hon. Friend the Undersecretary of State for the Environment, I do not expect to receive a reply in a short Adjournment debate to all the questions.

I begin by referring to specific problems which I have already raised in correspondence with the Minister, which although local problems, are not untypical of the problems of heavy traffic on all our roads.

There is in my constituency an attractive rural village. To make the point about the problems there I can do no better than refer to a letter from the Hernhill Parish Council, which refers to the development of a yard into a car transporter depôt. It says: The depôt is being used as a rest centre for drivers who load their vehicles at Channel ports or local depôts and instead of keeping on the A2 towards their destination come along the country lanes to Dargate. There are no paths along the roads in the area, with the consequence that pedestrians take great chances in being on the roads when these huge transporters are coming and going. It seems ironical that planning applications for dwelling houses in the village have been turned down by the county council because another private car would be a traffic hazard, yet these monstrous vehicles, which are totally unsuitable for country roads, are allowed to use them at will. A similar problem has arisen in the village of Painters Forstal, another attractive rural village near to Faversham, and there all the residents have signed a petition, which has been sent to my right hon. Friend, against the development of a fairly small cold store into a fairly substantial redistribution centre for imported fruit, with the result that the village, which a year ago had few lorries going through it, now has dozens, and, on a particularly bad day, 30 to 40 lorries may go through the centre of the village. These are matters of crucial importance to the people of those villages, but unfortunately there does not seem to be any immediate solution.

I know that Kent County Council is concerned about what it regards as a serious problem over the whole country, and I would quote from notes which the council has issued and which are very helpful, and demonstrate the dilemma with which the council is faced. In a letter to me the council says: The use of unsuitable minor roads by heavy vehicles is becoming an increasingly frequent problem in Kent and elsewhere. In a note the county council says: Everyone acknowledges that a problem exists, but at present no one is able to suggest any immediate solution. In another letter to me the council says that if heavy vehicles genuinely require access to premises situated on minor roads then there is little which highway authorities can do to prevent them, notwithstanding the comprehensive powers available to control traffic in the Road Traffic Regulation Act, 1967. It goes on to say: Developments such as cold stores which generate a considerable amount of heavy traffic in rural areas are an increasing feature of modern fruit farming and the County Planning Committee has under consideration the terms of the conditions to be imposed in the granting of permissions for such buildings in the future. That is for the future and we all hope that steps will be taken, but there is a massive problem today. These are local problems, but since putting forward this subject I have been studying large numbers of Press cuttings from all over the country. I should like to quote a few headlines which are the tip of the iceberg but which show that this is a subject of mounting anxiety causing great emotional stress throughout the country. These are a few headlines from a large selection of papers: Heavy lorries cause insidious pollution in national parks. Heavy lorries leave trail of complaints. Danger and annoyance and inconvenience being caused to villagers. How my paradise became a living hell. Anger mounting in lorry-plagued town. Call for lorry ban. I could repeat those examples ad nauseam, but I am sure that my hon. Friend is receiving similar complaints in the Department of the Environment day in and day out.

I am well aware that the Government are acutely concerned with the whole problem. My impression is that, more than any Government before, they are determined to get the right long-term solutions. Essentially, so far they have been talking about a new policy to ensure that heavy vehicles are restricted to roads that can reasonably accommodate them. They are calling them designated lorry routes.

I am concerned about the suggestion that to hear more about these designated lorry routes we may have to wait until the motorway programme is further advanced. That would be rather worrying, but I am sure that it is right that we must come to a time—I think that we have reached it already—when we can no longer say that these massive vehicles have an automatic right to use the highways of Britain. These heavy trailer vehicles are often so large that they do not look like lorries at all, but much more like heavy goods trains that have strayed on the roads by mistake.

We should not lose sight of the fact that while we are constantly stressing the environmental case and our concern for the preservation of the quality of life in our small towns and villages and rural areas, we are equally concerned to protect the competitiveness of British commerce and the livelihoods of people involved in transportation and distribution. I am sure that the hauliers and the lorry drivers are equally unhappy, finding little pleasure in manœuvring their massive vehicles through unsuitable little lanes. Their interest, too, lies in getting lorry parks, distribution centres, storage and warehouse facilities as close to the main routes as possible.

I know that this is not just a British problem and that it is to be found in every advanced country, but we can learn something from the way in which other countries have begun to tackle the problem. In a report on the subject, the Civic Trust refers to one or two other countries. For instance, it says that in Holland some city and town centres have been closed to heavy lorries. In most towns there are streets or areas from which heavy lorries are completely prohibited and in places where there is a lorry weight restriction the police are to be seen using mobile scales to check weights of lorries.

It is expected that before long, to prevent congestion, all town centres will be closed to lorries more than two metres in width and eight metres in length and eight tons gross weight. The report goes on to say that the hardship that would otherwise be caused to vehicle operators will be minimised by the use of out of town interchange points, 27 of which have already been established.

One of the interesting things about the interchange points at the out of town sites is that they have been established by co-operation and with the voluntary work of the hauliers themselves. It may be rather disappointing that we have not yet reached the point where the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association have been able to co-operate very much with local authorities, or the Government, so that we could move large lorry parks and distribution centres away from towns, away from the rural areas, and closer to the main traffic routes. Let us hope that we can reach that situation and that the Minister will be able to say that we are working towards such solutions.

Even if the long-term answer is designated traffic routes, I ask the Minister to recognise the fact that we face a short-term crisis. I ask him to look carefully at the possibility of finding some short-term help to give to local authorities.

I have described the problems which the Kent County Council says it faces in trying to find some solution. I believe that the Government could give more encouragement to local authorities to adopt positive policies of resiting haulage yards or stores which, in terms of the modern environmental conditions, no longer conform to the standards we expect today. If they are in a bad position, they must be relocated. Local authorities must try to find alternative sites and must be prepared to grasp the nettle of compensation. I do not think they can do so without Government help and Government finance.

Much stricter width and weight restrictions must be imposed in these small country lanes without waiting for a long-term policy involving designated traffic routes. If we apply these restrictions on certain roads, it follows that we must offer to hauliers alternative accommodation or compensation, or we must spend extra money—again from central government sources, since one cannot expect a county council to disrupt its order of spending priorities—to provide other means of access to storage facilities in, their yards.

There is another major point I must mention. I know that my hon. Friend is aware of the enormous national concern about heavy lorries, but I am not sure that the nation understands the amount of determination which has been shown and the amount of research which the Government are undertaking at present into this subject. If the public could be more involved through their amenity societies, through the Road Haulage Association, the Freight Transport Association, local authorities and others, their anxieties would be somewhat allayed and they would be able to recognise some of the more practical difficulties.

Would my hon. Friend say what detailed research is being conducted in his Department and say when we may expect to hear something generally about this subject? If no such research is being undertaken, which I think is unlikely, I suggest that it would be helpful to set up a working party of departmental officials, the Road Haulage Association, the Freight Transport Association and people such as the Civic Trust and local authority associations to examine this subject. There is a great need to involve the public in this big debate. We often talk about public involvement, and since the public is deeply involved in these topics it would be a great service to democracy if the Government could, as it were, open their books to the public.

It my be that time could be found for a debate on this subject since almost every Member of Parliament must have in his constituency a lorry problem. If the Leader of the House cannot find time in this session, or indeed in this House, perhaps he could say that time could be found in another place to debate this subject with the skill and expertise which is to be found there.

These problems exist today and will be multiplied to an alarming degree even with existing lorry weight. It is not surprising that there has been considerable alarm, by pro- and anti-Marketeers alike, at the suggestion of even higher lorry weights being allowed if we enter the Common Market. My hon. Friend knows that I have strong views on the subject of British entry into the Common Market, but whether or not we enter, Britain cannot isolate herself from the prospect of increasing lorry sizes. We shall have to face up to this problem of learning how to live with these large lorries, but I urge that we should not accept any increase in lorry weights unless and until we have a statement to the effect that designated lorry routes will be developed to the full. We should never accept anything, even a compromise arrangement, which we felt was detrimental to the quality of life.

I have been immensely encouraged, as I am sure the country has been, by the reports of the vigorous stand taken by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries in Brussels. Determination that British interests and the quality of life in this country will be protected encourages people in the belief that we are resolved to find the right answer to the problems caused by lorries on our roads and in our villages and towns throughout the country, but particularly in the South East, where the problem is much more acute because of its proximity to the Continent.

We have more vehicles per mile of road than any other country. More freight is carried by road in this country than in any other country. In passing, I should like to ask the Minister whether he feels that it is right that there should be the present enormous number of containers on the roads which, I should have thought, were ideally suited for rail transport. I do not know what the figures show, but I suspect that they indicate that more containers are being carried by road than by rail. I wonder whether the Government are satisfied with that situation.

I could have referred to many other critical traffic problems in our area—to the disgraceful inadequacy of the main A2 route, and to the urgent need for development of the A249 leading from the A2 to Sheerness Docks where new jetties and roll-on/roll-off facilities such as those at Dover are generating a tremendous amount of vehicle traffic. That traffic will be on the roads long before the improvements are effected. I could have spoken about the need for an industrial route to bypass Faversham where juggernauts are trying to get through the narrow streets and residential area of a lovely old town.

However, I think that I have said enough to indicate the urgency of the problem and the need for short-term and long-term solutions if the quality of life in this country is to be preserved. We face the continuing dilemma of conservation versus development. I should like to conclude with a quotation. Over 200 years ago Edmund Burke, who was unfamiliar with Boeings, juggernauts and all the other problems of twentieth century life, said: If we command our wealth we shall be rich and free; if our wealth commands us we are poor indeed. It is because I believe the Government are well seized of the problem and are determined to solve it that I look forward to a prompt and comprehensive response to my appeal.

4.18 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Keith Speed)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) for raising this extremely important subject. He used the words "mounting anxiety" and "emotional stress". I agree completely with what he said. This problem is growing and is causing considerable concern throughout the country, not least in my constituency.

My hon. Friend will know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries is engaged in negotiations which will continue over the months ahead into such questions as vehicle regulations and the sizes and weights of vehicles in relation to the Common Market. I should not like to anticipate the outcome of those negotiations, but my right hon. Friend is being extremely energetic and he has the sense of the House in the discussions which he is having with our European partners.

There is no easy answer to the problem of lorry traffic because in rural areas, and even in urban areas, there are problems arising from quarries from which road stone, gravel or sand must be cleared. There are normal deliveries to shops, warehouses and factories. Even in rural areas there is the movement to and from farms of milk and bulk containers with grains and fertilisers. These are essential movements, and any increase in movement costs will have economic con- sequences and consequences on the cost of living.

I should perhaps explain the powers of local authorities, because this is an important matter. Local authorities have ample powers to ban classes of vehicles from unsuitable roads. A number of our historic towns and cities—such as Ipswich and Norwich, which I have seen for myself—are carrying out selective bans of heavy commercial vehicles from their centres. They can carry out bans either by weight or by size restriction. County councils can do this for rural roads. The grounds for their carrying out this action can be to prevent danger, unsuitability of class of vehicle, preservation of the road or adjoining buildings or even amenity. It is entirely a matter for the local authority's judgment and action, but there are two important problems.

There is the need to allow exceptions for access and the critical problem of the suitable alternative route. County councils as local planning authorities can also influence through planning procedures development in rural areas and activities likely to generate heavy lorry traffic. On the positive side, looking ahead, future and indeed present planning policies will generally steer industrial and modernising projects to land which will not give rise to traffic or environmental problems. If the terms of the planning permission are infringed, councils can serve notice on the owner requiring the contravention to cease.

There is the problem of the present cases. Here there are negative planning powers which local authorities can use. They can decide that the terms of the original planning permission were too wide. They can make a discontinuance order to restrict the use or bring it to an end, but in that case compensation is involved. There is a right of appeal in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State may be the final arbiter. That is why it would be improper for me to comment on specific aspects of any particular case which my hon. Friend has in mind.

It is primarily for the county councils and county borough councils and the first-tier authorities under the new local government set-up to look at planning in the light of road access. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has no desire to relieve the local authorities of their responsibilities. We have put down guidance in a development control policy note on road safety and traffic requirements.

The road programme is extremely important. There will be the completion of a 3,500 mile network of high-quality trunk roads in the early 1980s. Major ports will be linked with the existing network by the mid-1970s. Towns and villages will be increasingly bypassed when high class roads are available from the ports, and work is under way for these schemes. There will be more chance of using route restrictions to ensure that heavy traffic keeps to suitable routes.

My hon. Friend raised the question of research. It is necessary to realise the whole scale of the problem of the environment and the lorry, and not just the particular problem mentioned by my hon. Friend. As he recognised, we have to live with the lorry. It is an essential part of our economic life.

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that my Department, on the instigation of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries, is carrying out an extremely comprehensive study called Lorries and the Environment. That study has been going on for several months and I cannot say at this stage when its conclusions will be completed, but the people undertaking the study are pressing on with a large job. They are studying lorry route restriction by local authorities so that we can see the practical problem of how these restrictions can properly be achieved. The study is concerned with goods distribution, and with the costs of the present methods and whether we can evaluate remedial measures against those costs.

For example, consideration is being given to the breaking down of loads outside towns and putting them on small lorries, but the result will be that there will then be more smaller lorries in towns. Is it better to have fewer but larger lorries? There are two points of view on this. We are doing an extremely sophisticated study in one town to see exactly what can be done.

There are many other aspects of the lorry and the environment—pollution aspects, the lorry itself as a pollutant, and whether we can improve it from the point of view of fumes, noise, weight and so on. I assure my hon. Friend that we are well engaged on this extremely comprehensive exercise. When we receive the results we shall study them closely to see what further steps to take.

Improvement of the lorry itself is another matter. There are regulations on exhaust emissions and on power-weight ratios. Enforcement powers are being strengthened for overweight lorries. On 31st July the important Road Traffic and Foreign Vehicles Act will come into force. It will enable regulations to be enforced just as effectively on foreign vehicles as they are on domestic vehicles at the moment. This will be of particular importance in Kent and the South-East and the area my hon. Friend represents.

Dealing with insecure loads, we have a new regulation empowering the immediate prohibition of offending vehicles, and guidance on the securing of loads is to be published shortly. We do have the assistance of proper maintenance and regular checks as well as effective rear markings making vehicles generally safer. I think it is fair to say that lorries are now safer than a few years ago.

My hon. Friend mentioned the question of lorry parks. He may know that the Government have set aside £10 million for the acquisition of 50 sites over the next three to five years, which will then be developed commercially to provide high standards of sleeping accommodation, food and fuel, and secure parks so that these lorries can stay overnight or during the day when working these long-distance trunking hours. It will be part of a national network. This follows a working party report on lorry parks published last autumn. These new parks will certainly stand up to the best on the Continent.

There is another problem, and here we look to local authorities to help. That is the question of local lorry parks. We need new attitudes here. The road hauliers must accept that streets and lanes are not public garages for lorries. We do not expect butchers, bakers or furnishers or other shop keepers to use the streets as their shop premises, and so it must be with lorries. Off-street parking must be provided. This working party recommended: The local haulier should be catered for by the provision of small local parking areas provided by local authorities in which parking spaces could be rented. I urge local authorities to respond to this problem, just as the Government are responding with hard cash and a lot of effort to the national problem.

Local authorities have powers to provide these local lorry parks which can be used in all sorts of ways, some of them described by my hoh. Friend. They can back up, once they have proved these parks, by restraining and restricting lorries parking on the streets in their areas. No doubt in doing this they would wish to consult with the hauliers and the local residents to overcome the problems my hon. Friend has mentioned. We are extremely concerned to get all these matters on to a proper footing, to relieve the very real stresses and strains and often the near destruction of many of our rural lanes which is being caused by lorries increasingly using roads for which they were clearly never designed.

We will not solve the problem by taking a completely anti-lorry and restrictive approach. It can be solved only by co-operation between local authorities, hauliers and the Government. We still have to learn more about this problem which is why the studies are extremely important. The road improvement programme will undoubtedly ease the situation, but we cannot wait until the 1980s before we are on the way to solving the problem. Time is against us.

There is no question that local authorities need any extra powers. My hon. Friend would argue that they certainly need extra money and I take his point. Obviously, he would not expect me to enter into any commitment on behalf of the Government about extra money at this time. Much can be done by sensible use of planning and traffic powers by the local authorities within the existing framework of planning and road traffic law to deal with particular problems. Continuing research and study is obviously important so that decision-making can be helpful in the future policies which my right hon. Friend will no doubt be outlining.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter. His part of the country has perhaps the worst of the problem and it is a problem which is growing. He asks me about containers, road and rail. Undoubtedly, there will be many more containers that can travel by rail. British Rail has the freight-liner trains which are running extremely well but in the best circumstances they can carry only a relatively small part of this growing volume of containers which have advantages for industry in transporting goods.

There is the problem of access, getting goods from one factory to another, from one factory to the Continent. Even when it is possible to get the containers to the rail-head there is the problem of getting from the rail-head to individual factories or shops. That can add to the congestion in towns.

I hope my hon. Friend does not feel that we are being either complacent or despairing. The measures we are taking with lorry parks, trying to make the lorry a more civilised vehicle, and the considerable research we are doing and the powers that local authorities have plus the massive road programme upon which we have embarked, give me grounds for hoping that within the next few years we shall have tackled this problem and solved it in a major way, at the same time caring for the environment. The South East and the Eastern counties have very beautiful lanes and countryside and some of these lanes are being almost destroyed by the traffic. These problems will be solved. My hon. Friend has done a great service to the House in raising this subject.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.