HC Deb 20 March 1972 vol 833 cc1304-14

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

3.31 a.m.

Mr. David James (Dorset, North)

I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the Deputy Whip, to the Minister and to all members of the staff for keeping the House at this hour.

This opportunity which I have to raise a subject of considerable importance, though not the major attraction that will take place later in the day, arises through my luck in the Ballot. I am disappointed, however, that some of my more distinguished hon. Friends are not in their places wearing top hats, ready for the Chancellor's Budget speech.

While this debate is directed at the problems of Dorset in general and of North Dorset in particular, it has a wider application for other rural communities because what concerns me is the way in which large vehicles are ruining the peace and quiet of the countryside.

There is no simple answer to this problem, because the police have always refused selectively to prevent large vehicles from using a particular road, and the farming community, by the employment of bulk carriers of grain and feeding stuffs, for the collection of milk and so on, would be equally hard hit if there were any general attempt to ban large vehicles.

That being the position, what can one do about it? I have five inter-related propositions to put forward. The first, which is self-evident, is the urgent need in the South-West of England for a trunk road linking Bristol and Southampton. If such a road existed, many of the points I wish to raise would not have risen.

Second, rural communities should be entitled to the protection of a speed limit if they so desire, irrespective of the present criteria, and that limit should not necessarily involve the sacred cow of the 30 m.p.h. restriction. At present it is 30 m.p.h. or nothing; take it or leave it.

Third—this is a minor but nevertheless important point—if vehicles are slowed down, drivers should be told why. I should like to see a traffic sign indicating that historic buildings are in the neighbourhood, rather like signs indicating schools and so on. Everybody recognises why such signs are posted and they help people to appreciate the need to exercise a degree of caution. Fourth, on narrow lanes there is urgent need for a single unbroken white line and, fifth, as a corollary I shall have something to say about double white lines on A class roads.

My first suggestion is the need for a north-south trunk road. This is so self-evident that I need say nothing to justify it. At present, what happens in Dorset—which I should mention lies south of Bristol, because most people do not know that—is that those lorries and heavy vehicles which want to come either from the industrial Midlands, South Wales or Bristol have the choice of three routes.

The first route is the A350 through Warminster down to Shaftesbury. After Shaftesbury it meanders its way through delightful Dorset villages, the names of which are music to anyone's ears—Melbury Abbas, Compton Abbas, Iwerne Minster and Stourpaine—down to Blandford. The second possibility open to them is to take the A357 from Wincanton, which goes through Stallbridge, Sturminster Newton, Okeford Fitzpaine, and Durweston and joins up with the other road. The third option open to these vehicles is to take a minor road, the B3061, which goes through Gillingham, East Stour, Todber—where I was very nearly forced off the road and into the ditch by a heavy lorry on my way to the House this morning—Manston, Childe Okeford and Steepleton. Those are the routes which hundreds of heavy lorries have to take in present circumstances.

I make no apology for raising the particular position of Childe Okeford, partly because it happens to be the village in which I live and naturally I am more aware of its problems than those of other places, but partly because it typifies the difficult situation in which we now find ourselves. Childe Okeford has been inhabited for about 4,000 years, if one includes the Iron Age settlement on the hill immediately overlooking the village. It has a great history. It was besieged by Charles I and by Cromwell. General Wolfe taught his troops to scale the heights of Quebec on the hill immediately behind the village, Hamilton Hill.

It is not generally recognised that the first public rendering of "Onward Christian Soldiers" was performed in the parish church because Arthur Sullivan had friends in the village.

I hope that that is an indication of the sort of little community we are discussing, a straggling village along 1.2 miles of road. Until the end of the war the main street was not paved. There was one of those delightful watercourses across the road which as schoolboys we all loved splashing through on our bicycles. That was Childe Okeford 25 years ago. Apart from a few housing estates bringing up the population, it has not increased all that much since then.

But what is happening now? Day after day and night after night there is a thunder of heavy vehicles along this road which is utterly incapable of taking them. A group of local vigilantes—I shall not pretend that I laid this on, but I did not impede it—has been conducting private surveys in the last few weeks. Between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on 31st January, 12 retired people working in rotation counted 863 vehicles going, in almost equal proportions, north and south through the village, of which 91 were heavy. On 29th February the number had risen to 1,150, with the same proportion.

It is impossible for a village of this size to accommodate this type of vehicle. Already the absurd situation has been reached where if by any chance two of them meet between historic buildings there is no option but for one of them to stop, reverse and find a farm yard gate or a lay-by to let the other one through. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will know from my letter to him which included details of this matter, twice recently heavy lorries have been forced off the road just by Handford, just a few hundred yards from the village. One of the lorries was a 30-tonner which ended up within a few feet of the lodge gates of Handford School.

Having accepted that these heavy vehicles cannot be kept off the road, we want to discourage them and to give the people who live in the village some sense of security with this traffic thundering through. Quite clearly a speed limit is required, and they want a speed limit of 30 miles per hour. The Ministry have an ingenious device known as the 85 per centile which assumes that 85 per cent. of everyone who drives is sensible and the other 15 per cent. are fools. Therefore, what happens to the 85 per cent. is regarded as being sensible. As the 85 per centile is 27 m.p.h. that is not going to be much good to Childe Okeford. Therefore I would like my hon. Friend to bring in a 20 m.p.h. limit for villages in this category to discourage vehicles which do not need to use that road as a matter of course.

Speed limits can be enforced by a police trap once a month, and such a speed limit would give reasonable safety to life and limb for the people who live in the villages who walk along this un-lighted, unpavemented type of causeway.

There are precedents for this type of speed limit. The national parks already have 20 m.p.h. speed limits and have had for many years. Road works have a 10 m.p.h. speed limit and non-mandatory road signs, the sort which say "Go Slow" on bends, are marked in 5 m.p.h. graduations.

In America in many states, I recollect particularly when I was motoring in Colorado a year or two ago, traffic is slowed in 5 m.p.h. stages, all the way from 70 to 15 m.p.h. in many cases. In Europe it is done in 10 kilometre steps which is nearer to 5 m.p.h. than 10 m.p.h. I do not believe there is a mystique in the 30 m.p.h. limit when possibly in the interests of everyone concerned it could be 25, 20 or even 15 m.p.h.

There should also be a sign showing why drivers should go slowly past historic buildings, and this applies particularly in the historic town of Wimborne where gorgeous Georgian buildings are being shaken to bits. While all drivers are good at recognising a blind corner, very few of them realise that a hill crest is as blind as a corner, and many accidents are caused by overtaking on crests.

We have a good system of double white lines on A class trunk roads and by and large the rule is amazingly well-observed. Everyone knows it is the kiss of death to transgress the double white line. But this cannot be put down on an 18 ft. road, because there is insufficient room for white lines and two vehicles. On minor roads I should like to see a single unbroken white line as mandatory for non-passing as the double white line.

I draw my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary's attention to Gains Cross on the A357 between Okeford Fitzpaine and Durweston. It is merely a matter of time before there is an accident at this point and I cannot for the life of me see why motorists should be regarded as being so bemused that they cannot regard a single unbroken white line as being as valid as a double unbroken white line.

If my hon. Friend does not accept this argument why does he not accept the continental remedy and opt for the single line throughout? We shall have more and more continental motorists on our roads. More and more of our motorists will motor on the Continent. There is much to be said for uniformity in the matter. But the essence is that the unbroken white line is the one thing the motorist does not cross, or where he passes another vehicle under literal pain of death.

I have a final small point that struck home to me very forcibly because I nearly made a bad mistake only two weeks ago. Even on an A-class road like theA30 from Salisbury to Blandford, the combination of long modern lorries and low sports cars is such that there are many hidden dangers. A small car coming towards another motorist can be absolutely hidden from view. I rarely take the car to London, but I had to do so two weeks ago. I was coming back from London when I was very nearly killed on the slope down to Tarrant Hinton on the A350. It is quite a long way down the slope. There was a big lorry in front of me. It was only instinct and native caution that prevented my pulling out. There was a little sports car tucked away, and if I had tried to pass that big brute of a lorry I should had had a head-on collision.

I hope that the entire no-passing system in hilly country will be reviewed to take into account the long lorry and the small sports car, so that everyone knows that if there is a broken line it is safe to pass and that if there is an unbroken line or lines he passes at his own peril and that of his fellow human beings.

I have taken up almost exactly half the time for the debate, and I will not take up more. I have detected a certain reluctance by the Department to take seriously all these inter-linked and associated propositions up to now. It would do an immense amount both for safety on the roads and the preservation of the countryside if they were examined carefully, particularly as they have the private endorsement of everyone concerned within my local authority.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. David James) has characteristically deployed the anxieties of his constituents very eloquently, even though at a late hour.

My Department does take seriously the mix of factors my hon. Friend has described. There is not only the impact of the lorry, the motor car, the signs, the white lines on the environment and amenity of people; there is the concern we all have for road safety, which is the principal consideration in my hon. Friend's mind and mine.

My hon. Friend is fortunate to represent so beautiful a part of the country, an area I know well, and one which I can appreciate the concern, exasperation and even anger that people must feel when they see the large heavy lorry, with its noise, its smoke, its vibration, impacting on that most delightful part of the country. My own part of the country, in East Anglia, is similarly disadvantaged through the heavy lorries making their way from the North Sea ports to the industrial areas, so I fully understand and sympathise with the constituents whom my hon. Friend has so forcefully represented tonight.

As my hon. Friend said, there is no easy answer to the problems of goods traffic which has its origin and destination in the district. There is not only the problem of the through traffic which we all recognise, but there is the difficulty of the local factory which needs to take in raw materials and dispatch its products; the quarry from which the road stone must be cleared; the deliveries to local establishments; and, increasingly, the movement to and from farms of milk in bulk tankers and grain, feeding stuffs, fertilisers and so on. Since these are essential goods, any increase in the cost of their movement would necessarily be reflected directly in the cost of living.

On the other hand, I must say on behalf of my Department that we are already doing a great deal to reduce the nuisance caused by heavy vehicles and also to provide long-distance traffic with better routes. In the first place, we seek to act on the lorry itself, to civilise it by regulating its noise limits and putting restrictions on its exhaust, its weight and its size. In our road programme, we are now pressing very hard for improved inter-urban routes which will attract large lorries to the large road, the by-passes and the road improvements and so on, particularly seeking to by-pass the historic towns.

My hon. Friend particularly drew attention to three roads which pass through his constituency and I think at the back of his mind he perhaps had the idea that rather more should be spent and a bigger effort made to provide a north-south road in that area. I can tell him that it is for the local authority in the area, if it wishes, to put forward proposals for this and that most certainly we would look at such proposals.

My hon. Friend's main point, at the beginning at least, concerned the heavy lorry, and I must tell him that the local authority has ample powers to ban whole classes of vehicles from roads—for example, by placing weight or size restrictions on particular roads. In order to do it it must have grounds of either preventing danger or that the class of vehicle in question is unsuitable for the road—that it needs to ban it to preserve the road or adjoining buildings or even for the sake of amenity. It is a matter for its own local judgment and discretion. No national policy is involved.

But, of course, there is always the problem that in country areas in particular one has to deal also with farm vehicles and there must always be a suitable alternative route if one is to ban particular vehicles from one road, and in the countryside that is not always possible. So the local authority is often up against it, no matter how anxious it is to act. No change in the law is required to help it in this matter.

My hon. Friend, in correspondence, has mentioned to me the question of Melbury Abbas. I do not propose to deal with it in detail, as he did not make it one of his main points, but perhaps I should say simply that I am informed that this route is a relatively good one. It is, indeed, an old Roman road, much used by through traffic. I understand that the county council considered putting a weight restriction on the stretch between Melbury Abbas and Blandford under the powers I have referred to but decided against it because it would have interfered with farm traffic and because, after taking a traffic census two years ago, it obtained the names of the main employers of the lorry traffic and wrote to them appealing for their co-operation in avoiding this road.

I commend the local authority on its initiative in seeking voluntary co-operation in this way. I understand that the majority of employers were very sympathetic and that there was a substantial reduction in traffic. One must also accept that the effects of this are now wearing off, that drivers are continuing to use the road, but I am informed that the council is considering a further appeal to them. If this does not work, no doubt it will have to consider again whether it should make use of the power of banning I have already mentioned.

My hon. Friend and I have spoken on speed limits on a number of occasions. He will appreciate that my Department's policy is that to be effective they must be realistic. To be recognised they must make sense to the majority of drivers. It is a plain matter of experience that if they are not satisfied that a speed limit is reasonable and realistic they will ignore it. If the majority ignore it, enforcement becomes impossible. The consequence of a whole proliferation of ill-observed limits over the whole country would bring the system into disrepute. That is why my Department has laid down criteria for limits at various levels. They include the 85 percentile speed, the accident rate and also the character and environment of the road.

Mr. David James

Does my hon. Friend agree that the accident rate is a matter of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted?

Mr. Griffiths

No, I do not think so. One has to make an objective measure and that is one which in my experience I have found will be most effective. The criteria recognise that villages need special consideration. I do not think this is appreciated in the country as much as it should be.

Departmental circulars specifically provide that along with the 85 per centile speeds, there could be some relaxation of accident criteria in villages. The argument for realism and physical characteristics of the road can keep down the speed. Nevertheless, it is possible to vary the criteria in the case of villages with special problems. I was grateful for my hon. Friend's description of Child Okeford with its 4.000 year history and the references to Wolfe training his troops there and to Arthur Sullivan writing "Onward Christian Soldiers" there.

I appreciate that people in such a village are fed up with noise and vibration caused by heavy lorries and traffic generally. It is an intrusion into people's lives, but on the other hand there is the necessity for the economic well-being of the country. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that it is necessary to keep a sense of proportion and perspective in comparison with other parts of the country. He was very kind to let me see the informal traffic census completed by public spirited constituents. My Department will take it most carefully into consideration, but a total north and south of under 1,000 vehicles a day is not by modern standards in comparison with the rest of the country a very high volume. Compared with the majority of communities these are very low figures. Other villages in East Anglia, the West Country and elsewhere would welcome a reduction to those figures. Unfortunately, if we were to reduce the figures to those of Child Okeford the only way would be to provide an endless number of by-passes throughout the countryside.

My hon. Friend said that his constituents wanted a 30 m.p.h. speed limit and he thought there was a case for a 20 m.p.h. limit. It is the task of the county council to interpret what speed limits are required on these minor roads. I stress again that they have extra discretion in the case of villages. The county council must take into account the volume of traffic and other criteria.

I understand that my hon. Friend has discussed the matter with the county surveyor and my Department's regional controller. The regional controller has indicated informally that he would raise no objection to a speed limit, but the final decision must rest with the county surveyor and the county council. If they put forward such a suggestion my Department would not stand in the way. I do not think we could agree to a 20 m.p.h. limit; I think the appropriate limit would be 30 m.p.h.

I turn to the question of white lines. My hon. Friend was very eloquent on the subject of crest-line overtaking, which is a problem that can arise—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at one minute past Four o'clock.