HC Deb 01 November 1972 vol 845 cc315-26

9.59 p.m.

Mr. William Rodgers (Stockton-on-Tees)

I am glad to have this opportunity of turning from the broad questions of Scotland to a particular question affecting part of the North-East of England. In raising the question of a speed limit on the A1027 ring road in my constituency, I am delighted to have this opportunity of raising something not only of importance to my constituents but also involving wider issues of public policy. It is now nine years since I raised the problems relating to the A1027.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Rodgers

I am relieved that that means I am now in order, but I hope I do not have to say the same thing again. I am delighted to know that the Government Whips remember their duty, even if a little late in the day.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Question has to be proposed again at Ten o'clock.

Mr. Rodgers

Then I am delighted that the Government Whips know their duty so well, and I presume that this allows me not 15 but 16 minutes to put my case.

In 1963 I raised the question relating to this road with the Minister then responsible, now Lord Hailsham. I welcome the opportunity but regret the necessity of raising it again. The crux now is the letter of the Under-Secretary of State on 3rd October announcing, after a very long delay, that he was unwilling to take any steps to reduce the dangers caused by unrestricted speed on the A1027 Stockton ring road between Station Road and Billingham Motors.

The views I am expressing are not only my own, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but those also of the Teesside Borough Council, Stockton Road Safety Committee and local residents' associations. I am not seeking to argue the case either for a 40 m.p.h. limit, which local residents would prefer, or a 50 m.p.h. restriction, which is what the Teesside Borough Council proposes. What I am concerned with is that there should be some restriction on this road in the interests of public safety.

In his letter of 3rd October, the hon. Gentleman said that a restriction could not be reconciled with current speed limit policy. I know this road. I travelled it on Monday. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman knows it. I have read Circular 10/69 and I cannot see how his decision, if it is his, fits in with that statement of policy, which to the best of my knowledge has not since been superseded.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I have been most concerned with the delay in reaching this decision. In August, 1969, over three years ago, consultation took place with the district road engineer about the prospect of a speed limit and in April, 1970, notices of the proposed limit were advertised. In November, 1970, final proposals were submitted to the Department. So, over three years after the original consultation and almost two years after the final submission, the decision was announced as incorporated in the hon. Gentleman's letter of 3rd October.

During this period, not only was the section of the ring road with which I am concerned unrestricted but there was another long and arguably more dangerous stretch which, due to an oversight, was also unrestricted. As the hon. Gentleman must know, had there been any legal dispute during that period there would have been very considerable difficulties because of the status of that section of the road.

My interest is that on 9th September, 1970—I emphasise again that this was more than two years ago—I wrote to the then Under-Secretary of State, now Minister for Aerospace. There was further correspondence and on 1st May this year the present Under-Secretary of State wrote to me: I am no happier than you are over the delay. At that stage the question arose whether the whole matter should be submitted to the Parliamentary Commissioner, especially in view of the strongly expressed views locally about confusion and muddle. I decided at that stage not to submit the case to the Parliamentary Commissioner, perhaps foolishly but because I hoped that the delay might result in the right decision being made. I was concerned with the substance and not with the problems within the hon. Gentleman's Department, so I waited and I had very good reason to believe that the decision would be made sensibly.

As a motorist, I am inclined to drive as fast as I reasonably can, and were the hon. Gentleman to argue that there must be an element of discretion and of common sense I should agree with him. I am not arguing that all roads should be restricted in such a way that everybody can cross them in their own due time without any danger. But—this is very important, and I hope for an unequivocal statement from the Minister—public authorities must lean over backwards in the direction of road safety. The main concern is not that the motorist gets from one place to another a minute faster or 10 seconds faster, but that people should be protected in the lawful pursuit of their endeavours. Thus, while saying as a motorist that I hope motorists will be free to move as fast as they reasonably can, I qualify that, as I hope the Under-Secretary will, by saying that public safety comes first.

The road in question is an urban ring road between two major centres of population on Teesside and through a growing estate. Secondly, the main traffic speeds on this road have been rising, but the speeds at which 85 per cent. of car drivers travel in free-flowing conditions indicate that a restriction would be enforceable. Thirdly, this is a rare case—and I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman could tell me how often it could be repeated—of an unrestricted road with a school crossing patrol. It is very rare that a "lollipop" man seeing children across the road is confronted with traffic travelling at 70 mph. Fourthly, a restriction on this part of the road would be wholly consistent with the restrictions on other parts of the ring road and with the whole traffic population trend in the area. I do not know whether the Under-Secretary is aware that there is a likelihood of the number of houses adjacent to the road being doubled in the next two or three years.

The peak traffic on this road is between 8.30 and 9 o'clock in the morning, with the fastest traffic between 3.30 and 4.15 in the evening, and these are precisely the periods during which the school crossing patrol is meant to operate. Secondly—and I refer here to the implication of the hon. Gentleman's letter of 3rd October—the police see no problem in enforcement. On the contrary, they want a restriction on this road.

Thirdly, relating to what I said about speeds for motorists, the fact, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree if he knew this road, is that, unrestricted, it is an incentive to a quick, exhilarating, dangerous dash but, restricted to 50 mph, a motorist travelling from one point to another will arrive at the end of the road in 10 seconds more. In other words, we are setting 10 seconds of travelling time for a motorist against all the human dangers involved in leaving the road unrestricted. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that 10 seconds on this road is worth the life of a child? That is precisely the question which is being posed and which I do not believe the Department has faced.

Circular 10/69 says in paragraph 2A: 50 mph limits may also be considered for some very high standard urban roads ", but Mr. Scott's letter, which the hon. Gentleman was kind enough to include with his letter of 3rd October, refers to a "good quality" road. There is no question of "high standard" or "very high standard ". It is simply a question of good quality, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider whether in those circumstances there is compatibility between the decision to which he is party and the announcement in Circular 10/69. I should be grateful for a specific reply on this point.

The hon. Gentleman wrote to me on 15th March this year stating that the building development alongside this road —and I quote: completely alters our approach ". What did it alter, and from what to what? The hon. Gentleman cannot argue that an alteration of approach involved deciding that where it was to be restricted it ought not to be restricted. The only alteration of approach could have been that because of the new development to which I have referred it was now decided that this road ought to be restricted.

There is here something extraordinarily difficult to understand. I know that the Under-Secretary has a clear and decisive mind and I cannot understand—I hope he will explain—how he could have referred on 15th March to altering his approach completely but now declines to impose a restriction.

I should like to ask two further general questions. First, has the policy announced in this House on 5th March, 1969, and embodied in Circular 10/69 been abandoned? Secondly, has there been a change of internal policy in the Department by which decisions are no longer made divisionally by those who know the local conditions and local circumstances but are made at the centre?

I hope the Minister will take this matter seriously. I submit that the wrong decision has been made. I do not believe that it has been made by the divisional road engineer because I cannot believe that he would welcome this decision. It is incompatible, as I understand, with his view. Nor, with respect to the Under-Secretary, can I believe that he personally could have made a decision of this kind. I have too much respect for him. This is an anonymous, bureaucratic, unfeeling and unnecessary decision which those who made it will regret, and it is simply not good enough.

On the other hand, I think there is still time. I have said, and I repeat, that I believe that the Minister on reflection—I ask for nothing decisive tonight—will take the view that the decision can be modified. Although I urge upon the hon. Gentleman tonight a 40 mph speed limit, were he eventually to settle for a 50 mph speed limit I would believe that to he a reasonable compromise which I would support. I hope, therefore, that while answering, as I know he will, various points which I have made, and answering, as I hope he will, specific questions, his final message will be that he has learned something he did not know before; and, concerned as I know him to be with problems of road safety as well as with traffic control, that he will take it away and accept my invitation to come to Stockton-on-Tees, to travel this road and to make this decision in knowledge and not, as now, in ignorance.

10.14 p.m.

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

I am very much obliged to the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. William Rodgers) for the very clear and reasonable way in which he has made these points tonight. Let me say at once to him that public safety, in my judgment and that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, most certainly comes first. No one who confronts, as I do and as no doubt he did when in government, the appalling carnage on our roads can possibly doubt that human life must come before the convenience of vehicle users. I give the hon. Gentleman that flat assurance.

May I also at the outset acknowledge that my Department for a variety of reasons has taken far too long to consider and decide upon this case. I shall not, if the hon. Gentleman will excuse me, go into all the protracted considerations which have gone into this matter. I ask him to accept from me that sickness, the sickness of individuals within the regional controller's office, has added to the difficulties, and I should like him to accept also that so thoroughly and carefully have my officials, both in the regional office and from London, gone into the matter that there have been delays largely on account of their wishing to give it the most careful and diligent consideration.

Perhaps I may at the outset make one or two general observations before focusing attention specifically on this ring road. I think that all hon. Members have constituency experience of their local people wishing speed limits to be imposed or reduced in the areas where they live and where their children must go to school. As the hon. Gentleman fairly said, as motorists we all wish to drive as fast as we reasonably can, whereas as pedestrians and as inhabitants in our own communities we want the traffic to go as slowly as it possibly can. I think that we all have an ambivalent approach to the matter, taking one view when behind the wheel, sometimes feeling that speed limits are irksome and unreasonable, while taking a different view when we are in our own communities and taking our children to school.

In these circumstances, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree, a national policy on speed limits must be reasonable, and it must be realistic. I do not regard speed limits as a universal panacea. There is a whole complex of safety measures which need to be applied. But, certainly, if speed limits are to work, they must succeed in restricting to controllable levels the speeds at which motorists travel.

If they are to be effective, speed limits must command the respect of the majority of car drivers. If they do not command the respect of the majority of drivers, who are reasonable people, they will simply not be obeyed, and a speed limit which is ignored in practice by the majority of reasonable drivers is ineffective and devalues the whole policy on speed limits throughout the country. Moreover, it becomes impossible for the police to enforce if the majority of drivers think it unreasonable and unrealistic.

All Governments, therefore, must seek to set speed limits by a series of consistent national criteria. In other words, we must look at the characteristics of the road and the road environment. We must consider whether the particular road is more or less dangerous than other roads of a similar kind, which means that we must examine the accident records and see whether it has more or fewer accidents than the average for roads of that kind. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we take into account the volume of traffic and the speed at which the 85 percentile proportion of the traffic goes along. We consider all these aspects which go into the determination of an effective limit; that is, a limit which will be regarded by the majority of motorists as reasonable and realistic and which may, therefore, be enforced.

I must stress that if one seeks to impose speed limits which do not meet the established national criteria all that happens is that they are ignored and the speed limit policy itself is devalued.

I turn now to the application of those general points to the situation on the A1027 in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. We are not here considering a few minor stretches of road. It is an important ring road forming a useful connection between two busy localities for between 10,000 and 14,000 vehicles a day. It is one route, but I think it may be for the convenience of the House if I deal with it in three sections where the matter has fallen to be considered by the regional office, where, I assure the hon. Gentleman, these decisions are, in the main, still made.

The first section from south to north, from Darlington Road, the junction with the A66, to the junction with Durham Road, consists of three stretches which add up to 2,850 yards. The next section from Durham Road to the roundabout at Station Road is 2,267 yards, and the third portion is from the roundabout at Station Road to the roundabout at the junction with the A19, which is some 1,400 yards and which is the section with which the hon. Member was primarily concerned tonight.

I must deal with all three sections because speed limits have had to be established for each of them and I must deal with the road as a whole. In the case of the first section from Darlington Road to Durham Road there are two roundabouts, a crossroads and three stretches which share a broadly common road environment. There is some housing development but on the whole it is well set back and for the major part it occurs on one only side of the road. Visibility is good for drivers and pedestrians, and the 85 percentile speeds are in the range of 38 to 40 miles per hour. The accident record is relatively low and there is no doubt that the council was right in deciding that it would be unreasonable to retain the 30 m.p.h. limit on this stretch of the road. I support the council in its decisions, which are completely in accord with the Department's policy.

There have been objections over pedestrian safety, but I think that the school crossing patrols and the existing zebra crossings on that particular portion are the right way to handle the matter and the council is right to increase the limit there to 40 m.p.h. It is in accordance with our policy and it provides a reasonable speed limit which the majority of people will observe.

In the case of section 2 of the road, the council has decided that this, too, should have a 40 mph limit. In this case our national criteria are not completely met. If anything. there should be a limit higher than 40 mph, but we have had a very careful look at it and there are a number of special features along this section of the road which I think justify going to the 40 mph and not to the 50 mph limit. At present the stretch is unrestricted. It has an undivided carriageway of 2,300 yards, wellset-back residential property and further development in progress. There are four schools in the area, and the road has two zebra crossings and two school wardens on patrol. In this second section we have measured the speeds, and the 85 percentile measure shows an average of about 38 mph over the length. which is slightly curved and for the main part is not conducive to high speeds.

The majority of accidents over this section are, I am glad to say, slight. There are far more of them than I would like to see, but they are at approximately the national average for this type of road and over recent years they have not been particularly severe in character. The council considered, and I agree with the council, that the present 70 mph limit is quite unreasonable for this section, and in the circumstances a 50 mph restriction was not judged to be suitable because very few drivers would travel at that speed. It would have been impractical to have imposed a 30 mph limit, which is appropriate only for dense urban conditions or dangerous roads. This stretch does not have these characteristics, and therefore we have decided to support the council in applying the 40 mph limit. which we believe to be appropriate.

Mr. Rodgers

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned dense urban roads. Would he be kind enough to make it absolutely clear, as the phrase does not occur in Circular 10/69, whether there is any departure from the terms and descriptions of that circular?

Mr. Griffiths

I am not aware of any. However, in examining the terms and criteria I now come to the section about which the hon. Gentleman is most concerned, section 3, namely, that at the northern end of the area. This is the section that has caused most concern locally, as I have seen from the petition.

It is currently unrestricted and the council has proposed a 50 mph limit and the local residents are pressing for a 40 mph limit, but my Department has not felt able to agree to either proposal. The reasons are, first, that the road is of a modern design and of a high standard; secondly, it is a dual carriageway and this section is about 1,400 yards long, and for the main part, I am advised, it is in an undeveloped environment. It affords excellent visibility to drivers throughout its length. I have fairly good photograph taken by my officials to show the visibility. It is one of the best all-purpose roads in this area.

I accept that at the Station Road end there is a slight bend and a small pocket of development with a number of houses on either side, but those houses are completely fenced off. There is no frontal vehicular access allowed to the ring road at that point, which is in accordance with the best modern standards of road construction. There is a small side street junction called Fieldfare Lane, but this is the only junction throughout the length. A pedestrian bridge has been constructed immediately before the roundabout at Station Road and that provides for pram and cycle crossings as well as pedestrians. Speeds for the majority of motorists on this section are between 55 and 60 mph, and the accident rate on the section is relatively low.

Mr. Rodgers

At what date were the percentages of speeds taken and at exactly what point? I ask because what the hon. Gentleman has said does not coincide with my information.

Mr. Griffiths

With so little time, I am not able to give a precise answer, but I shall be glad to let the hon. Gentleman know as soon as practicable.

One has to look at all the accidents and the characteristics, but my Department has reached what it regards as an inescapable conclusion, namely, that a 50 m.p.h. limit on this first-class section of well-constructed road with good visibility, against a background of the traffic flows and accident considerations and so on, would be completely out of line with our national policy, followed by the past Government as well as this, of making speed limits realistic and reasonable in all the circumstances. We have given great thought to the alternative suggestion—and this may well have delayed the decision—that there should be a 40 m.p.h. limit on the 200–300 yard section from the Station Road roundabout to Fieldfare Lane, but, after a great deal of thought and examination, we concluded that that would he impracticable and unenforceable.

However, tonight the hon. Gentleman has told me of one or two things of which I was not personally fully aware. I will look into whether there are school crossing patrols, lollipop men, operating on unrestricted lengths to see whether that affects the situation. I must thank him for saying that he was not looking for a 40 m.p.h. limit or a 50 m.p.h. limit, but was asking for some restriction that would assist his constituents. He will understand that I cannot tonight give him any further undertakings. I have looked into the matter with my officials and I have concluded that their decision for the northern region is appropriate and that I should confirm it.

Nevertheless, on the basis that the hon. Gentleman has asked whether school crossing patrols operate on unrestricted lengths and against the background of the reasonable way in which he has put his case, I will again look at the matter. Provided that it can be done in a way that will be mutually convenient, if I can visit the area with the hon. Gentleman, I should like to do so before very long, and—

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock, 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 half-past Ten o'clock.