HC Deb 24 July 1973 vol 860 cc1573-84

11.18 p.m.

Mr. James Tinn (Cleveland)

The Under-Secretary of State and I can congratulate ourselves that, thanks to the way the House has so expeditiously disposed of the mass of business which stood on the Order Paper, we are able to reach the Adjournment debate very much earlier than we expected. Devoted as you are, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and ready at any time of day or night to serve the House, I am sure that you too find this not unwelcome.

The problem to which I draw attention is also of concern to our dairy farmers, but unlike the problem we have just been discussing it has been with them for a long time. It concerns not only dairy farmers but farmers generally, and every motorist who has occasion to drive in the countryside is aware of it. It is the danger to and that caused by animals, particularly farm animals, when they cross the roads.

My attention was concentrated on the matter by the problem of one of my constituents, Mr. R. C. Dickson, of Upsall Grange Farm. His farm is bisected by a road, as so many farms are. Two-thirds of his acreage and his dairy herd are on a different side of the road from his farm buildings. This has always been a difficulty for him, but the recent improvement of the road to dual carriageway has greatly increased the problem because the greater speed of the traffic makes it even more urgent for at least three men to be engaged in seeing the animals safely across the road four times a day.

Mr. Dickson's farm of 270 acres and 120 cows is not large enough for him to be able to provide that kind of manning. Accordingly, he asked the North Riding County Council to provide an underpass. Although the council was sympathetic, the request had to be turned down on grounds of expense, and this was understandable. All that was eventually provided was one of the customary statutory signs "Beware Cattle Crossing".

One knows that such signs are always in place. They tend to become rather weather beaten and are sometimes covered by foliage. Because they are always in place they tend to be disregarded by motorists, particularly urban motorists, who are not as aware as a countryman might be of the times at which cows are likely to be crossing the road on their way to and from the milking shed.

I approached the Department and suggested that the solution might lie in providing some kind of flashing sign similar to that which is customarily provided to warn motorists when they are approaching a school crossing. At that time the idea was not accepted, but I believe that it has since been considered seriously by the Department and I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us something about it.

This problem has been with us for a long time. In 1964 a working party was set up by the Ministry of Transport to consider the problem. The working party reported in 1967 and made certain recommendations. I am sorry to say that only one of those recommendations has been implemented, and that consisted of little more than the making of an advisory code of self-help. The Ministry issued a code about the wearing of bright-coloured jackets by farm workers.

The reason given for rejecting the working party's other recommendations was that the Minister did not have power to make the kind of grants suggested in its report, but he offered to take two steps which it was thought would contribute to solving the problem. The first was the inclusion of a paragraph on farm access in a booklet to be issued, and the second was the amendment of the traffic signs regulations so that certain types of temporary warning signs might be used. That proposal has not yet been implemented, but we have reason to believe that some progress has been made within the Department on this matter. Perhaps the Minister will tell us about it tonight.

All that has been achieved so far is the approval by the Transport Department of the use of a portable triangle similar to that used by motorists to denote a hazard arising from, for instance, a broken-down vehicle. It took the Department an unconscionable time to approve that commonsense step, which is compulsory in other countries, but which in Britain is only permissive. So far the Department is prepared to allow similar signs to be used to give warning at cattle crossing but will not allow them to be modified to indicate a hazard from a farm tractor or whatever else may be the hazard of which the farmer wishes to warn motorists. Farmers are anxious that the use of such signs should be authorised. This would be a small step forward but it would be well worth while.

My preference is still for the flashing indicator type of sign. For one thing, it does not involve an obstruction to the road, even to the small degree that a triangle does. It is more obviously eye-catching. It is difficult to miss it even in poor light. In winter, milking times occur in poor light. There may be difficulties about power supply, but I should have thought that the signs could be battery-powered.

Flashing indicators would be more expensive than the ordinary triangles which farmers favour. It is only fair that the Department should consider that the provision of such signs, as with all other signs provided for the safety of the motorists and all other road users, should be a charge on public funds. If such flashing signs are authorised, I greatly hope that the cost will not fall on the farmer concerned.

I have so far had mostly in mind the risk to dairy animals crossing roads. My attention has been drawn to the more general problem of access to farms and the risk to animals. I urge on the Minister the importance of his Department considering the provision of grants, administered perhaps through local consultative committees consisting of the local authorities, farmers, safety committess and so on, to ensure that from the time when new roads or road improvements are first planned the question of farm access is considered, the cost being borne by public funds, with a view to animals being confined as far as possible to minor roads and avoiding slow-moving vehicles such as tractors having to travel any distance along the public road with all the hazards that this can cause to faster moving traffic.

I hope I have said enough to indicate the reality of the problem. I must express disappointment that the Department has not found it possible to come forward with a suitable solution sooner. I only hope that the Minister will be able to give us some firm proposals.

11.30 p.m.

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

I should like first to congratulate the hon. Member for Cleveland (Mr. Tinn) on raising this subject of farm animals, which follows naturally on our earlier debates. I felt at one stage that at the pace we were moving the subject would not be reached before the evening was out, but I am glad that we have made sufficient progress not to have to have another late sitting.

As the House knows, since taking office we have been particularly concerned to ensure that everything possible was done to make our roads safer. Up to now there has been a danger, I suppose, in view of all the attention and understandable publicity given to our proposals to assist house dwellers affected by new roads and the other categories mentioned in our earlier debate tonight, that when we discussed regulations designed to protect people from the effects of new roads and so on the needs of a different but important class of people farmers—would seem to be neglected.

Perhaps I ought to declare a constituency interest. The President of the National Farmers' Union, now Sir Henry Plumb, is both a constituent and a personal friend of mine, and I hope that when wearing my ministerial hat I shall never neglect the interests of farmers.

The effect of new roads and the improvement of existing roads on farms and farmland has always been carefully considered under successive administrations, and this consideration has been by no means lessened while public attention has tended to concentrate more on the effects of road building in urban areas. Wherever it has been appropriate, both my Department and the previous Ministry of Transport have always consulted the National Farmers' Union and individual farmers affected by the trunk road programme, and local highway authorities have been encouraged to consult landowners affected by road schemes at an early stage.

The hon. Member mentioned access to new roads. He should recognise that cattle crossings by bridge or subway are provided for new roads whenever the cost can be covered out of the compensation payable to the landowner and can also be provided if national agricultural interests justify it. Certainly in many reports by independent inspectors following public inquiries ideas are put forward by the inspectors and we always carefully and sympathetically consider these to see whether it is possible to find one way or another to provide the sort of access that the hon. Member suggests.

An alternative solution is the provision of milking parlours as accommodation works on each side of the road. These measures may be provided if an existing road is improved and the improvement is substantial.

Mr. Robert C. Brown (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West)

I appreciate that cattle crossings are normally incorporated in major new road schemes, but the smaller byroad or unclassified road is often much more important. It is essential that the type of sign my hon. Friend has mentioned should be used where cattle cross for milking, just as a sign is used to indicate a school crossing patrol. Such signs should be at either end of the stretch of road which the cattle cross. Quite apart from the potential danger to the cattle, there is the possibility of at least serious damage to a car.

Mr. Speed

I shall come to the subject of signs. What the hon. Member has said is interesting and pertinent. At the moment I am saying that prevention is better than cure. But, particularly with new roads, crossing over or under the road, with the duplication or resiting of milking parlours, which may be covered by compensation or covered directly by Government grant if the national agricultural interest so requires, will be the solution because, whatever signs there may be, there is always an agricultural risk that is greater than when cattle and cars are separated.

The general problems associated with cattle crossing main roads were thoroughly examined in the mid-1960s when it was noticed—this is important—that far fewer farm animals needed to cross roads than had previously been the case. First, farmers were increasingly aware of the need for caution as traffic built up, and they implemented measures to solve the problems. These measures included—I have seen examples land exchanges and alterations in tenancy agreements, the resiting of buildings, and policy changes such as switching from dairy farming to beef production. All those measures helped. My own experience and the advice that I get from advisers in my Department is that, although the problems are still severe in some parts of the country, generally they are less than they used to be.

Given that we are aware of the need to provide crossing facilities where appropriate, there are two other arrangements to consider. The first is the question of road signs, which both hon. Members have raised. I certainly agree that there is scope for improving the use of warning signs on roads, and also that this matter has not, perhaps, been proceeded with as expeditiously as it might have been, but there have, of course, been a number of other things on which we have had to concentrate.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries has, however, recently had discussions with the National Farmers Union about this. The union has in principle welcomed various proposals that my right hon. Friend has put to it. Details are being worked out in the Department and they will shortly be sent both to the NFU and to other interested organisations, including the local authority associations, which are important in all this.

I hope that the hon. Member will forgive me if I do not go into details of those proposals tonight, because it would be wrong to do so before the associations and other interests have been consulted. What we have in mind will, I think, go quite a long way to resolving the remaining problems, and my right hon. Friend is well aware of the need to press on with this. The consultations will be pressed forward as quickly as possible so that we can reach a conclusion and finality. In due course they will be reported to the House and will, I hope, be implemented.

A major point which we have very much in mind—this is a problem which I ask the House to consider—is that, as with pedestrian crossings, we cannot simply erect a warning sign wherever one is requested. This is one of the problems regarding the flashing signs to which the hon. Member referred. With all these signs—pelicans, ordinary pedestrian crossings or whatever they might be—one must have a form of criteria, otherwise the currency can be devalued by having a proliferation of signs which at the end of the day will be ignored. The hon. Member will know from experience that we face the same problem with speed limits. That is why the Department has for many years exercised site control over the installation of cattle signs, to prevent a proliferation of this useful type of warning sign.

One problem relating to the cattle sign when applied to occasional journeys by farm animals as opposed to the open heath is that the message is often applicable only at limited times of the day, and permanent display can devalue the sign in the eyes of motorists. That is another problem that we must deal with.

Until we have decided how best to resolve the problem and until the criteria on which we are currently working have been determined, approval for the use of cattle warning signs can still be sought from my Department's regional roads and transportation controller.

As regards the specific and relevant question which has been put about Mr. Dickson, the hon. Member outlined accurately the various circumstances of the improvement to the road. It is an improvement rather than completely brand new road construction. When the hon. Member for Cleveland wrote to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Development last year, my right hon. Friend told him in his reply that responsibility for the road rested with the North Riding County Council, the highway authority.

With the dualling of the road between Cross Keys and Upsall traffic circus, visibility will be improved once the scheme is finally completed. Warning signs drawing attention to the cattle crossing have been in position for some time. We are certainly aware, however, that traffic speed on the road may increase as a result of the improvement and the increased visibility. Certainly it may be necessary for the signs to be repositioned. We are always willing to give our expertise and guidance to the appropriate highway authority, in this case the North Riding County Council.

My advice is that Mr. Dickson bought the farm in the full knowledge that the road scheme was envisaged at the time, and the county council had already acquired the land necessary for the provision of dual carriageways. I understand also that the county council has several times considered, the most recent occasion being last month, the request by Mr. Dickson for the provision of a cattle "creep" but decided that it was not justified.

I understand that since acquiring the farm Mr. Dickson has changed his method of farming and now has a dairy herd and intends to build it up to 100 cows. The animals cross the road four times a day—obviously a traffic hazard.

As a statement of fact, the Department is always prepared to consider a grant of 75 per cent. of the cost of a cattle "creep" on principal roads—and this is one—where the local authority asks for it and where it makes a case for it. I say "consider". We do not always make the grant. In this case no application was made and therefore we had no locus in the matter.

Perhaps the final element in this difficult question is that concerning those in charge of animals. By now farmers are all too well aware of the need to observe some helpful rules. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food issued its Code for Farmers in May 1968. I got the impression from what the hon. Gentleman said that he did not like this. It is by no means the total answer, but it is helpful. Some of the guidelines were mentioned by him.

It is obviously important that those in charge of animals on the road, particularly at milking times, in half-light, should be clearly visible in the same way as motorway maintenance men and men working on railway track. They should wear distinctive clothing of a highly visible colour.

I hope I will not be misunderstood if I also say that we should bear in mind that children are not always the best cattle drovers, particularly on today's roads, when droving is a skilled exercise. Only those of a responsible age and with the necessary experience should be allowed on to the highway in charge of farm animals. If it is possible, and with milking times I appreciate that usually it is not, the droving should be timed to avoid peak traffic flows.

We all know that the precautions we have taken would be in vain without the understanding and co-operation of those who drive vehicles on the road. This debate is useful in reminding all road users, motor cyclists, car and lorry drivers, that there is a special problem here. It is a diminishing one but it still exists par- ticularly in rural areas. We should keep a special look-out for cattle crossings.

I have taken into account what the hon. Gentleman has said, particularly about signing. I hope that he and the House will have noted that we are making progress here, and that we will be able to draw our discussions with the authorities to a speedy conclusion. I cannot at this stage give an undertaking that we will have flashing lights, but various ideas are being explored in depth and have been welcomed by the National Farmers' Union. I hope that, having received those assurances and having been able to raise the problems of the principal roads in his constituency, the hon. Gentleman will feel that this debate has been worth while.

Mr. Robert C. Brown

I agree that when speed limit signs proliferate they tend to be ignored, but the hon. Gentleman cannot equate such signs which are effective 24 hours a day with flashing signs such as those used to indicate children crossing a road. Such signs are in use only for limited periods during the day, and the same would be true of flashing signs to indicate cattle crossing.

Mr. Speed

I understand that, but there is this difference. "Children crossing" signs, speed limit signs and most of the other signs about which we have been talking are generally in urban situations. I assume that nine times out of 10 such signs are in speed-restricted areas. We start at an advantage if the driver is obeying the speed limit. The hon. Gentleman will know from experience that by and large people respect realistic speed limits. That is different from the farm situation, which almost by definition is rarely in a speed-restricted area and has a whole range of roads, including country lanes with very poor visibility. Presumably the farmer would be relied on to actuate the sign. There are problems of maintenance and so on.

I am not completely dismissing the argument The hon. Member for Cleveland, who originally raised the matter with my right hon. Friend, is clearly concerned about it and feels that it is one way of solving the problem. But there is a difference where there is a completely unrestricted area and a whole range of roads, from the smallest country lane up to dual-carriageway trunk or principal roads.

That is why both the expert advice I have received and my own inclination is to have reservations about the flashing sign, although I accept that we must make improvements in the present situation.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a quarter to Twelve o'clock.