HC Deb 01 December 1981 vol 14 cc146-55 3.56 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Howell)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on lorries, people and the environment.

Heavy lorries have been the subject of continuing debate and controversy for over 10 years. The problems are complex and intractable, but decisions have to be taken. We need above all to end the present uncertainty about future lorry weights which is currently placing a handicap on investment in the commercial vehicle industry.

To clarify the issues, the Government appointed Sir Arthur Armitage in July 1979 to conduct an independent inquiry into the whole problem of lorries and their effects on people and the environment. Sir Arthur and his four independent assessors took evidence very widely, and reported in December 1980. The Government are very grateful to them for their wide-ranging report. It has aroused great interest. A large number of people and organisations have put their views to me, and there have been two debates in the House. The Government thought it right to take time to consider fully the many points that have been raised.

The effect of big lorries on people and communities is a matter of deep concern. The lorry is an offensive element in the environment, and it will make the environment progressively worse unless we take decisions now which will change the trend over the coming years. Our aim is to ensure a more civilised development of freight transport in the future, which will mean a better environment as well as a healthier economy.

The measures the Government will be taking to achieve this objective are outlined in a White Paper published today. These measures are directed to keeping lorries away from the places where people live, through the provision of more bypasses, to making the vehicles quieter and cleaner, and, in particular, to keeping their numbers down.

However, to keep costs down, road transport must be efficient and economic. Our present maximum weight limits on lorries place an economic handicap on much of our industry.

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)


Mr. Howell

Our regulations prevent many existing lorries from being loaded to their full technical weight carrying capacity. This is wasteful. It makes transport costs higher than they need be, which in turn feeds through into prices and makes our exports less competitive.

The Government agree with Armitage's rejection of the heavier axle weights proposed by the European Commission. We have also announced our rejection of a maximum weight as high as 44 tonnes, which was the heaviest vehicle recommended in the Armitage report. All the safeguards suggested in the report have been considered very carefully and the Government are now convinced that maximum lorry weights can safely be raised to 34 tonnes for four-axled vehicles, and 40 tonnes on five axles. These changes are set out in draft amending regulations which are being circulated today by my Department for consultation. Copies are available in both the Vote Office and the Library of the House.

The proposals outlined in the White Paper will apply to Northern Ireland and, where appropriate, will be given effect through separate action under the relevant Northern Ireland legislation.

As well as bringing economic benefits to industry and ultimately to the consumers, through savings in industry's transport costs of around £150 million a year, there will be benefits to the environment. The heavier vehicles will be no bigger than the biggest vehicles on the roads today. Their higher load capacity will enable industry to meet demands for freight services with fewer vehicles than would otherwise be needed. There will be safeguards in the regulations on the design of the heavier vehicles to protect roads, bridges and underground services.

We cannot afford delay. To do nothing would help neither the environment nor the economy. Freight users, vehicle operators and manufacturers are unable to plan ahead while the present uncertainty lasts. It is through the decisions taken now, and the actions initiated, that we can achieve over the years ahead the improvements we are seeking.

Mr. Albert Booth (Barrow-in-Furness)

Does the Secretary of State for Transport recall that his predecessor, in the debate on the Armitage report, said: Whatever we decide on this issue,"— he was referring to heavy lorry weights— I shall make a comprehensive statement on Armitage covering all of the main recommendations."—[Official Report, 17 June 1981; Vol. 6, c.1088.] The Secretary of State's statement lamentably fails to measure up to that undertaking, as does the White Paper which it introduces. To that extent he will be judged as having reneged on his predecessor's undertaking.

The lorries that the Secretary of State is proposing will be more damaging to the roads of this country than the 44 tonne lorries proposed by Armitage, when measured by Armitage's own criteria. The Secretary of State is proposing to allow on the roads of this country a 38-tonne lorry with a 10.5 drive axle—a higher drive axle weight than any at present on our roads.

Why has the Secretary of State made no proposal whatever to allocate to heavy goods vehicles the higher costs that they impose on road building and maintenance, to which the Armitage report referred? Why is the Secretary of State ducking the heavy goods vehicle taxation issue, which Armitage highlighted very effectively?

Why is the Secretary of State ignoring 90 out of the 91 recommendations in the Foster report relating to lorry operator licensing?

The Secretary of State's offer to have a study made of the need for lorry action areas in a number of our cities—when compared with the clearcut Armitage proposal that the Government should make grants to local authorities to cope with some of these problems and recoup that cost by taxation of the heavy goods vehicles—is lamentably inadequate.

The bypass commitment in the White Paper, measured against the requirement, as acknowledged by the Government, for 400 bypasses, is like feeding a peanut to a hungry elephant. It recognises the problem but responds to it by a pathetic gesture. The minor amelioration of a major problem is a figleaf behind which the Secretary of State cannot hide a massive concession to the road freight haulage lobby.

Those who are now suffering from the effects of the present heavy lorries will be among those who are most disappointed or shocked by the Secretary of State's announcement.

Mr. Howell

I do not accept the right hon. Gentleman's version and interpretation of what I have said this afternoon or of the White Paper. The proposals in the White Paper are comprehensive and cover—indeed, go beyond—the full range of points made in the Armitage report.

The overall effect of the proposals, as there would be up to 10,000 fewer lorries, would mean that there would be 5 per cent. less road damage for any given level of activity.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of higher taxation on the lorries which do the most damage. The White Paper makes it clear that we have taken the powers to prepare for that, and we propose to go in that direction. There is no question of ducking that. In the Department, we are making a new assessment of track costs to enable us to move along that path. I do not understand, therefore, why the right hon. Gentleman raised that point.

It is true that the Armitage report made several proposals concerning lorry action areas. We have already started to discuss them with local authorities. We are not shelving the idea, but it raises a number of sensitive and difficult local issues, as the right hon. Gentleman knows full well. He would be the first to criticise if we rushed into general undertakings before discussing matters properly and fairly with the local authorities.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke of the proposals as being a concession to the freight industry. He is totally wrong in that respect. There is a major advance for the environment within our grasp here, because there will be lorries which are no bigger and which will be greatly reduced in number. At the same time, they will benefit industry in terms of more investment and more jobs. If he is not in favour of that, it is a strange departure from what I understood his position to be.

Mr. John Peyton (Yeovil)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that those who live, walk and push prams in the narrow streets of many of our towns and villages are likely to accord to his proposals a welcome that falls a good deal short of rapturous?

Is my right hon. Friend further aware that his observations on the environment and on keeping lorries away from people would carry a good deal more weight if the road programme were not at such a low ebb and if progress on bypasses were not so sluggish? Is he further aware that his proposals would be more palatable if some reference had been made to his preparedness concerning ideas on lorry routes? There appears to be nothing forthcoming there.

Mr. Howell

I am aware that the present lorry size and weight are very unpopular. If there were any suggestion about bigger lorries—apart from the 1½ ft. extra on the cab—and if we were talking about lorry trailers, I should be wholly against it. We are talking of the same size of lorry loads and about fewer lorries. While I certainly do not expect rapture, I believe that this is a move in the right direction, towards civilising the lorry.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to emphasise the need for roads suitable for our freight pattern, which has been inherited from the past, and for the road programme to be designed to meet it. That is why, in the White Paper, I announced four new bypasses; that seven others have been advanced into the reserve programme; that 38 communities are having bypasses started round them in 1981 alone; and that 215 out of 275 towns of over 10,000 people on trunk roads are being bypassed. This is not entirely satisfactory. but it is the right way to proceed. My right hon. Friend is correct in emphasising that.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

Is the Secretary of State aware that on the Liberal Benches we would much prefer to see the former Minister of Transport, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), back in his place, because he was the person who rightly refused to go above 32 tonnes in 1972? We believe that the Secretary of State has been bamboozled by his own Department. Will he exclude the Isle of Wight from having 40-tonne lorries, which we do not want?

Mr. Howell

I know the hon. Member's wish to go back into the past. I recognise the much greater experience in these affairs of my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), but we are facing a deteriorating situation. We have to grapple with it. Decisions have to be taken and cannot be ducked.

Local authorities have considerable powers, under the "Dykes Act", to impose bans and restrictions. They are not at the moment seeking more powers from me. I hope that they will use their powers imaginatively and extensively, as with the Windsor cordon, with which the hon. Gentleman may be familiar.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

If decisions have to be applied to Northern Ireland by a different legislative process, will the Minister give an assurance that they will take effect simultaneously in both parts of the Kingdom, since it would be absurd, in view of the volume of lorry traffic between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, if they were implemented at different times?

Mr. Howell

I shall do my best to ensure that that is so.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of us are appalled at his statement? I frankly do not believe that the lorries will not be bigger, heftier and more dangerous on the roads. I do not accept, either, that the existing regulations are sufficient to prevent the lorries from going away from the trunk roads and the motorways.

My right hon. Friend has said that he will be placing a statement in the Vote Office this afternoon. I warn him that I shall vote against the measure when it is introduced.

Mr. Howell

My hon. Friend should read the White Paper, where he will see that lorry loads will not be any bigger. They are the same lorry containers as we see on our roads today, but instead of being 80 per cent. full they will in many cases be full. That will be of great benefit to many industries. For example, the chemicals industry has recognised that it will benefit considerably in terms of costs and jobs if it is allowed to use existing containers to full capacity. That should interest my hon. Friend.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)

Does the Secretary of State understand that the House considers his statement to be a complete betrayal of the protection of the environment? Will he be frank with the House and admit that the White Paper on roads for the next 10 years shows an investment programme for repairs and new roads that does not even measure up to the Armitage package? We must have some honesty. Is the Secretary of State aware that the new lorry loads are a dangerous intrusion into urban areas, cause damage to historic buildings and will not be supported by the general public, or, I hope, by the House?

Mr. Howell

The hon. Gentleman exaggerates his case. Of course there are strong feelings on the subject, but the plain fact is that if there are fewer large and frightening vehicles around it is a step in the right direction. That must be accepted as part of the case and as part of the point on the other side of the argument. I ask the hon. Gentleman to read the White Paper. He will see that there are real benefits for the environment as well as for industry if we get the balance right. We shall then reach a decision on the regulations.

Mr. Terence Higgins (Worthing)

Is more money to be spent on the bypass building programme and, if so, how much? Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that enforcement will be improved so that lorries that do not conform to tougher environmental restraints on pollution and noise are not allowed to carry heavier loads?

Mr. Howell

On the question of expenditure, the additional bypasses that I have announced today in the White Paper will involve, during the years in which they are started, an extra expenditure of about £31 million in today's money. For next year, all the starts that are possible within existing public expenditure resources have already been announced. Will my right hon. Friend repeat his second question?

Mr. Higgins

Can the Secretary of State assure the House that tougher environmental restraints will be enforced effectively, so that lorries will not be allowed to carry heavier loads unless the restraints are conformed with?

Mr. Howell

We are determined to ensure that enforcement is extremely tough. At the same time, I wish that local authorities would use their powers vigorously to ensure that lorries are not overloaded illegally and do not travel where they are totally ill-suited to go.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call five hon. Members from either side, which I know is a very good innings. We must be fair to the hon. and right hon. Ulster Members who will follow.

Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)

Is the Secretary of State aware that many hon. Members, and millions of people who use cars and lorries on the roads today, know that motorways especially are reduced to single-lane traffic because heavy traffic is tearing the roads up? Is he aware that if the railways were used correctly and proper investment were made in the railway traffic industry for carrying freight, Britain need not have the sort of statement that we have heard from the right hon. Gentleman? Is he aware that Members on both sides of the House—from what has been said by his right hon. and hon. Friends—are tired of Ministers coming to the House and conning the House and the public with statements such as he has made today?

Mr. Howell

I must ask the hon. Gentleman to reconsider his last comment. I am setting out the Government's view as contained in a White Paper. There will be draft regulations and consultation and then a full debate. We must consider both sides of the arguments, which are familiar to many hon. Members. The Government have advanced their view about what they believe to be the best way forward. That is a fair and sensible approach to take.

I wish that what the hon. Gentleman said about the railways were true, but the reality is that with our geography—much shorter rail haulage and the non-availability of railheads in many areas, such as the West Country and Wales, from where many people send freight to the Continent—there is no opportunity for a major transfer to rail. I wish to see a transfer to rail, but there is no opportunity for a major shift.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement that lorry sizes will not increase is acceptable but that the damage done in Cotswold villages and small towns is mostly because of the weight of lorries, which shivers buildings and knocks them down? Will he also ensure that his Department is faster and more flexible when putting out notices and signs to forbid lorries of certain weights to travel on different roads?

Mr. Howell

We shall do what we can where it is our responsibility. As to lorry weights, the proposal in the White Paper is that there should be an additional axle on heavier vehicles so that the overall weight on each axle, which is what causes the damage, will, for the 40-tonne lorry, be less. My hon. Friend should bear that point in mind.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport)

Has there been a study into the problems associated with the Severn bridge, which is a vital artery for trade to and from South Wales? For instance, could the bridge bear the additional weight, especially bearing in mind the fact that it is already plagued with lane closures and repairs of one sort or another?

Mr. Howell

The hon. Member is right that already, under the existing and I believe deteriorating position, there are problems with the Severn bridge. A study is being carried out with a view to making the Severn bridge secure for existing traffic, which will embrace any changes involved. It will also be safe for the 40-tonne vehicle.

Mr. Chris Patten (Bath)

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that several Conservative Members agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) and do not believe that the limited environmental measures announced in the White Paper come anywhere near to justifying the introduction of heavier lorries? I wish to apply the point of linkage, which is more popular in international affairs. Will my right hon. Friend note that I shall be prepared to start to consider the question of heavier lorries the day after the completion of the Bath eastern by-pass and not a moment before?

Mr. Howell

The Bath eastern by-pass is one project that we hope to accelerate. I am aware that the Government's views have not been accepted with rapture by many hon. Members and that we face a difficult dilemma which must be resolved. When my hon. Friend reads those proposals in the White Paper, he will understand that they are to the benefit of the environment. I try to persuade the House about that, because I believe that we have a duty to help both the environment and industry in such difficult times.

Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)

Is the Secretary of State aware that not only are motorways crumbling at the moment but sewers and basements of buildings are in danger of collapse? Would it not be much more sensible to redirect investment and redirect freight on to the railways, which would be to the benefit of all?

Mr. Howell

I am advised that the introduction of heavier weights will make no difference to the problem of pressures on underground services. As for the shift of freight on to rail, I have already stated my view. I wish to see that, but as the Armitage report made clear and we all know, there are limits to what can be done in an economy such as ours and with our vast reliance on road freight.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, at 40 tonnes gross weight, Britain's limits will be higher than in France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and Ireland? Even on axle weights, they will be higher than in Germany, Holland, Denmark and Ireland, so the proposals do not even have the saving grace of achieving greater freedom of movement over the Continent. Does the fact that my right hon. Friend is publishing the documents in a consultative form mean that he is prepared to think again about lorry weights?

Mr. Howell

The Government have an open mind to new evidence that may be brought forward on this difficult issue, but we believe that they are the right proposals on which to go forward. My hon. Friend has given some figures in making comparisons with overseas. He should also know that in France the single axle weight is much higher at 13 tonnes per axle instead of 10.17 in Britain. For the four-axle lorry the maximum weight in France is 38 tonnes. In Belgium and Luxembourg the weight is 13 tonnes per axle as opposed to 10.17 tonnes in Britain. The weight is higher in Italy, where the maximum for four axles is 40 tonnes and for five axles is 44 tonnes. The overall picture is a variety of different weights. We should reach our decision on the basis of our national needs, although that should help towards a more constructive European discussion.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich, East)

Does the Secretary of State accept that his aim of trying to keep heavy lorries away from residential areas will need a more ambitious bypass programme than that which he has discussed today? Does he also accept that in urban areas the lorry is a real menace to the environment—not only when it is moving, but when it is parked, often outside someone's home, and certainly not that of the driver? Will he do more to encourage local authorities to ban overnight parking of heavy lorries in residential streets?.

Mr. Howell

I ask the hon. Gentleman not to underestimate the considerable building of bypasses that has been, is and will be taking place as a result of Government measures and the proposals in the White Paper. The hon. Gentleman has a good point about the anti-social parking of juggernauts. That is one reason why I have accepted the Foster report proposal that licences for operators should be granted on a more stringent basis, taking into account the area from which the operator operates, which can cause unpleasantness for neighbours.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that for a long time copies of the Armitage report have not been available in the Vote Office? Will he ensure that copies are available immediately so that hon. Members can compare the report with the White Paper? Would it not have been more seemly if, after becoming Secretary of State for Transport, he had listened to a debate in the House before arriving at any conclusions?

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the stress imposed on a bridge by a vehicle whose length is less than the span of the bridge is a direct function of the total weight of the vehicle and not only of the axle?

Mr. Howell

I was not aware that the Armitage report was not available. I shall investigate that matter immediately. On the question of bridges and bridge spans, all the evidence suggests that the five-axle vehicle and the heavier weights will have no impact on bridges beyond that of vehicles of existing weights. I must make it clear that there will be no additional impact.

My hon. Friend mentioned a debate. I have received a great many representations and have studied the two debates in the House. I am not proposing that the House reaches a decision; I am putting forward a White Paper. The Government have arrived at certain views. Draft regulations will be circulated for consultation, which will require a minimum of two months. The House will then need to reach conclusions. We must reach a decision on the matter. My hon. Friend must concede that we have debated it for a long time. It would be wise, democratically, to reach a conclusion.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

Is not the Secretary of State aware that, far from his proposed policy taking lorries away from people, the combination of his policy and the cuts in public spending will force more and more lorries into residential areas? Is he aware that his decision to cut the M65 motorway at Whitebirk—the vital Blackburn to Preston link—means that thousands of heavy lorries will be forced through the residential areas of Green Bank, Broonhill, Shadsworth and Pleckgate in my constituency, to the dismay and anger of residents? Will he undertake to review the decision to cut the vital M65 link?

Mr. Howell

We are going ahead with the building of the Calder valley motorway, so I do not understand what the hon. Gentleman is worrying about. I do not believe that he has any evidence for his other assertions, either.

Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)

Will my right hon. Friend accept the congratulations of at least one of his hon. Friends—[Interruption.] As one who has read the Armitage report, I am fully aware of the implications of the White Paper. Will my right hon. Friend accept that it will be welcomed by industry, especially the commercial vehicle and building industry? [HON. MEMBERS: "Lobby".] That industry's interests are at a low ebb. Does he agree that the policy will need to be accepted by the public, and that that will depend greatly upon the building programmes of local authorities? Unless they can get on with the job of building bypasses—including the GLC, which is anxious only to spend transport money on subsidising fares—the policy will not prove acceptable. What steps does he intend to take to ensure that local authorities, as well as the Department of Transport, provide bypasses?

Mr. Howell

There is more money available for new starts this year than there was last year. No lobbies should prevail on this issue. We must try to strike a balance that benefits the environment, comes to terms with a position that is deteriorating—it is not standing still—and which helps our industry and our economy. If we can follow that path, we shall do so. The White Paper points the way.

Mr. Booth

I am sure that it was not the Secretary of State's intention to mislead the House when he said that the five-axle 40-tonne lorry would not increase axle weights. Would he consider the latest information published by his Department, which shows that the five-axle 40-tonne vehicle would involve an increase in axle weights on the steering axle of the tractor to six tonnes, an increase in the weight of the two trailer axles from 8.5 to 9 tonnes, and in the case of the 38-tonne four-axle articulated vehicle an increase in the drive axle weight from 10.17 to 10.50 tonnes? Will he acknowledge that what he is proposing means an increase in axle weight?

Mr. Howell

I sought to make it clear—if I did not, I do so now—that the proposed 38-tonner would mean an increase in the drive axle weight from 10.17 to 10.50 tonnes. However, I confirm that for the proposed 40-tonner the relative figures for the five axles are six, eight, eight nine and nine tonnes, which in no case is as high as the 10.17 tonnes on the existing 32.5 tonner, and also the spread would be better. I hope that I did not mislead the House in any way.


Mr. Straw

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member had better make his point of order as quickly as he can.

Mr. Straw

Within the hearing of the House, in reply to my question, the Secretary of State said that the M65 motorway was going ahead. I am sure that it was out of ignorance, and not deliberate, but the truth is that—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I gather that the hon. Gentleman disagrees with the answer that he received, but that is not a point of order.

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

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Before I hear the hon. Gentleman, perhaps I may say that I hope that it is a point of order, because I want the House to know that I always observe hon. Members who have not been called and who then rise upon points of order. I have a long memory.

Mr. Brown

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I accept that you have a long memory. I make no criticism of the Chair for not realising that my constituents in Denton Road, Silver Lonnen and Springfield Road are now suffering misery and that they will suffer—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Many hon. Members have constituency points to make. It is unfair to abuse the rules of the House in that way.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope that hon. Members—

Mr. Robert C. Brown


Mr. Speaker

Order. I understand that the hon. Gentleman's constituency is also affected, but he would let us proceed, it would be far better.

Mr. Dykes

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand that point and I am grateful to you. It was not a constituency point, but reference has been made to the legislation that I introduced in 1973. In view of the enormous importance of the statement made today, I was wondering whether it would not have been convenient and appropriate, despite the fact that a new right hon. Member was being introduced, if you, Mr. Speaker, had felt able to—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I cannot take that sort of point of order from anyone. It implies criticism of the Chair. It is just not acceptable.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am not taking points of order now. We must continue.

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