HC Deb 28 May 1982 vol 24 cc1200-9 12.10 pm
Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I welcome this opportunity of raising a serious subject that I believe will command the attention of a great many of my hon. Friends—the problem of heavy lorries in our urban and rural environments.

This is, to say the least, a highly emotive political issue and it evokes instant subjective judgments. However, I believe that the time is overdue for a more objective and balanced assessment of the problem. There is an urgent need for a more comprehensive and considered approach by the Government.

I welcome the presence on the Front Bench of my hon. Friend the Minister. I know from private talks with him that he has been most helpful and sensitive to the problem. From his constituency experiences he will recognise many of the problems that we face. They are no less acute in his constituency of Hall Green—part of that mecca of municipal magnificence, Birmingham, as I used to think it was before a conspiracy between ungrateful electors and unkind Boundary Commissioners unseated me and I looked for pastures new.

I also welcome the presence of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Southgate (Mr. Berry). I know that he is particularly worried about a problem we have in our part of that even greater metropolis, London.

The problems—indeed, the advantages, because we must recognise them—of heavy lorries in towns and in the countryside are not merely confined to the issue of whether we should permit heavier lorries above the existing maximum gross weight of 32½ tonnes. True, there are proposals for a maximum of 38 or even 40 tonnes, but more important is the present impact and effect of existing large and heavy vehicles on our environment.

The noise, nuisance and disturbance created by heavy lorries have to be set against their commercial and economic advantages. I do not want to underestimate those advantages. I do not believe that any Government in the past 20 or 30 years, of whatever political hue, have begun to tackle the environmental and social problems caused by what we now call the juggernaut. It is interesting to note that when we have a problem we invest it with a foreign name to try to pretend that it does not belong to us.

Seemingly, Governments have always allowed the practical needs of industry and the development of road transport to have precedence over environmental considerations. But the adverse environmental impact, at least in certain places in our towns and cities, has become so acute and grave that action and a new approach are urgent and essential.

In this highly emotive political issue I want to dispel two separate myths. First, we are kidding ourselves if we believe that a significant proportion of freight at present carried on our roads could be transferred to rail. To believe that is to fly in the face of economics—in short, to be living in cloud-cuckoo-land. I am told that about 85 Per cent. of freight tonne mileage is carried on the roads as opposed to 15 per cent. by rail. I have not forgotten that a considerable proportion of freight is also carried by coastal shipping, that some—oil and gas—is carried by pipeline, and a fraction is carried by inland waterways. That ratio of 85 per cent. to 15 per cent. must be compared with 30 years ago when more freight was carried by rail than by road. I am relieved to read the remarks of Sir Peter Parker, chairman of British Rail, who recently said that British Rail's freight business is improving despite the strikes earlier this year and the recession. I am sure we are glad to hear that.

Even if people wanted, or the Government dictated, that more freight should be moved by rail it would still have to be carried by road in most cases for part of the journey—from the nearest rail point, marshalling yard or goods yard to the factory, warehouse, workshop or shop.

In referring to the second myth that I wish to dispel I must choose my words carefully. The introduction of heavier lorries would not necessarily increase the damage to our environment. I need not rehearse now the arguments against raising the maximum weight limits for heavy lorries. They are obvious, easy to state and even easier for politicians to support. But there are a number of misconceptions. The first is to assume that heavier lorries necessarily mean larger and longer lorries. I am told that a 38 or 40 metric tonner, as opposed to the existing maximum 32½ tonne lorry, would be no higher, no wider and only 20 inches longer. Incidentally, whenever I can I shall use Imperial references, being a good Conservative, and not descend to using metric measurements which, frankly, I do not think in terms of nor, sometimes, understand. However, an increased length of 20 inches on a 40 foot lorry is virtually unnoticeable.

At the risk of descending into technical juggernaut jargon, 20 inches extra length becomes more acceptable if the new heavier lorries have better manoeuverability, more sound insulation round the engine and a safer design. I understand that would be the case because they would be built to more up-to-date specifications.

The crucial argument in the debate on heavier vehicles is whether the extra weight is permissible. It is essential to differentiate between the pay load of a lorry and the weight pressure on the road—what we are pleased to call the axle weight. If the axle weight on the road of a five-axle, 38 or 40 tonne lorry is less, or not more, than a four-axle 32½ tonne lorry—I understand that is generally the case—I cannot see the case against heavier lorries being adequately sustained because there is no increased axle weight pressure on the road.

If that is the case, on most axle configuration, further considerations affecting the environment begin to fall into place. If a virtually same-sized lorry with the same axle weight can take a greater load, fewer lorry journeys are necessary to transport the same amount of goods. To make the point precisely by way of an example, taking 600 tonnes by road from A to B would require 28 journeys by a 32-tonner, but only 23 journeys by a 40-tonner. That suggests to me that there will be environmental advantages. Other arguments can be deployed, some economic—reduced transport costs and increased efficiency—and some environmental—fuel conservation, improved vehicle design and reduced noise and pollution.

All that I ask is that those who care about our urban and rural environments should judge the issue on the facts and not on prejudice. I wonder how many of my constituents realise that some so-called heavier lorries are already using some of our roads, though those lorries are one-third filled with air.

The crucial issue is the impact of large and heavy vehicles on our environment as a result of the growth in the movement of freight by road. That was another main term of reference of Sir Arthur Armitage, whose report was published in December 1980. I pay tribute to the competence and comprehensive nature of that report which I believe will stand the test of time.

The number of lorries—I define a lorry as a goods vehicle of more than 1½ tons unladen weight—has fallen by about 100,000 from the peak of about 650,000 15 years ago. However, there has been an increase in the number of heavier lorries, which I define as those of over 8 tons unladen weight.

The House does not need me to tell it that the nuisance and disturbance of heavy lorries and other vehicles are caused by their noise, vibration, atmospheric pollution, danger to life and limb and other intrusions of which we are all aware. Those nuisances are becoming increasingly intolerable in far too many areas and if we are to reverse the trend—assuming that we cannot solve the problem—we need comprehensive and co-ordinated policies.

Three areas must be given special consideration. The first is the new road building and bypass construction programme. That can be only a partial solution, because no massive road building programmes are in the pipeline or likely to go ahead in the foreseeable future. Of course, I appreciate the stepping up of the bypass construction programme, with particular priority being given to historic towns with populations of over 10,000. However, even if we had the resources many areas could not be bypassed, either literally or, as is more probable, without causing increased environmental damage, at too great a cost, to communities elsewhere. My constituency, and particularly High Barnet, is one such area. Therefore, we must accept that the road building and bypass construction programme can merely touch the problem and cannot be a complete solution.

Secondly, the Government should encourage, and perhaps ultimately insist on, quieter, cleaner and safer vehicles. Paradoxically, the trend to larger and heavier lorries will provide the opportunity for such vehicles to be introduced on to our roads. Thirdly, and perhaps most important, we have to consider lorry control schemes. That is where the greatest progress can and must be made. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) who successfully introduced a private Member's Bill nine years ago, now the Heavy Commercial Vehicles (Controls and Regulations) Act 1973, which those in the industry understandably refer to as the Dykes Act. That Act, combined with the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1967, gives certain powers to local authorities to control the movement of lorries in their areas, through outright lorry bans, particularly in side streets and byways, specified lorry routes and restrictions on the weight and loading and unloading of heavy lorries. Perhaps the best known scheme implemented under those Acts is the Windsor cordon. I understand from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East that about 650 other schemes are in operation throughout the country. Some are small and modest, others more significant, but few are as major as the Windsor cordon.

One such proposal in my part of the Metropolis was about to be implemented by the GLC about a year ago. It covered 50 square miles of north London, bounded by the M25 to the north, the A10 to the east, the North Circular Road to the south and the Al to the west. Unfortunately, the present GLC has seen fit at least to delay the implementation of this scheme after the particular section of the M25 had been completed. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Southgate is as worried as I am to know why the GLC does not go ahead immediately with the scheme. I recognise that it would be a great benefit to my constituents and to those of my hon. Friend. I also recognise that if one removes lorries from one area of London, one is likely to find more lorries in a different part of London. The point that I make in urging the GLC to have the courage to change its mind is that adequate roads exist and that the scheme could at least be introduced for an experimental period to see what happens.

I should like to refer the Government to that part of the Armitage report dealing with this problem. I wish to put three particular issues to my hon. Friend. The first is that I hope that the Government are undertaking an urgent review to see that local authorities, whether district councils or county councils, London boroughs or the GLC, have sufficient powers to deal with these problems. Secondly, I should like to see the Government encouraging the local authorities to use such powers. I believe that many local authorities could use these powers more effectively than they are presently even intending. Of course, any schemes have to be introduced after proper consultation, not least with industry and commerce, in the particular area that is under consideration.

Thirdly, I would like to see the Government continually monitoring and assessing these particular schemes. I have mentioned the north London box, if I may so call it. This would be the classic scheme which, if introduced immediately, could be monitored carefully by the Government. Arising from that, there is obviously the need for more lorry routes to be designated together with the possibility that lorries and heavy vehicles should be given priority on certain roads and private vehicles restricted in using them.

It is an immensely complicated and comprehensive issue that is under review. What may be right in one part of the country may be inadequate or irrelevant in another part. But there needs to be a sustained effort to try to tackle this growing problem. In the debate on whether or not to permit heavier lorries to use our roads, it would be a mistake if we were deflected from the real problem. The real problem, as I see it, is the increasingly adverse impact of vehicles, mainly but not exclusively heavy lorries, on our towns and rural areas. It is a serious problem which touches almost everyone to some degree and far too many people to an intolerable extent. I believe that the country demands action perhaps along the lines that I have sketchily outlined.

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

I know that my hon. Friend has enormous experience in this field. He is the only chartered architect and chartered town planner on the Government Benches. Has he considered the position in France where there are prescribed lorry routes? Has this led him to the belief that lorries exceeding a certain weight should be entirely restricted to certain types of roads and not permitted to use other roads except for that part of the journey from or to their point of origin and destination that is nearest to those roads? What my hon. Friend has been saying affects not only his constituency but also the constituency of almost every hon. Member. The suffering that has been caused over many years has manifested itself in great objections to the heavy lorry. That is rather unfair. I feel that successive Governments have failed to face up to their obligations to provide adequate resources for the type of network that is required. Undoubtedly, when many of these roads were originally designed, they were not designed with heavy vehicles in mind.

Mr. Chapman

I am happy to respond to the detailed point made by my hon. Friend. I should perhaps explain that I am a non-practising architect and town planning consultant. I have studied the situation in some other countries but not in the detail that I would have liked because of my parliamentary duties. My hon. Friend is right. A classic example of prescribing a lorry route from, say, the South-East of England to the Midlands and the North would come about when we have a better road system around London, to wit, the M25 orbital motorway that I hope will be completed by the end of 1985 and, of course, the box to ban lorries in 50 square miles of north London.

However, I must caution my hon. Friend on one other aspect. Sometimes it is easy to be impressed by schemes abroad but, because of the different social and economic circumstances or the different topography or demographic layout of our towns and cities, it is not always possible to transplant those schemes successfully to our roads, side streets or byways. With that proviso, I totally accept what he said, and I ask the Minister to take note of it.

In conclusion, I hope that there will be a considered and comprehensive response from the Government. I hope that my hon. Friend will be fortified by the knowledge that if that happens and if the Government introduce a sensible package of proposals to be implemented they will be the first Government to do so for many years, and the only Government to do so in the time that the problem of heavy lorries in our towns and countryside has reached such an intolerable degree that action needs to be taken.

12.35 pm
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) and the Minister for the opportunity of a few moments in which to take part in this debate. I have strong views on the way in which heavy lorries are affecting people's lives, particularly on country roads and residential roads in urban areas.

As a principle, it is quite intolerable that heavy lorries tear through small country roads, taking up all the road space available, so that it is impossible for cars or other vehicles to pass in the opposite direction. This is a problem that we must face in considering the place of heavy lorries in our country today.

There is another aspect to the problem, and that is the effect of the heavy lorry on the urban dweller. If lorries are routed through narrow, and even not so narrow, residential areas, the pollution, which is many-sided and which was mentioned by my hon. Friend, is very great and very disturbing to those people who live in the houses that are affected. The noise, pollution, vibration and the mere effect of a structure weighing 32½ tonnes passing through an urban street are considerable. There are effects well beyond those that we can see.

I want to refer, in particular, to Western Avenue. ft is a specific problem that affects my constituency. However, as Western Avenue is used by many people, the problem affects many people who live outside my constituency. Naturally, the A40 is used extensively by heavy lorries as a direct route into London from Buckinghamshire and areas far beyond that.

As far as I can see, there is no comprehensive planning in the roadworks that are now taking place there. I do not say that there is no clear direction behind the roadworks. Nevertheless, large parts of the road between the Target roundabout and Hanger Lane are shut off for long periods, traffic is reduced to a single lane, and the strain on the commuter motorist is extremely great. The public need to know why such large areas of road are taken out of use for such long periods during road construction, such as is now taking place on the A40. Either the matter should be explained to the public so that they can understand it, or the whole process needs to be looked at so that only one lane is shut off at any time. Life would then become tolerable, and people could understand what was happening and could live with it.

The second problem in the area that I have mentioned relates directly to heavy lorries. East-bound traffic is to be diverted from the Target roundabout at Northolt through a residential area in my constituency—if a suggestion by the Department of Transport is upheld—and will not return to the A40 until Hanger Lane. Therefore, people living in completely residential areas could be faced, for an unspecified time, with thundering lorries passing their front doors. The vibration and sheer hell of it are almost beyond imagination.

I am not looking for an answer today but will the Minister's Department see whether there is an alternative route to the one that has been proposed? We are examining the principle of rerouting heavy lorries when an area of road must be rebuilt. I wonder whether there can be an alternative route or whether some wholly different plan can be found to accommodate the need to reroute heavy lorries for a short time while the canal bridge in the area is being strengthened. Is there an alternative route whereby a deeply upsetting and terrible problem for my constituents can be removed?

12.41 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) for raising this subject today. He made an interesting speech. It is appropriate that he should do so because he has long been recognised and respected in the House for his great interest in and informed concern for the environment, especially the built environment.

I am especially glad that my hon. Friend chose the effect of heavy lorries as his subject. He was absolutely right to emphasise the importance of the subject in large cities such as Birmingham and London. He was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). I noted what he said about Western Avenue and the nearby district. I shall ask my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker), who is the Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for that aspect of roads, to write to him on those points. I am glad that there has been emphasis put on the problems of heavy lorries because there is a great deal of confusion and misinformation about it, especially so far as the Government's proposals are concerned. I welcome this opportunity to put the record straight.

Before I deal with some of the main points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet I should like briefly to fill in the background.

The essential facts are that our economy and our society are dependent on lorries. The other modes—especially rail—have an important and, I hope, growing part to play in moving freight. My hon. Friend mentioned some relevant statistics in that regard. We shall certainly do all that we can to encourage their use where they have environmental advantages. But we simply cannot get away from the fact that the great majority of our freight goes by road and will continue to go by road.

People simply have not realised the change—the revolution—that has occurred in our domestic freight system and in our international trade, nor yet come to terms with the implications. There has been a container revolution that has caught the country unawares. Increasingly, our foreign trade goes by lorry. More than 40 per cent. of our trade is with the European Community and more than half of our trade with the Community—£21 billion a year—is carried by road. These are changes of the greatest significance for the freight system.

Faced with those facts, the Government have two main responsibilities. First, the efficiency of road freight transport matters to our economy. Keeping transport costs in check helps to make British industry more competitive, and so helps maintain jobs and living standards. So the Government have a duty to do all that they reasonably can to help British industry contain its transport costs.

Secondly, the Government have a responsibility to protect people and the environment. We have a paramount duty in particular to ensure that safety standards are maintained.

We must also look to people's more general sense of well-being. Nobody loves lorries. People do not want them in the streets and roads where they and their families live and walk. We must do all that we can to ensure that heavy lorries are kept away from people, and that individual heavy lorries are as safe and as inoffensive as we can reasonably make them. The whole tenor of my hon. Friend's argument emphasised the importance of such an approach.

The second requirement—the need to deal with the effects of lorries on people and the environment—has always been my own and my right hon. Friend's starting point. I cannot say with sufficient emphasis that the environmental effects of heavy lorries have not hitherto been faced squarely. Many people in many places have suffered and are suffering from heavy lorries. Previous Governments have not done enough for them. In some cases, their local authorities have failed them—though the record of other local authorities has been good.

The haulage industry itself needs to recognise more than it has done so far that it is a part of the community with wider responsibilities, and that we are no longer in an age when lorries can travel anywhere with impunity. We have passed the point where the environment takes second place. The interests of people and the environment are now at the forefront.

We now have the opportunity to turn these fine sentiments into practical action. This Government set up the Armitage inquiry into "Lorries, People and the Environment". Sir Arthur Armitage produced a very wide range of recommendations, concluding in December 1980 that On the basis of existing policies it seems likely that lorries will have greater adverse effects on people and the environment over the next decade and probably up to the end of the century. —this on top of an existing situation which he believed was in many cases already insupportable. Sir Arthur concluded, therefore, that the objective must be a combination of policies to reduce substantially the adverse effects of heavy lorries.

The Government agree with the analysis and the conclusion. We are "environmentalists" on this issue. The question is how to achieve the objective. Our White Paper in December described a way forward. We are now building on that, strengthening the complete package. There are three main ways in which we can tackle and are tackling the problems caused by lorries: first, taking lorries away from people; secondly, improving the lorries themselves; thirdly, enforcement of safety and other standards.

The best, most effective way of dealing with the problem is to take lorries away from people. We can influence and control where lorries go in various ways. Where possible, building bypasses is the best method of taking lorries out of local communities. People living in badly affected towns and villages recognise this. So there will be many more bypasses. The transport supplementary grant settlement announced in December will enable 35 more local authority bypass schemes to go ahead. In addition, we announced in February that several major bypasses were being added to the active trunk road programme.

Taking the national and local programmes together, nearly 100 communities will be bypassed by roads now under construction. In addition, another 120 or more communities will benefit from schemes to be started in the next two to three years. We shall continue to give priority to bypasses in the allocation of funds to local authorities and in reviewing the forward programme for trunk roads.

Another way of keeping lorries away from people is by lorry control schemes. Controls over lorry routes need to be exercised more vigorously than they are now. Some local authorities could do more to keep lorries away from unsuitable roads. I can confirm to my hon. Friend that they certainly have the powers. We have issued a circular urging local authorities to make more effective use of their wide powers to prohibit or direct lorry traffic by means of soundly based control schemes.

In considering bids for the transport supplementary grant, the Government will give favourable treatment to counties making good use of their powers to control lorries, and my Department is ready to help those local authorities that want assistance in designing and establishing lorry routes.

The road haulage licensing authorities will be able to take environmental factors into consideration under powers the Government are seeking in the Transport Bill that is now before the House. This judicious mixture of carrot and stick, plus practical encouragement, is, I am sure, fully justified because lorry control schemes are of great importance in reducing the effects of heavy lorries.

Another way of getting lorries away from people is to ensure fair competition between modes of transport and further to encourage the use of rail and waterway where there would be environmental benefits in so doing. So we must tax lorries properly to see that they cover their road track costs. Already lorries taken as a whole do. Moreover, my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in the Budget an increase of 25 per cent. in the tax on the heaviest lorries, about £350 a year. We are introducing a new system of lorry taxation in October, based on gross weights and axle numbers, which will make it easier to relate road damage to taxation.

We have a thriving system of grants, called section 8 grants, designed to encourage transfer of freight to rail where this would bring environmental benefits. That has been very successful. One hundred and ten grants have been made at a total cost of £35 million. Two grants for rail schemes announced this month in Salford and Dagenham will reduce the number of heavy lorry journeys by some 19,000 a year. We have shown our good offices by extending the section 8 scheme to waterways, as recommended by the Armitage report.

It is unrealistic to hope that all heavy lorry traffic can travel away from people and sensitive areas or, indeed, away from other traffic. So we must improve the lorries themselves. We must make them safer and enhance environmental standards—that means for all lorries. We shall be introducing sideguards on lorries. Those will help to protect cyclists and pedestrians where they are involved in an accident with a lorry. We shall be introducing mandatory rear under-run guards on lorries to protect motorists when their cars run under the rear of lorries. There will be better braking standards.

A traffic danger arising from the spray thrown up by lorries in wet road conditions causes concern. We are working towards a regulation for mandatory spray suppression equipment when we have developed an agreed standard. There will be tighter requirements for noise. Those are major advances.

However, to lay down standards is not enough. They must be enforced. We are making big efforts here. More staff and equipment are being provided for enforcing proper limits on loading and other safety standards. There will be a 50 per cent. increase in expenditure this year on the installation of new, more efficent weighbridges. These will be mainly on sites at or near ports. We are ensuring that foreign as well as British lorries meet those demanding standards.

Who would believe, given that comprehensive catalogue of major action to reduce the harmful effects of lorries, the public reception given to our proposals? I simply do not believe that some citizens know or understand what we are saying. It is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport who is the environmentalist. It is he who, for the first time, is taking comprehensive action to deal with lorries.

It is not easy to assess why there should be this failure to understand our purpose or why we should have had this communications break-down. One important reason is that attention has been concentrated on the lorry weight proposals and that induces a knee-jerk reaction based on an understandable emotional feeling against lorries. However, it is not based on a full appreciation of the environmental gains that can be achieved under the Armitage proposals.

I justify the weight proposals on two grounds, and both of them are essentially environmental. First, if we are to have all the splendid improvements that I have listed, someone has to pay. They do not come free. The taxpayer will not pay. It will have to be the haulier and his customers. The undoubted economic advantages of heavier lorries give us at the very minimum savings in haulage costs of £1.5 billion in the next decade at present day prices, and almost certainly more. Industry itself testifies to the savings. They will help to pay for the environmental improvements that we so desperately need.

It would be unrealistic—and undermine our competitive position and British jobs—to expect industry to pay those costs without the opportunity of doing so through higher productivity. Higher maximum weights give them that opportunity. It is frankly crazy, particularly in view of the growth in container traffic, for standard size containers to travel through the country and on to our ferries one third full of air. I have no hesitation in repeating the vivid words used by my hon. Friend.

Secondly, higher maximum weights actually help the environment. At first sight that seems paradoxical. But we are talking about heavier lorries, not bigger ones. In fact, we are introducing a height limit for heavier lorries of 4.2 metres, the first ever in this country.

The Government will not tolerate bigger containers and trailers on our roads. The lorries will be subject to higher safety and environmental standards than are demanded of existing lorries. Because each lorry will be allowed to carry more we shall need fewer of them to carry the same amount of freight. To those sceptics who say that it will not work out like that in real life I merely point to the facts. In 1970 there were 620,000 lorries over 1½ tons; by 1980 the number was down to 519,000.

Sainsbury's told my right hon. Friend when he was visiting its Basingstoke distribution depot recently that the average of 10 deliveries that it makes each day to each of the 60 supermarkets served from that depot could be reduced to six if only the vehicles could be loaded more fully. Multiplying that up means fewer vehicles to cause accidents, fewer to damage the environment, and so on. My hon. Friend will realise the importance of that to the urban environment and especially to big cities. So my hon. Friend's speech hits exactly the right note in its insistence that the present position simply will not do. Most people share that view. The Government do.

But this Government, uniquely, are taking matters further. Not only do we recognise the problem, but we are undertaking a comprehensive programme of action to deal with it. We are not prepared to let matters drift. I believe that slowly but surely people throughout the country and in the House who care in a practical way for environmental improvement will be convinced of the rightness and effectiveness of our approach.