HC Deb 15 April 1983 vol 40 cc1116-22

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

2.30 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Huddersfield, West)

I should like to draw attention to Operation Gatepost, which is a campaign to open up a public debate and bring to the attention of everyone the value of having one's home clearly identified by a house number where appropriate. The campaign is strongly supported by doctors, ambulance and fire services and district nurses, and is welcomed by those who deliver daily to households and who may be new to a round or covering for the sickness or holiday of a colleague. Those concerned are the postman, milkman, paper boy, insurance collector and all the many companies that deliver to residential properties. Hundreds of thousands of homes do not display numbers.

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

Does the hon. Gentleman have a number on his own residence?

Mr. Dickens

My flat in London is clearly identified. My house in Yorkshire is not suitable. I said in my opening remarks "where appropriate".

The debate was secured after an approach by a doctor in my constituency of Huddersfield, West who had to enlist the help of the local police when seeking to respond to an emergency house call in an area where few residents displayed house numbers. Publication of Operation Gatepost in medical journals linking my name with the campaign resulted in letters of support sent to me at the House of Commons from doctors all over the United Kingdom.

Let me paint a picture of the problem. An emergency 999 call is made because of a kitchen fire on a housing estate. It is late at night and the duty fire crew are asleep, but partly clothed. The alarm bell is sounded and the crew quickly slide down the pole to the ground floor. The pole still remains the quickest route between floors. The outer clothing of each fireman is hanging in the fire appliance, plus equipment. The fire vehicle, with lights flashing, makes its way to the scene of the incident. The alertness and training of the fire service is excellent and the cooperation of the other road users is first-class, giving the fire appliance a clear run to the scene.

All that effort is made only to discover that the house numbering in the street concerned is deplorable. There is smoke only at the rear—with internal and external doors to the kitchen sensibly closed— so there is no visible sign of the fire in the street at night. Critical time is wasted and the house, and perhaps the neighbour's house, is lost through fire that could have been arrested. The same applies if a heart attack subject requires an emergency ambulance.

Operation Gatepost does not call for legislation. It recognises that some streets are badly numbered— up one side and down the other. After 1900, that kind of numbering was stopped in favour of odd numbers on one side of the street and even numbers on the other. Before 1900, when streets were extended the expressions "upper street" and "lower street' were used to overcome the problem. Alan Whicker presented a marvellous TV item about a road which, although numbered, was a severe test even for the regular postman. However, he had a sporting chance because each house was numbered clearly, although in a funny way.

I appreciate that it would be sad to renumber streets. It would create inconvenience to people who have felt comfortable living at, perhaps, number 26 all their lives. I do not call for that. I ask that people should appreciate that they put their lives and homes and their neighbours' homes at risk by not displaying clearly a number on the gatepost or on their house or flat.

How many homes has the Minister seen when he has been canvassing in his constituency or calling upon constituents where the number has been painted the same colour as the door? People always mean to touch it up or replace it, but somehow it never gets done. There is, therefore, yet another house without a number. I have canvassed in the Ealing area and I know that that applies not to dozens but to hundreds of homes.

I should have thought that teams of unemployed people could be sponsored by local authorities to provide a numbering service to homes. I refer to all homes, not just municipal housing. Years ago, the municipal authorities gave numbers to every house. They used to be old castings and the number was in relief. There were also enamel numbers. However, many of those numbers have gone or been painted over. Government funds are already available for a scheme involving unemployed people. We call it the community programme. Local government will never have a better chance to help the unemployed because we need to create jobs and keep people employed until the dreadful world recession is past. This is an opportunity to bring our housing up to date.

Under the community programme a local authority can sponsor a scheme and many of them are sponsoring schemes already. This project could be nationwide. Anyone between the ages of 18 and 25 who has been unemployed for six months and anyone between the ages of 25 and 60 who has been unemployed for one year would qualify to apply for a place on such a project. The average wage is about £60 a week, or sometimes a little more, depending upon the nature of the duties.

The local authority would receive £440 per head for everyone employed on such a scheme. That would cover the administration and pay for the numbers and the screws. One could send out a squad of scouts to call on houses and say, "Madam, would you like your house numbered?" I should like it done that way. I do not want it to be compulsory. I hate compulsion, because I do not like too much legislation. People should be given the chance. Most people would agree, even if their house has a name. Long may people keep their house names, if that is what they enjoy.

It is the duty of local authorities to ensure that street names are maintained at each end of the street. There has been a great deal of neglect by some local authorities. They should get on and maintain the names properly. The position is dreadful. It is not an expensive exercise. I know that vandalism is a problem, but local authorities should put names at each end of their streets.

All that I ask of the Government is that they should spend a little on advertising Operation Gatepost for the benefit of the emergency services, the social services, the delivery services and, not least, local residents. No legislation, no commission on renumbering — just an appeal to the common sense of the nation: "Please identify your home clearly."

2.40 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Dickens) for raising this subject. This is the third time that I have heard him speak about it today. I listened to the "Today" and the "You and Yours" radio programmes this morning.

Most of us give thought to the subject only when we have to find a house, flat or office that we have not been to before. Sometimes the lack of numbering, the absence of street signs, the obscurity of the numbering or its sheer illogicality leave us baffled and irritated so that we finish up, like the river Oxus, as a "foil'd circuitous wanderer".

In some cases, there are good reasons why houses are not numbered. I see from "Dod's Parliamentary Companion" that my hon. Friend's address does not have a number. In other cases, there is no good reason. The numbering of some developments that I have been to appears to have been done by the Post Office, though not by the head postmaster, but by our good friend ERNIE at Lytham St. Annes.

Our personal difficulties are of little importance to us. Of course, parliamentarians are affected when we canvas our constituents at election time and we have a vested interest in improvement. My hon. Friend mentioned his canvassing experiences in Ealing. I hope that he will take it as a compliment when I say that he added a new dimension to the meaning of canvassing and that his campaign in Ealing is recalled, particularly by the ladies, with a mixture of nostalgia and incredulity.

My hon. Friend mentioned some serious matters, including the difficulties facing doctors, ambulances and the fire service. Those are matters of public concern to which we must give attention.

Inadequate or missing numbers — I notice that the number 13 is often missing in blocks of flats — are irritating to the police when conducting house-to-house inquiries. The police generally feel that standards are low and would welcome any moves to improve the situation, although the Home Office has had no reports of emergency call difficulties. Similarly, it is not aware of any difficulties experienced by the fire service over numbering, though that may be because the service is manned by people who know their local areas well.

The fire service has problems with similarly named streets. If there is a problem, local authorities usually rename streets. The Post Office's problems are generally not severe, again because the vast majority of the 60,000 deliverymen are regulars. All postmen are issued with route cards and most cover the same routes regularly, some on a rota basis, so they get to know local peculiarities. In some cases, postcards are of assistance.

Liaison with district councils on numbering is usually good. The main problem seems to be confusingly similar street names, for example King's street, King's road and Kings avenue all in the same area. There are two Shakespeare roads in the London borough of Ealing, one in W3 and one in W7. My headquarters are at 91 Shakespeare road W3 and I take this opportunity to apologise to the owner of 91 Shakespeare road, W7, for the mass of literature, destined for me, that he receives. The Post Office would like to see all premises numbered, though it can cope with names. It would like all numbers and names clearly displayed on gateposts or near the roadside. On that, it is at one with my hon. Friend. The Post Office accepts that compulsion is unrealistic and would not seek such powers, and my hon. Friend made it clear that that was not his intention either.

The previous Government issued a circular to which there was a good reaction. We should be delighted if further publicity could be undertaken to improve standards and to impress on householders that it is in their own interests for their homes to be clearly identifiable.

I shall now say a word or two about the law on this subject. The general statutory provisions on the numbering of houses in streets outside Greater London are contained in sections 64 and 65 of the Towns Improvements Clauses Act 1847, legislation that I am sure is never far from my hon. Friend's bedside. These provisions were made generally applicable to urban authorities by section 160 of the Public Health Act 1875 and to rural authorities by the Rural District Councils (Urban Powers) Orders 1931 and 1949. The general applicability of these provisions throughout England and Wales — except for Greater London — was secured by paragraphs 23 and 26 of schedule 14 to the Local Government Act 1972. The powers of the commissioners referred to in the 1874 Act are now vested in the district council.

Section 64 enables the district council to cause the houses and buildings in the streets in its area to be marked with such numbers as it thinks fit and makes it an offence for any person to destroy or deface any such number or to put up any number different from the number put up by the district council.

Section 65 places a duty on the occupiers of the houses and other buildings to mark their houses with such numbers as the district council approve of and to renew such numbers as often as they become obliterated or defaced. It is an offence for an occupier to fail, within a week of the notice of that purpose from the council, to mark his house with the number approved of, or to renew the number when obliterated. In addition, section 65 empowers the district council to cause the numbers to be marked or to be renewed as the case may require, and to recover the expense from the occupier.

In Greater London, the code on house numbering is contained in sections 11, 12 and 13 of the London Government Act 1939. These sections provide for a scheme that enables the Greater London council to order that buildings shall be marked by a number or a name for distinguishing them. The GLC's order is then transmitted to the appropriate London borough council and that council is required to give notice to the owner or occupier of every building to which the GLC's order relates. This notice requires the occupier or owner to put the appropriate mark on the building or on some part of the premises of which the building forms part. If the notice given by the borough council is not complied with, that local authority must cause the number or name to be marked on the building or premises in question.

Section 12 enables the GLC to make regulations with respect to the marking of buildings and in particular these regulations may provide for the number or name to be marked in some appropriate position either on the building or on some part of the premises of which the building forms part.

Section 13 makes it an offence for any person to put on a building a number different from that lawfully given to it, to put a mark except in accordance with the marking or number assigned. Sections 14 and 15 of the Act deal with the keeping of records by the council, with legal proceedings by the authority against any one who contravenes or fails to comply with the provisions of the Act and recovery of expenses. In addition, a few local authorities—Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Humberside, Kent, Merseyside, South Yorkshire and West Midlands —have taken out extra powers in local Acts. The main aim of these Acts has been to try to deal with the problem of emergency services failing to locate premises set back from roads.

So much for the law, which makes it clear that the primary responsibility for ensuring satisfactory numbering rests with local authorities. It seems to me that on the whole the law is fairly adequate and covers the circumstances comprehensively.

Mr. Dickens

My hon Friend has told the House that the law is adequate, but clearly it is not being implemented by local government, because if it were I could not have made the charges that I made earlier.

Sir George Young

My hon. Friend anticipates what I was about to say. I was about to speak of the role of the Government in the giving of advice and encouragement to make sure that the law is implemented and enforced. We have issued circulars from time to time, the latest of which is circular roads 35/77, which was issued in December 1977. It reminds authorities — this answers my hon. Friend's point—of the continuing need to maintain a good standard of street nameplates and house numbering schemes to assist the efficient functioning of the postal and emergency services and to provide for the convenience of the general public. It makes a number of detailed recommendations and I quote what these are: a. "Unlike street nameplates there is no legal requirement for the numbers of premises when displayed to be conspicuous except where authorities have taken special powers in local Acts. Nevertheless, every effort should be made to persuade owners and tenants to adopt the following recommendations. It then lists the recommendations. b. Main roads should be numbered so that when travelling away from the centre of the town the odd numbers are on the left hand side and even numbers on the right. Succeeding numbers should be approximately opposite one another, even though this may require the omission of certain numbers where frontages vary … Side roads should be numbered ascending from the main road. c. The postal authorities"— for example, the local head postmaster— should be consulted in numbering `Radburn' type pedestrian layouts and other complex urban developments. d. in small groups of low-rise flats, dwellings should be numbered within the ordinary street numbering system, but in tall blocks of flats each flat should be numbered so that the number indicates the floor level. The numbers of the flats contained in each block should also appear al the entrance to the block in a position clearly readable from the roadside. e. All houses, offices, business establishments and other premises should be numbered, preferably with a minimum size of numerals of 62.5mm, and their numbers should be displayed so as to be clearly readable on their gates, if any, otherwise in a position facing the road. I should like to deal now with the positive suggestions that my hon. Friend made a few moments ago, because I tend to agree with him that the situation is certainly not so perfect that it is incapable of improvement.

I am glad that my hon. Friend did not suggest more legislation. The existing legislation outside London is somewhat old. It was passed, if my history serves me right, when Lord John Russell was Prime Minister. At that time the Duke of Wellington who lived at Apsley House had the top number—No. 1, London. But it has served the test of time reasonably well and I am sure that both my hon. Friend and I would be more than happy if we could be confident that this Government's legislation would still be on the statute book in 130 years' time.

The legislation is certainly not perfect. For instance, it does not require numbers to be put on any particular place on houses or require them to be of such a size that they can be easily read from the street. But I am not sure that it would be right to have the Government laying down standards or requirements on these matters. Such action might be regarded as sinister or absurd and there might be difficulties if, for example, we used unemployed people to encourage householders to put up numbers which they provided. People might ask whether the next step would be regulations on the colours that could be used to paint front doors. Nor do I believe that there is a great deal more that we can do by way of Government advice to local authorities. As I have already said, advice was given as recently as 1977. I do not think that since then either the scale of the problem has changed or that we have anything new to offer by way of recommendations.

The difficulty is that local authorities have an enormous range of responsibilities and it is understandable if they cannot always give this particular one the priority which in an ideal world it might merit. In such a situation it is certainly a good idea, and entirely in keeping with the philosophy of the Government, to encourage private individuals to take voluntary action rather than to expect the Government to take the initiative in requiring them to do something.

My hon. Friend has suggested an advertising campaign to encourage people to ensure that houses, flats and offices are clearly numbered. In principle, I think that that is an excellent suggestion. I shall pursue as soon as I can with my colleagues the possibility of undertaking a campaign, but the Government's publicity funds are subject to the same constraints on public expenditure as any other area of activity. There are at present far more potential calls on these funds for equally worthy subjects than there is money available. This year's publicity budget is already fully committed. We are spending about £5.5 million on the main road safety topics of drinking and driving, child safety and the safety of cyclists.

What I can do—and I hope that my hon. Friend will understand why I can go no further at this stage—is to say that when we come to consider next year's programme —I am confident that it will be we rather than anybody else who will be doing so—we will certainly add the campaign that he described so eloquently this afternoon to the list of possible campaigns. In the meantime, there is nothing to stop someone from applying under the community programme to do the type of work that my hon. Friend described.

I hope that my hon. Friend will find that a constructive response to what I have found to be a useful debate, put forward very eloquently, on a neglected subject.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Three o'clock.