HC Deb 26 June 1984 vol 62 cc903-19

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Mr. Ancram

This is an important subject and one of real concern to many hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries said that the Scottish Office seemed to have a veto, and that it talked always about road safety. However, in the person of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the Scottish Office is the roads authority and would be the roads authority to whom this amendment would apply. Therefore, it is for my right hon. Friend to decide, as the roads authority, what the policy should be on motorways and trunk roads. Obviously safety is an important factor.

I take my hon. Friend's point that trees on the side of the road are solid objects if one happens to run into them. However, signposts can be dangerous objects to run into as well. One of the important considerations in putting up signposts is to ensure that the material from which they are made does not splinter. If a car were in collision with a wooden sign, that could be a lethal object, so we must consider safety when erecting them.

It is worth the House reflecting on the fact that both sign owners—if they were privately erected signs—and the roads authority could be held liable for damages in the event of a sign being hit. However, it is not just the danger of impact or collision that is important but the danger that can arise from distraction. After all, unlike trees and bushes, signs are there to be looked at and read. They can be a potential source of accidents precisely because they can distract the attention of a driver from the road in front of him if he reads what is written on them. When hon. Members move amendments that could lead to a considerable number of signs in certain circumstances they should consider this factor.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries may envisage in his constituency a few signs for hotels and services and he may believe that they can do no harm, but if we agreed to relax our policy on signs, we should soon face pressure to allow advertising by the roadside for all types of purposes throughout the country. How will a roads authority discriminate and decide who shall be allowed to erect a sign and who shall not when trying to prevent the dangers of distraction?

Surely we do not want our roads to look like some of the roads along which I have driven in the United States, where streams of signs advertise hotels and services, all of which have equal claims on advertising rights. The effect of that on the environment and safety would be considerable.

Mr. Michael Forsyth

I have followed my hon. Friend's argument carefully. Surely the logic of his argument is that we should not allow vehicles to carry advertisements on their sides when they travel on motorways, on the ground that people might try to read them and they might constitute a danger. We already have that distraction. Perhaps the way round the problem is to employ old-fashioned hand carts, for example, to advertise and cause even more of a distraction. The Minister's argument does not stand up.

Mr. Ancram

Any mobile sign involving planning permission must be off the curtilage of the highway. I know of an example near my hon. Friend's constituency. It is no answer to the argument that distractions are dangerous to say that distractions already exist and that therefore we should allow more distractions. I am expressing the argument as fairly as I can because the matter is important, but we must see it in perspective.

Sir Peter Mills (Torridge and Devon, West)

I hesitate to intervene in a Scottish debate, but I should like to use an illustration from my constituency. Some cows wore jackets advertising a certain cheese. The jackets had to be taken off because they distracted the motorists.

Mr. Ancram

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) for that helpful example. I hope to hear more from him during Scottish debates in future.

Mr. Bill Walker

An interesting comparison can be drawn with what happens when a low-flying aircraft flies nearby without advance warning. Surely that is a great distraction to a driver.

Mr. Ancram

When I was driving on the A9 once an aircraft flying lower than my car passed me and I nearly drove off the road. I accept that that is a distraction, but it is no argument for allowing other distractions.

I acknowledge the need in Scotland to promote tourism and to inform road users about the services and attractions available near roads. For that reason, in conjunction with the Scottish tourist board, the Scottish Development Agency has introduced new types of authorised traffic signs, for bypass communities for example. The hon. Members for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) and for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) have raised the problems of bypass communities. They know that last autumn we conducted an experiment with the "strongbow" sign. The results were good and we are providing the signs as fast as resources allow. I believe that they have been welcomed wherever they have been erected. They provide the sort of information for which the tourist is looking—basic information that they can leave the road and re-join it later without having to backtrack and that there are services available in the bypass community.

In conjunction with the tourist board, we are always looking for ways to promote tourism through providing the right sort of information on signs. I believe that what we have done so far will be widely welcomed by road users and those who provide the road services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries mentioned hotels. He knows that I have been interested in that matter for some time. My Department is discussing with the Scottish tourist board the possibility of including more information on the official traffic signs for hotels, possibly including hotel names and classifications that meet certain criteria of size and quality. However, such developments must, of need, await the introduction of the tourist board's proposed system of classification of Scottish hotels. Until then, we cannot have any reasonable way of assessing which categories can be advertised. I understand that that exercise is likely to take a couple of years.

I hope that I have shown that I am concerned about the problems faced by those trying to provide tourist services. I am trying to meet them in a way that is consistent with the principles that I set out earlier, which are basically those of safety. My hon. Friend knows that we are not wholly inflexible about advertising signs. For example, the sign for the Auchencastle hotel near the A74 has, within the last few months, been allowed to remain on trunk road land because it is a long way back from the road and does not constitute a hazard to road safety. We are prepared to consider similar cases on their merits.

While I doubt whether I can give my hon. Friend total satisfaction—I await the day that I can achieve that—I hope that I have said sufficient for him to appreciate that we are seriously considering the problem and that we are not inflexible. We are trying to find a way to supply the sort of information that he seeks, which is also consistent with the principles that I have outlined. On that basis, I hope that he will withdraw his amendment.

Sir Hector Monro

We have had a valuable debate and I welcome the support from all sides of the House, and especially that of my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) and the hon. Members for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) and for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy). It is a serious matter and I deprecate the flippant approach of some Opposition Members.

I am pleased to have the assurance from my hon. Friend the Minister about cattle grids. That will be warmly welcomed by those concerned for small animals. The hon. Members for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) went beyond the bounds of comprehension. To think that I would want advertising hoarding all along main roads is ridiculous——

Mr. Maxton


Sir Hector Monro

No doubt the hon. Gentleman is going to say something even more stupid.

Mr. Maxton

I merely wish to point out that it was not I who raised the question of American-type hoarding along the sides of roads—it was the Minister who said that that would be a danger if the amendment was accepted.

Sir Hector Monro

The hon. Gentleman went more than far enough in his own remarks. I am a past chairman of the planning committee and I have served on the National Trust and the Nature Conservancy Council. Therefore, it must be obvious that I would not support any form of general advertising hoarding, and I never said that I would.

10.15 pm

Opposition Members do not understand how planning authorities work. They are responsible for giving authority—even when a matter must also be approved by the Scottish Development Agency—on issues affecting trunk roads, and they would not approve signs that were out of taste or out of place, and I am not advocating that they should. The amendment uses the word "may" rather than "shall", and I need not remind Labour Members who are expert in discussing the difference between "may" and "shall" and "have" and "have not" of what "may" means in the context of the amendment.

Opposition Members also fail to appreciate that the amendment is drafted in relation to highway boundaries. It is clear that the signs which, they say, would distract people, could be only a foot the other side of the fence. Apparently signs would be all right there, whereas inside the highway boundary they would be all wrong. The issue of distraction does not arise because the planning authority must have given approval for a sign to be in a field, and there could be the same number of signs along any 50-mile stretch of road. The same would apply under my amendment. In any event, the signs could be harder to read by being further away, outside the highway boundary.

Nobody has explained how Burrell gets away with it. I am delighted with the success of the Burrell exhibition. I am all for flexibility. I only comment that it happened when requests for other signs were being turned down.

Mr. Ancram

I apologise to my hon. Friend for not having explained the point of the Burrell sign. I understand that so many people were going to the Burrell gallery and were finding it impossible to find the place that, for reasons of traffic regulation, Strathclyde region decided that a sign was necessary.

Sir Hector Monro

I know of a few hotels which could put up a good case for saying that they, too, would do extremely well if they could have some more advertising. I appreciate what the Minister says, which proves that there is flexibility of approach. I should be glad to know whether Glasgow district council approached the Minister for approval to erect signs.

I gather that there is no law to prevent advertising signs from being placed on trunk roads within the highway boundary and that the decision is for the Secretary of State. That gives enormous encouragement, because it means that my right hon. Friend can be flexible and could change his mind tomorrow. It is good to know that there is riot a statutory requirement needing legislation to change it.

The Minister made my point—[Interruption.] If Opposition Members would shut up, I might be able to make myself heard. The Minister pointed out that advertising signs collapse much more easily than solid oak trees. If the Minister welcomes the planting of trees within the highway boundary, then easily collapsible highway signs need not worry him from the point of view of road safety. I am totally in favour of trees. Indeed, when 1 ran my planning committee, I helped to get trees planted alongside the A74. I have not heard of vehicles running into them; they are well up on the bank, where the advertising signs would be.

It is said that we have not had the usual Committee stage, when this whole issue could have been thrashed out in detail. It is now too late to draft an amendment which would fulfil the wishes of hon. Members and meet all objections, bearing in mind the narrow issue of the principle of the amendment, although that issue has been widened enormously by Opposition Members.

I was pleased to hear the flexible approach which the Minister adopted. It is clear that he has taken on board the arguments that have been adduced and that it is not the Secretary of State's right by law to prevent such advertising. That means that, in future, my right hon. Friend could take a different approach and could help the hotels and other tourist attractions to fulfil in Scot land what they are there to do.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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