HC Deb 28 July 1989 vol 157 cc1440-7

11 am

Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the difficult problems of London traffic. Virtually all commuters and travellers in London agree that our transport system is in danger of seizing up. On Wednesday evening, parts of London ground to a halt. On that evening, the problems were accentuated by various public sector strkes, but many of us felt fear as well as frustration. We were fearful that what happened on Wednesday evening could become normal if nothing is done and the inexorable growth of traffic in central London continues.

It would be difficult to put a price tag on the irritation that I felt on Wednesday after missing an appointment with the American ambassador. It is also difficult to estimate the cost of the irritation that my commuter constituents feel as their journeys are delayed. However, we can estimate with some precision the amount that traffic congestion adds to the bills of some of the larger companies operating in London. For example, British Telecom has estimated that an improvment in traffic speed of just 1.4 mph inside the M25 circle would save the company £7.25 million. Its fuel savings would come close to £900,000 and the saving on drivers' time would account for more than £6 million.

It is ironic that British Telecom would benefit so greatly from a traffic speed-up because on many occasions its roadworks have slowed my journeys through the capital. Yesterday morning, I went to the AA's new road watch centre at Stanmore, where it can monitor delays and traffic hold-ups throughout a large part of the country. That centre will provide an increasingly valuable service to motorists. I noted at the centre that British Telecom was responsible for 11 of the almost 60 major roadworks in London yesterday.

On the desks of Transport Ministers are many plans for improving the transport infrastructure of London. I should like to pay tribute to the work of the former Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), especially for the paper, "Transport in London", which he prepared and produced earlier this year. But building new railway lines, underground tunnels, light railways and roads takes time as well as hundreds of millions of pounds. While we wait for improvements in the infrastructure, it is vital to make the best use of the roads that we have.

There is general agreement that the basis of any plan to get London moving must be the unclogging of its traffic arteries. Some south London Members—I am one—including my hon. Friends the Members for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman), for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden), for Lewisham, West (Mr. Maples), for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook), for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis), who is in his place and who thought up the title, have put forward the "Red Route Plan". It proposes that heavier fines and more traffic warden enforcement should be concentrated on the 300 miles of roads that make up our main arterial system in London. We propose that heavier fines of at least £75 for illegal parking should be levied on those red routes arid that there should be five times the normal level of enforcement.

London's traffic warden force is about 500 under strength. There should be 2,000 traffic wardens and there are fewer than 1,500. The extra 500 wardens should be concentrated on those 300 miles of red routes. The red route concept of concentrated enforcement has powerful allies. It is backed by the AA, the CBI and the Institution of Civil Engineers. I cannot speak for the police, but I know that their thinking and our thinking is on the same lines. I hope that the red route proposals will soon be backed by the Government.

One of the roads that would obviously be earmarked as a red route is the south circular road, which has been heavily congested for as long as I can remember. Some years ago, the Department of Transport commissioned a comprehensive study of ways to relieve congestion on the south circular. Among the many proposals put forward were two plans for building alternative roads which would have cut through my constituency. Other south London constituencies are affected by similar proposals. If either of those new roads were built, it would cost hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money.

The drawing of broad brush strokes by the consultants on their planning maps has inadvertently blighted hundreds if not thousands of homes in Beckenham. I do not think that either of those routes will ever be built, and there is no need for them. Once again, I beg the Department of Transport to make an early announcement about that. When I recently drove six miles along the south circular on a Friday afternoon I saw 143 vehicles illegally parked and there was not one traffic warden to be seen. It would be absurd to spend hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money to duplicate a road that is so often used as an illegal parking lot.

Apart from greater control of illegal parking, we propose the establishment of a more powerful London traffic management unit within the Department of Transport. We certainly do not want to create a new "son of GLC". We think that the proper place for this unit is within the Department of Transport. Once again, the proposal is backed by the AA and the CBI, although the Institution of Civil Engineers has rather more grandiose plans.

Part of the job of the London traffic management unit would be to ensure that artificial obstructions are not created on our roads. I am in favour of reducing the speed of traffic in residential areas and I am glad that the Department of Transport has made it easier to install road humps. However, I note that a number of councils, notably Hammersmith and Fulham, are going further and closing off side roads so that more and more traffic is forced to use the main trunk roads. I regret to say that Kensington and Chelsea council has recently gone even further and deliberately reduced the width of Kensington high street to one lane at one point, thus creating additional traffic jams on a road which already carries 10 major bus routes, quite apart from the admirable new hoppa buses, the Green Line coach services and the Heathrow buses. That act of traffic vandalism has, absurdly, been approved by the existing London traffic management unit of the Department of Transport, which surely could not have understood what it was doing. We need a traffic management unit with a remit to keep London's traffic moving, rather than creating artificial traffic jams.

One vital role to be played by the traffic management unit would be overseeing the roadworks in central London. The Horn report on roadworks control highlighted the lack of planning of roadworks not only in London but throughout the country. No part of the red route system should be dug up until the work plan has been approved by the traffic management unit. On the new red route, continuous working should be the goal, with a great deal of work being done at night. Spending £10 million per year for 10 years on subsidising quicker roadworks in central London would do more to help London's buses, lorries, taxis and cars than spending £100 million on a new road in Bromley or Barnes.

I hope that a London traffic management unit will also be given a key role in setting a parking policy in central London. In the immediate future, that will provide the best means to control the use of private cars in the central area. I admit that I usually drive to the Palace of Westminster rather than using public transport, because I can be sure of finding a place in our admirable underground car park. It was once said that the House of Commons was the best club in Europe. I doubt whether that is still so, but it certainly provides the best car park in London.

If we are to limit the number of cars in central London, firm central control must be kept on parking policy. At the moment, the responsibility for parking is untidily split between the London boroughs, the police and the Department of Transport. Once an effective London traffic management unit has been established, the lead role in establishing a sensible parking policy for central London must pass to the Department of Transport. I also hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State for Transport—whom we wish well—will combine their forces to persuade my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer that money raised by parking fines should be used to recruit and maintain an effective warden force.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said, but should not enforcement of the regulations be transferred to the boroughs, so that it is carried out sensitively and with local knowledge?

Sir Philip Goodhart

There is a strong case for transferring such responsibility to the boroughs in outer London, but inner London parking policy is so important that it should be the responsibility of the Department of Transport.

London's roads are dangerous. I pay tribute to the former Minister for Roads and Traffic, my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley)—who has now gone to Northern Ireland, the part of the United Kingdom with the worst road safety record of all. Even in the early 1970s, when terrorism was at its worst, the road toll in Northern Ireland far exceeded the toll from terrorism, so there will be much for my hon. Friend to do. In the past three years, he has done a great deal to publicise the cause of road safety.

I am sure that all of us have been moved by the story of Don Kell, the pensioner who was shot while having a go at bank robbers. Mrs. Kell, who saw part of the incident from a distance, thought that she was watching the result of a traffic accident. That is understandable, because last year 488 Londoners were killed in traffic accidents, while 146 died as a result of criminal violence. In other words, motorists are responsible for three times as many deaths in London as criminals. However, the situation is improving. Thirty years ago, 765 people were killed on London's roads—277 more than died last year.

In part, this improvement may be caused by the congestion that we deplore. A car that can travel at only 2 mph will do less damage than a car travelling at 40 mph, if it hits someone. The main causes of the dramatic fall in the number of deaths on London roads, however, have been the drink-driving legislation and the seat belt legislation passed in recent years. The best opportunity that we have to reduce the appalling toll on London's roads would come from passing a new Road Traffic Bill based on the many and sensible recommendations in the North report. Those recommendations will make it much easier for the police to enforce speed limits, and speed is a major killer on our roads.

What is needed from the Government? We need higher parking penalties on our red roads and another 500 traffic wardens, to be concentrated on the red routes. They should be left to the control of the Metropolitan police in inner London, however, and on the main routes, so that there is central direction on parking policy. We need the establishment of a high-powered London traffic management unit with powers to override obstacles placed by some London boroughs and to exercise proper management of roadworks. We need legislation on the Horn report on roadworks and on the North report on traffic law. These steps will not solve our traffic problems but they will provide a desperately needed measure of relief for the travellers of London and people generally.

11.20 am
The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mr. Michael Portillo)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart) most warmly on initiating this Adjournment debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss many matters. He has given a great deal of thought to the subject matter of the debate and the shopping list with which he ended his speech was a clear sign of the way in which he has organised his thinking. He has set the agenda for us to think carefully about the issues to which he has referred, and I pay tribute to him for what he has done.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham was fulsome in his tributes, and I thank him for that. He referred especially to my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), with whom it was a great privilege to work for a year. My right hon. Friend was extremely concerned about all the matters that my hon. Friend has raised, and perhaps especially about the London assessment studies. He understood that, necessary though these studies are, they create tensions and problems in the consituencies of hon. Members on both sides of the House. My right hon. Friend wished to bring the studies to a conclusion as rapidly as possible so as to end some of the uncertainty and the blight. We expect to receive the consultants' reports in the late summer. There will then be a period for public comment before we decide which, if any, of the consultants' ideas should be taken forward. We have said already that we shall not support schemes which do more harm than good.

The assessment studies have the potential for making a major contribution to improving the quality of life in London. I should emphasise that they are not aimed at providing short cuts for motorists through London. Instead, their purpose is to relieve environmental problems and to reduce congestion and casualty rates. I can assure my hon. Friend that there will be no unnecessary road building. Our aim is to ensure that motor vehicles serve the needs of London and do not rule its infrastructure. My right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West was keen to try to rule out options which could not be carried forward as soon as possible, and I have every reason to believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Parkinson), the new Secretary of State, will see things in much the same terms.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham was also fulsome in his tributes to my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), who was for many years the Under-Secretary of State for Transport with responsibilities for roads, and I agree that he did tremendous work, especially on road safety.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham was keen to hear that we were to bring forward legislation to implement the North report recommendations. He will understand the problems in committing myself on that. We welcomed the recommendations, and legislation will be brought forward as soon as parliamentary time can be found.

My hon. Friend referred to the events of Wednesday evening, in which I was caught up. I do not know whether that statement provides limited consolation for my hon. Friend. It gives me the opportunity to say that the efforts made by the public to get to work in London during the recent difficulties have been magnificent and are to be applauded. I think that my hon. Friend was witnessing the symptoms of those great efforts. I do not think that there is any distance between the two of us in recognising that time wasted in traffic has a value and that time spent in that way reduces the quality of life for people in London. For both those reasons, we need to do what we can to improve traffic speeds through London.

The thrust of my hon. Friend's remarks was that we can look to build new roads and new railways, but that we must also make good use of what we have already. I could not agree with him more. Perhaps he will be patient with me for a few moments while I sketch the background in terms of some of the big projects that we have in mind. I shall put my remarks in the context of our general approach. My hon. Friend will know from the document on transport in London to which he referred that there are five main elements to our approach. These are, first, to provide through-road traffic with good alternative routes around London and, wherever possible, to avoid the central area. Secondly, we seek to make the best possible use of existing roads throughout London, especially those on the strategic London road network. Thirdly, we wish to ensure that London is linked properly to national and international transport networks. Fourthly, we wish to tackle the worst places and causes of congestion and improve conditions in areas where transport problems a re especially severe. That is where the London assessment studies come in. Fifthly, we wish to promote safe, efficient and effective public transport services, including those which will meet the demand for rail services to, from and within central London.

We recognise that different transport modes are particularly suited to different purposes. We recognise, for example, that rail and underground transport are the main means of radial movement into central London, and that the underground system, buses, taxis and walking are the main means of travel in the inner and central areas. We are aware that cars dominate in the outer areas. Our approach is being implemented urgently and large sums are being invested. Our approach is further described in the document on strategic planning guidance for London, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environmemt will he publishing this afternoon.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham knows that public transport is my particular concern. British Rail and the London Underground are undertaking major investment programmes to improve the quality of their services and to increase capacity. British Rail is planning to invest more than £1 billion on Network SouthEast in the next five years, the bulk of it on higher capacity and more comfortable and efficient rolling stock. I know that my hon. Friend has a constituency interest in that. London Regional Transport will be investing more than £400 million. Its investment programme includes a wide range of measures to ease congestion at stations and on trains. The Docklands light railway is being enormously upgraded in an attempt to keep pace with development and to provide higher capacity.

We are improving London's trunk roads to take traffic around central London. There are 38 major schemes planned or under construction, with works costing more than £1 billion. Priority is being given to improving orbital movement around the North Circular road and improved access to Docklands and east London. We are aiming also to realise the potential capacity of the present network by removing the worst pinch points and providing environmental relief in inner London and improved links to the M25, the Channel tunnel and Heathrow. My hon. Friend will know of the study on the M25 that was produced yesterday. We shall have to consider the consultants' recommendations extremely carefully.

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

In 1973, for good or ill, the Greater London council abandoned the South Circular road. By the time that it was taken on by the Government in 1974, no attempt had been made to provide for the additional traffic that would clearly need to use the M25. The M25 was originally designed to cater for the estimated amount of traffic on the assumption that a proper South Circular road had been constructed. In the absence of such a road, were not the then Labour Government extremely irresponsible in not providing a much better and larger M25 to take account of the fact that the South Circular road had not been provided?

Mr. Portillo

My hon. Friend has a much better understanding of these matters than I have. If he is suggesting that the Labour Government were irresponsible, I would find that easy to believe. I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend.

One of the problems with the M25 was convincing inspectors at public inquiries that a road of that capacity was needed. There were instances when inspectors were most reluctant to grant planning permission for a six-lane motorway. They thought that a four-lane motorway would do. I mention that because our perceptions have changed enormously. It is difficult to remember now that there was not then the expectation of continued economic growth of the kind that we have seen throughout the 1980s. There was no shortage of people assuring the Government that economic growth was impossible. Yet they now claim to be the people who saw so clearly that more roads were needed. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) leads me to digress.

The majority of roads in London are borough roads, and we are supporting an increasing number of borough road schemes with transport supplementary grant from the Department of Transport. Schemes receiving our support include town centre improvement and bypass schemes which help the movement of traffic and create a safer, more pleasant environment for pedestrians, and schemes which provide better industrial access.

We believe that safer and smoother traffic flows will result from effective parking controls, the extension of advanced and responsive traffic light control systems and the development of in-car route guidance and driver information systems. All those are receiving high priority. My hon. Friend will know of the Road Traffic (Driver Licensing Information Systems) Act 1989, which makes it possible to introduce an Autoguide. That is an example of using the latest developments in technology to help ease traffic congestion. The United Kingdom Transport and Road Research Laboratory has estimated that in London, Autoguide could cut average journey times by about 10 per cent. and mileage by about 6 per cent. The Department is about to enter into negotiations with GEC on a licence for a large scale Autoguide pilot scheme in the London area. We expect the private sector to finance the development and operation of the system. The pilot scheme could be in operation by the early 1990s and the Department of Transport will monitor the results. If the pilot scheme is successful, a full commercial scheme could be available to the public by the early to mid-1990s. The development of the Radio data system by the BBC could also be important as it has the potential to relay specific traffic messages to people through their car radios, giving information on traffic conditions. The information will be fast, reliable and local rather than nationwide. That could be of considerable significance in combating unpredictable congestion caused by accidents or by burst water mains.

We are constantly looking for new ideas for practical and more radical solutions to London's traffic problems. In that context, I should like to thank my hon. Friends for their constructive proposals for improving the management of traffic in London by means of a "red routes" system for London roads. The proposals for a network of priority routes have received considerable support and certainly merit the most careful consideration. I confirm to my hon. Friend that we are giving them urgent and serious attention. I should perhaps explain that a network of priority routes already exists in London, although not in the form that my hon. Friend envisages. This is the strategic London road network, which consists of 550 miles of trunk and borough roads forming the most important routes in London. Although it comprises only 7 per cent. of London's roads, it carries 35 per cent. of London's traffic, including more than half its bus traffic and 45 per cent. of its freight traffic. Its importance is emphasised in the traffic management guidance that my right hon. Friend has issued to the London boroughs. This guidance seeks a coherent approach to the management of traffic on the network and encourages improved safety and smoother traffic flows through improved junction controls and strict control of waiting and parking.

It will not surprise my hon. Friend to hear that there are bound to be some potential difficulties with parts of what he and other hon. Friends have suggested. The idea of a London traffic management unit is interesting, but we would not wish to create more bureaucracy where that could be avoided. We believe that the concept of strategic priority routes is a good one, however, so we are giving careful thought to how to overcome the potential bureaucratic pitfalls.

I can give my hon. Friend more immediate encouragement on his call for the greater co-ordination of street works. This matter will be addressed in the legislative changes that we are proposing for the reform of the Public Utilities Street Works Act 1950. Under our proposals, highway authorities will be given a power to designate as "traffic sensitive" streets where works are likely to cause severe disruption and to prescribe hours of working. In addition, the authorities will be under a duty to co-ordinate excavations with a view to minimising disruption and undesirable combinations of excavations. That duty will apply to utility services' excavations, the highway authorities' own works and works carried out under licence by others, such as builders. The proposed computerised street works register should also be a valuable aid to co-ordinating works. It is envisaged that all utilities and highway authorities will be linked to the register, which will provide a cheaper and faster system for notification of works than the present system of paper notices. I am sure that all that will be welcome.

I have acquired considerable experience in Docklands of seeking to co-ordinate the activities of all the various undertakings and public bodies which have the power to dig up our roads and the potential to cause disruption. I am mindful of the importance of co-ordination, because I understand that there is nothing more frustrating to the motorist than to be held up because of the poor co-ordination and management of these activities.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured that the Government welcome his work on how to deal with traffic in London. The Government's mind is certainly not closed to considering constructive proposals such as those that my hon. Friend has put forward. We need to place substantial emphasis on the ways in which the existing road network can be fully utilised. To a large extent, that may be the product of new technology through radio data systems, better signing and better information, but the proposals that my hon. Friend has put forward deserve the fullest consideration.

My hon. Friend's proposals have broad implications for the respective roles of the Secretary of State, the London boroughs and the Metropolitan police. The proposals therefore need very careful study and I am in no position to announce any conclusions today. Nevertheless, my hon. Friends have given us much food for thought, and, typically, have shown their deep concern to improve the quality of life in London. I take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend for raising the subject, to wish him a very happy summer break and safe motoring. May his way be ever free of jams throughout the summer period.