HL Deb 03 July 1905 vol 148 cc716-23

My Lords, I rise "To call attention to the pledges as to uniformity in speed limits given in the House during the passage of the Motor-Car Act, 1903, and to ask why these have been departed from in the case of Beverley; and whether the Local Government Board have taken the advice of the Law Officers as to their power to impose varying speed limits under Section 8 of the Motor-Car Act, 1903." That section gives power to the Local Government Board in the case of certain roads to prohibit or restrict the use of motor-cars upon those roads; and, acting under that section, an Order has been made in the case of the town of Beverley, in Yorkshire, by which a speed of five miles an hour is imposed on motor-cars for a certain small section of narrow road in the centre of the town.

The first Question I have to ask is whether it is within the competence of the Local Government Board to impose a speed limit under Section 8. At first blush the words "prohibit or restrict" might appear to include restriction of speed or anything else; but when you have another section in the same Act which provides a twenty-mile-an-hour limit of speed all over the country, and a second speed limit of ten miles exactly in certain definite circumstances, it seems rather curious to hold that the words of Section 8, which does not on the face of it deal with speed, gives an unexpected power to impose a speed limit of a third character. That result, I think, was not contemplated when the Act passed, and I shall be glad to know whether the advice of the Law Officers has been taken as to the propriety of so interpreting that section.

During the passage of the Motor-Car Bill through this House, when it was in the charge of my noble friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh, the question arose as to the imposition of a speed limit. The Bill as originally introduced had no speed limit in it at all, but, yielding to representations which were made in this House, Lord Balfour consented to introduce a speed limit of ten miles an hour where it was applied for by the local authorities, and that provision is now embodied in the Act. I think it was understood throughout that discussion that although there was to be this special limit of ten miles an hour in places where it was thought by the local authorities and by the Local Government Board, after inquiry, that the circumstances of the case required it, there should not be different speed limits throughout the country. I have refreshed my recollection on that subject by looking up the pages of Hansard. I find that on July 14th Lord Tweedmouth said— Do I understand that it would be possible to have over the whole country a patchwork of different speeds according to the desires of the different local authorities? To that Question Lord Balfour replied— I agree with the noble Lord that the fewer variations of speed the better. I think that there should not be, except in very exceptional circumstances, a very low limit of speed prescribed. I hope it will be found possible to have only one limit of speed in the great majority of places. The subject was again referred to a week later by Lord Balfour, who said— I entirely agree with the noble Lord opposite that it is undesirable to have too many varying speed limits all over the country. There may be special cases where a very low speed ought to be fixed, a speed lower than ten or twelve miles an hour, but they will be very few. We think that where there is a special limit imposed it should in almost every case be the same limit, so that when a driver is within the prescribed points he should always keep within the same limit. It would be very inconvenient to have a limit in one county of fourteen miles an hour, in another of twelve, and in another of ten; and the President of the Local Government Board is prepared to agree that except in the most extraordinary circumstances the limit of speed for special areas should be uniform, and that that limit should be ten miles an hour. That bears out the general recollection which I had, that there were not to be conflicting speed limits, but that we were to have a general speed limit of twenty miles an hour, and in those special areas a speed limit of ten miles an hour, and I have not been able to find anywhere any i understanding, in this House or in the other House, that Section 8 was intended to give power to the Local Government Board to impose different speed limits from those provided in the Act.

In the particular case of Beverley, I. suppose one Answer may be that it is precisely one of those special cases which was carefully excepted by the words of the noble Lord which I have just read. I am acquainted with this locality, and made it my business to attend the inquiry which was held there by the Local Government Board. The road in question is a very narrow one, exactly in the centre of the town. I had hoped to be able to lay before your Lordships to-day exact figures as to the rate in miles per hour at which traffic passes through there, but I am sorry to say I have not been furnished with the figures in time. My own recollection is that I have passed through in an ordinary fly at a speed of eight or ten miles an hour. I think if observation were kept on this particular place it would be found that no traffic, except heavy and slow vans, or traffic obstructed by other traffic, went through I at a less speed than seven or eight miles an hour; and therefore to provide that a motor-car, which is the most controlled of all the devices which run on the road, should go at only five miles an hour is an anomaly. I venture to think the driver would not be able to make a motor-car go at five miles an hour without considerable previous practice, for it is a speed which is incredibly slow, and one which, if maintained, would lead to the driver being hurried on by the police. But what I wish to call attention to is the imposition, for the first time I believe, at Beverley of this limit, and to express the hope that these peculiar speed limits will not be imposed. They are very confusing, and, in practice, are not observed, and it is a regrettable thing to my mind to impose a legal prohibition unless you mean that prohibition to be I complied with.


My Lords, I should like to say a word or two before the noble Lord replies. I am very well acquainted with the locality in question, and probably know it better than the noble Lord who has put this Question. I may say that this is one of those cases in which the speed limit should be decided more on the ground of common-sense than of what is strictly legal. Beverley is rather peculiar in this respect, that there are very narrow streets all converging on a centre. If motors were to go at a great speed through these narrow streets I am quite sure there would be great risk to the passers-by. I was very glad indeed to hear the compliment which the noble Lord paid to the horse traffic in Beverley by telling us that the cabs go at the rate of eight or ten miles an hour. I very frequently have reason to drive through Beverley, and I think six miles an hour is the quickest pace at which I have ever been driven. We must also remember that it is almost impossible for motor-cars to keep to an exact speed. If you fix five miles an hour, in all probability they will go at six or seven. I have every reason to believe that motors do go through the town of Beverley at six or seven miles an hour, and, knowing the circumstances as I do, I think that is quite as fast as is safe for the inhabitants. In the Middle Ages this ancient borough of Beverley had the right of sanctuary. The sanctuary was situated in the old minster; the church lands extended to a distance of two miles round the minster. That is about the extent of the borough, and I must say that I quite applaud the action of the local authority who have made it a sanctuary in which their citizens and neighbours are safe from the hostile incursions of foreign motors. It is one of the few places, I believe, in the country where His Majesty's subjects are quite safe, and I think the authorities at Beverley, considering how narrow the streets are adjoining the market-place, were quite right in fixing the speed limit at five miles an hour. There is also a very narrow gateway through which most of the people entering the town have to go, and it would be dangerous if motors were allowed to pass through that bar at a quicker rate than five miles an hour. I hope, whatever Answer His Majesty's Government may give to the Questions of the noble Earl, no alteration will be made in the speed limit.


My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord who has just sat down that the Local Government Board will make no alteration in the happy state of things that exist at Beverley. In reply to the Question put to me by the noble Earl opposite, I have to say that the Local Government Board have not thought it necessary to consult their Law Officers as to the interpretation of this particular clause in the Act. Before I the Order was made public an inquiry was held, and pieces of the roadway to which it applied were inspected by an inspector of the Department. The pieces of road named in the Order are all short in length, but narrow. The roadway ranges l from eleven feet three inches to thirteen feet, and anything approaching a high speed there would be obviously most improper. The Local Government Board were advised by their inspector that they were all places at which the ordinary I motor traffic might be regarded as specially dangerous. Therefore, in this case, they made an exception to the usual speed limit. The section, as the noble Lord rightly says, allows the Board to "prohibit or restrict" motor-car traffic, and the Local Government Board cannot agree with the noble Lord that the restriction does not apply to speed. It seems to them unreasonable to say that the natural meaning of the word "restrict" should be confined at all. The word must be held to cover any form of restriction, whether it be restriction of speed, of hours, or of classes of cars. For that reason they did not think it necessary to have the section construed for them. There has been one other case in which the maximum rate of speed was fixed at five miles an hour, but only one. It should be remembered that the section of the Act under which the Beverley Order was made was not in the Bill when Lord Balfour made the observations from which the noble Earl has quoted. The noble Earl did not read one portion of the speech made by Lord Balfour of Burleigh, in which Lord Balfour said— The President of the Local Government Board is prepared to agree that except in the most extraordinary cases the limit of speed in special areas should be uniform.


I did read that.


Well, we hold that this is a very exceptional case, and, as such, it has been treated in an exceptional manner. I do not think the noble Earl can find any fault with the Department for attempting to conduce to the safety of the town of Beverley or of any other place where it seems necessary to impose exceptionally low limits.


My Lords, I have no complaint to make of the quotations which the noble Earl opposite made from what I said when the Bill was passing through this House. I venture to say that most of your Lordships will think that in the case of a street, such as that quoted by the noble Lord who has just spoken on behalf of the Local Government Board, which is, in parts, only eleven feet three inches wide, and is nowhere more than thirteen feet wide, it would be unsafe for any traffic to go at a speed above the very ordinary speed of horse - drawn traffic. I do not think it necessary to touch upon that, but I do want to press this point, that the policy of His Majesty's Government, when the Bill was introduced in this House, was to do without a speed limit altogether. The argument put before the House was that the safest thing to rely on was the ordinary conditions of the user of the road, that whoever used the road must be responsible for the speed at which he went wherever he was. I do not think that that was altogether a popular argument in this House at the time. It was a less popular argument in another place, but I still think it would have been the soundest policy to keep to that. I do not think that anyone will say that the present condition of affairs under the Act is altogether satisfactory. I think there is a great deal to be said against it. I argued then, as I should argue now, for the same conditions being put on the user of the roads by motor-cars as other traffic; and on the other hand it is reasonable, I think, that there should be a power restricting the speed in really exceptional cases. When I used the argument quoted, which, fairly interpreted, covers this special case, there was no speed limit in the Bill, This particular clause, under which the Beverley Order was made, was not in the Bill at that time, and, therefore, anything I said on that occasion, in arguing for the Bill as it then stood, cannot by any stretch of imagination be held to apply to what was put in in another place afterwards and not objected to in this House when, on the subsequent stages, it received your Lordships' sanction.

I am not quite sure whether Lord Kenyon did justice to the strength of the case, as I understand it, for this particular restriction. The noble Earl opposite seemed to imply that Section 8 as it stands in the Act ought not to apply to a restriction of speed. I understand the argument of the noble Earl to be that there is power in another clause to restrict the speed to ten miles an hour, and that Clause 8, which does not place a limit on speed at all, but simply uses the words, "prohibit or restrict the driving of motor-cars," ought not to be applied to a restriction of speed. There is nothing in the Act, so far as I can read it, to give colour to that idea. There is a provision that in certain places you are to be restricted to ten miles an hour; but, surely, if there is in addition to that a power given to the Local Government Board, after inquiry, to prohibit or restrict the driving of motor-cars, it is straining language that the word "restrict" should be held not to apply to speed, but only to something else which is not specified. I do not want to venture my opinion on a point of law, but, reading it as a mere matter of common-sense, it seems to ma that, unless there is some provision in the Bill limiting the interpretation of the word "restrict" in a clause of this kind, it must be held to have its ordinary interpretation in the English language. I thank the noble Earl for giving me notice that he intended to call in question what I had said, and express the hope that I have been able to clearly show that in the statements I made I had no wish to mislead the House.


I can assure the noble Lord who has just sat down that nothing I said was intended to bear that interpretation, and I hope the noble Lord will accept my remarks in that spirit. I would just make this one observation, that the remarks which have been made about a road only eleven feet wide overlook the fact that there are hours, between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. when, however populous the neighbourhood may be, the road is not frequented.