HL Deb 22 November 1911 vol 10 cc278-92

*LORD MONTAGU OF BEALTLIEU rose to call attention to the Report of the Road Board, and to ask His Majesty's Government if an official return of the number of motor cars, motor cycles, and commercial motor vehicles can be published annually.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I make no apology for introducing this subject to-day, and I ask the House to listen for a moment or two to a few remarks I have to make on the First Report of the Road Board before I proceed to the definite Question which I have put down on the Notice Paper, which is to ask His Majesty's Government whether an official return can be published annually of the number of motor cars, motor cycles, and commercial motor vehicles. All of these are paying taxes, and most of the figures regarding them should, therefore, be obtainable from the Excise authorities. This being the first Report of the Road Board, it is, naturally, of great interest, not only to those who pay the taxes and to those who are interested in road matters, but also to the local authorities. Your Lordships will remember that when the Road Board was originally set up under the Budget of 1909, it was set up as part of the Development Board, and was contained in the same Bill as included the provisions for setting up that Board. But it is a Board Totally different from the Development Board, and it collects taxes from one class only—namely, from the users of mechanical vehicles; and it spends this money in co-operation with local authorities upon roads.

The first Report of the Road Board covers a period of thirteen and a-half months, and it is therefore rather difficult, in criticising some parts of the Report, to deal with it quite easily, because the financial periods dealt with are different from the periods dealt with in the body of the Report. For instance, the revenue which has been collected is only given up to March 31, the end of the financial year, for reasons which I perfectly understand; but the effect is that, as in other cases different periods are given, comparison is made somewhat difficult. I should like to say how much I congratulate the Road Board on their general policy. It is a perfectly right and fair policy for all concerned—namely, that they should not give grants to local authorities without the co-operation of those authorities.

They are quite right in not giving doles broadcast to local authorities unless those authorities have some interest, direct and pecuniary, in the spending of the money; and if it ever came about that the Road Board, through pressure of any kind were compelled to give grants other than in accordance with this principle, it would be a very bad thing for the Road Board fund, and would lead almost certainly to a great falling off in time proper way in which these grants are spent.

The revenue collected in the period dealt with in the Report amounted to £1,426,000, but I will assume, for the purposes of my argument this afternoon, that up to date at least £2,000,000 has been collected. The only complaint I have to make on the financial score is this, that the Road Board seems to have kept back some of the money before distributing to the local authorities, the exact cause for which is not apparent. For instance, until quite late in this year practically no money had been dispersed to local authorities. I do not know whether any great technical difficulties, either financial or engineering, prevented this; but only seventy-five per cent. of the grants promised have been paid. If that is due to a spirit of commendable caution, I have no fault to find. But I think the practice of the Road Board in investing large sums in Government securities pending the distribution of the money is a somewhat risky policy. Surely it would be better financially if that money were put on deposit in the Bank of England, or dealt with in such a way that the capital would remain untouched. I may remind the noble Lord who is going to reply on behalf of His Majesty's Government that if a European war supervened, or there was a financial crisis of magnitude, there would be a serious fall in Consols and other securities, and this might seriously deplete the funds of the Road Board.

In Ireland there appears to have been only £25,000 collected, a sum which seems to me totally inadequate. We all know that in Ireland the taxation set up under the Budget of 1909 in regard to mechanical vehicles is difficult to enforce. But it looks as if there had been slackness in Ireland in collecting the revenue, and it is common knowledge that there are motor-cars all over Ireland in respect of which taxes have not been paid. If that is so, I hope His Majesty's Government will see that the revenue of the Road Board is properly collected in Ireland. There is a complaint in the body of the Report from Irish county councils that a sufficient sum has not been given to Ireland. I can see no ground for this. While a sum of £25,000 only was collected from Ireland, the sum of £150,000 was given back for the improvement of Irish roads. Most people—I am sure England would be glad to be in that position—would be pleased if they got back six times what they contributed. I fully realise that the trunk roads in Ireland need more attention than the trunk roads in England; but looking to the future and the possibility of Home Rule becoming law, the Irish Government must not expect that the motorists who possess cars in this country are always going to subsidise Ireland to the extent of £125,000 a year in future. The principle should be that where the money is raised there it should be largely spent.

From Scotland £73,000 was collected, in round figures, and Scotland got back £175,000, but there is better reason in the case of Scotland why more should be given. A large number of English cars use the Scottish roads in the autumn, and Scotland has on the whole tried to keep its roads up to a high standard of efficiency. The roads south of Perth are in many cases the admiration of English engineers. In the far northern counties they are not nearly so good, and the Road Board might devote attention to the county of Sutherland to see that money given there is wisely used. There is still a lingering prejudice there against mechanical vehicles. The county councils of the more northern counties have still a feeling that the money is wasted which is expended in making roads fit for mechanical vehicles.

Now I pass to some general remarks about the Report of the Road Board. Reading what is in the Report, and having in mind also the debates which have taken place in various county and borough councils, I must first of all say that I think the claim of certain county councils to have grants of money without spending any of their own is not a sound one. In the case of the Norfolk County Council, I believe great indignation was expressed because the Road Board would not spend money without receiving a local contribution. I gather from the Report that the policy of the Road Board is that they will con- tribute anything up to two-thirds or three-fourths of the expenditure if the local authority will provide the remainder, and that seems to me a reasonable policy. Local authorities also grumble at the cost of collection. Your Lordships will remember that when this new taxation was set up it was specially stipulated that £150,000 was to be set apart out of the estimated revenue of £750,000 a year, or twenty per cent., to take the place of the licence duties which had lapsed in consequence of the new form of taxation, so that local authorities already get, in addition to the grants they receive, £150,000 in lieu of the lapsed licence duties. Therefore I do not think that these authorities have any ground for complaint. Assuming for a moment that the complaint of county and borough councils that it is expensive and difficult to collect the licence money for motor-cars and motor vehicles generally is a good complaint, it would be better, possibly, to substitute a percentage to be paid to local authorities rather than the fixed sum of £150,000 a year. The effect of a percentage would be to quicken the sense of collection in the minds of the local authorities. When they get a fixed sum, whether they collect little or much, I do not think it appeals to them in the same way that it would if they were given a percentage on the amount collected. That is only human nature. I suggest that this percentage should be in the proportion originally fixed in the Budget—namely, twenty per cent.

To deal with one or two other questions. I would remark that the Road Board is to be congratulated on the general way in which the money has been spent. I know they had a temptation set before them to go into many new schemes of road building and to spend their money in various other ways, but they stuck in the main to what is a really sound policy—namely, the provision of a proper foundation for the roads of this country, a foundation which will enable the superstructure put upon it to carry the heavier traffic which the roads have to carry to-day. If some day they decide to build experimental roads, I hope it will be done after careful consideration. Primarily, we want to have our roads dustless and mudless before any ambitious schemes of this sort are entered into. No one who has motored about England and Scotland this year can have helped being struck with the increase in the mileage of tarred roads. Already half of the villages which undoubtedly suffered from dust, and in the winter from mud splashing, have regained their position as places in which it is pleasant to live, and the poor people residing in these villages can now have their windows open in hot weather. I myself sincerely sympathise with people who suffer from the dust nuisance.


The dust is made by the motor-cars.


The noble Viscount says that the dust is made by the motor cars. It is raised by the motor-cars, but its existence is due to bad road-making. I think the next step of the Road Board should be to consider the question of by-pass roads. We all know the case of Coln brook and of Kingston. I take those two as instances of which your Lordships are well aware. In both cases an immense traffic has to pass through thoroughfares which are inadequate to carry that traffic, and there are many other such places. The whole of the traffic of time Bath road, leading to the West of England and South Wales, passes through Colnbrook. A speed limit has had to be fixed, and the thoroughfare here is ridiculously narrow and consequently very dangerous. The road originally was wide enough for this traffic, but encroachments have narrowed what used to be a fine thoroughfare before the existence of railways. In the case of Kingston we have there a very dangerous place filled with trams and ordinary local traffic, including motor lorry traffic. This traffic has to pass through the narrow streets of Kingston all through the summer when the streets are crowded, and the result is a very dangerous state of things. These are two cases in which the Road Board might well consider whether they could not construct experimental by-pass roads with advantage to the public. They have power to take land as well, and I am sure if the frontages were taken on each side of the newly-made road they would bring something back towards the cost.

I think a word ought to be said about London. The case of London, of course, is peculiar. Street widenings in London have depended largely on the question of trams. I am not going to throw any stones at the London County Council, either the present Council or former Councils, but it is well known, and it is quite natural, as they are the owners of the biggest tramway system in this country, that they prefer to widen streets which affect their traffic. The result is that there are many roads which need to be widened, but of which, as they possess no tramway traffic, the County Council do not seem to desire to undertake the widening. This question of widenings will eventually have to be undertaken. The sooner it is done the better, for land all round London is increasing immensely in value, and the result is that in a few years' time the making of a great trunk road out of London will cost far more than it would to-day. It is to be hoped that the County Council will see their way to co-operate with the Road Board in this matter, and not look at it only from the point of view of tramways, because it is doubtful whether tramways will be the best means of locomotion in towns in the future.

The London General Omnibus Company this year have given an order for 10,000,000 gallons of petrol at 1½d. per gallon, which means that they are paying over £61,000 towards the funds of the Road Board; but this company do not get one penny advantage out of that taxation. Until the outskirts of London are reached—the London General Omnibus Company hardly run on any roads within the area touched by the Road Board—they will get practically no advantage out of this huge taxation which they pay. I am not quarrelling with the taxation. I believe the petrol tax is the easiest collected for the purpose, and I am not criticising it, but I do think when London pays such a large proportion of the total amount of revenue collected London should have more consideration than it gets at present in the spending of the money. But I agree that the London County Council must co-operate, and I hope that the hands of the Road Board will be strengthened in this direction, and that they will be able to come to some arrangement with the London County Council.

Now I come to the definite Question which I have placed on the Paper. It is the habit of many journals—I myself have done it on several occasions—to collect statistics of the numbers of motor cars registered in this country from the various local authorities. There are about 250 of these authorities, and their returns may or may not be correct. I am not saying that the clerks to the county councils do not do their best to give correct returns, but it is very difficult for them to do so because cars continually change hands, and they have no correct list, at any rate of commercial vans, in their county. Then cars change hands from county to county. There is only one way of getting at the correct number, and that is from the number that pay the tax to the Excise authorities. If the noble Lord who will reply to my Question can give some hope that the Government will have an annual return compiled in the way that I have suggested on the Paper—namely, with the amount paid by each class of vehicle set down clearly—we should be able to say more or less how many vehicles of all sorts there are in the country and the amount of taxation paid by each. It would be a most useful return from many points of view. Clerks of local authorities have written to me saying that, although they have incurred expenditure on account of improvements with the sanction of the Road Board, they find it difficult to get the money promptly. Unless county councils have large revenues they have to undergo considerable inconvenience if they do not get the money promptly, and now that the grants in aid from the Exchequer have been diminished, it is a hardship on local authorities when they do not get the grants paid to them by the Road Board as soon as possible, and it involves them sometimes in interest on loans and difficulties of that kind.

In conclusion, may I say that I rose this afternoon, as the House will have understood, not with the intention of criticising harshly the Road Board, but of calling attention to various matters raised in their Report. I repeat that I think their general policy has been sound, but I think we may ask that in their next Report they should give more information than is given in the first Report. I recognise, of course, that the period covered in the first Report is a broken one, and that the Board had not got fully to work. I know that they are doing their best, and that there may be points later on to criticise which may be better now left untouched. I think, on the whole, we should try and strengthen the hands of the Road Board, and give them more powers. I look forward to the time when the Road Board will be the embodiment of a national authority for national roads. Some day or other the trunk roads of this country must become national roads. Here is the machinery and the funds by which that can be carried out, and when that time comes perhaps the only part of Mr. Lloyd George's proposals in his famous Budget with which we shall all agree will be the part in which he set up the Road Board and provided funds for this purpose. I can assure His Majesty's Government that as far as motorists in general are concerned they are anxious to assist the Road Board to bring its labours to a favourable conclusion.


My Lords, I am sure there is no member of your Lordships' House who is more entitled than my noble friend who has just sat down to raise questions of the kind he has raised to-day, and no member of your Lordships' House speaks with greater weight than he does on these subjects. Therefore I am sure it will be a source of great gratification to the Road Board to know that their policy has met with the general approval of an authority so widely recognised on this subject as Lord Montagu. I think we may all agree that the work of the Road Board, as far as we have seen it at the present moment, does deserve the encomiums that it has received. It was a body set up to undertake an entirely new task. The Board are now well on in the second year of their work, and I should think that there is no bit of public work that has encountered such little criticism and has met with such general approval as the work that has been done by Sir George Gibb (the Chairman) and the other members of the Road Board.

The noble Lord raised the question of the Board's general policy. That is laid down quite clearly in their Report. They have, as they say, during these early stages in their career confined themselves rather to assisting a considerable number of smaller operations. As they themselves say, they think the most important thing, the thing that will do most good at the present time, is improving the surface of roads. The noble Lord suggested that possibly they were not spending their money quite fast enough. As is clearly shown in their Report, although they are at the present time confining themselves to what I may call minor operations, they have in mind the fact that it will become necessary for them before very long to undertake larger works and works of greater importance, which will cause an expenditure of much larger sums of money; and while they are, on the one hand, keeping sufficient balance in hand to meet these bigger operations which they will no doubt undertake, at the same time they are spending as much money as can be profitably spent, subject to that proviso, on the general improvement; of the roads of the country.

I think there has been only one really serious criticism levelled at the Road Board, and that has come largely from county councils and their representatives, and I was glad to notice that the noble Lord did not in any way associate himself with that criticism. I refer to the contention that the Road Board should, for every improvement that it sanctions and is prepared to support, pay the whole of the cost, instead of paying, as it does at the present moment, seventy-five per cent. Paragraph 34 of the Report makes very clear the reasons why they have adopted that policy. They have taken the line which has been so often, and, I think, advantageously, taken in the case of the grant of Government money, that you get work done more economically and more carefully if the authority which has the spending of the money—in this case the local authority responsible for the road—does have to contribute a certain amount of the cost. And besides that, which I think is an undeniable advantage, they are also reinforced in that position by the general attitude which they have adopted in these cases. After all, the Road Board was never intended, I think, to relieve local authorities of the burden which has always been placed upon them of maintaining the roads; its view of its duty is that it should share with those local authorities the increasing burden of the maintenance of the roads caused by motor traffic.

The noble Lord raised what I suppose is probably the largest, most expensive, and most difficult problem which is going to confront the Road Board, and that is the problem of what is going to be done in the case of London. As the noble Lord will see from the Report, the Road Board are by no means neglecting London at the present moment. The problem of what is the best thing to do with London, as you will see from paragraph 27, is engaging their attention, and, as they say themselves, anything which you are going to do in London which is to be of a satisfactory nature will require a policy of concentrated effort and assistance. That is obviously one of the big works which will have to be taken in hand in the future, and which will cost an enormous sum of money. It is impossible to say what it will cost, and I think the Road Board would have laid themselves open to the fair criticism, had they started in the early days of their career with a big scheme for London, that they were embarking upon a somewhat rash policy by taking the biggest and most difficult problems first.

Then there is the question of Ireland. I think we have some reason to agree with what the noble Lord said. There is strong ground for suspecting that there are a considerable number of Irish cars in respect of which licences are not paid at the present time. Of course, the position in Ireland is very different from the position in England. Ireland is a happy country where until motor car licences were instituted nobody had to pay any of what are known as establishment licences—licences on carriages, dogs, and so on—which are in England and Wales collected by the local authorities. Therefore the Irish county councils and county borough councils had no previous experience at all of the collection of these taxes. It was entirely new work which was being thrown upon them. In these circumstances one has to make a certain amount of allowance for the fact that they have not, perhaps, been able to straightway do their work in the manner in which we hope it will be done. The Treasury are well aware of that, and are moving in the matter. The Irish Local Government Board has called the attention of the local authorities to what their duties are in this matter, and I think there is under discussion a proposal that possibly the services of the Irish Constabulary, which is not on the same footing as the police in this country, might be enlisted where necessary in this work. Therefore we have every reason for hoping that a considerable improvement will be shown in this respect in the future.

The noble Lord called attention to how disproportionate the contribution of Ireland was to the amount which it receives it is quite true that Ireland does receive from the Road Board a good deal more than it finds in the way of money derived from licences, but the noble Lord left out one thing, and that is the amount derived from motor spirit. We have no available figures on that point, because a great deal of motor spirit comes into England and pays the Excise duty here and is afterwards sent over to Ireland. But that does not alter the fact that Ireland does receive a great deal more money from the Road Board than it pays.

LORD MONTAGU OF BEAULIEU I took into consideration the point to which the noble Lord has referred. The figures are—£14,907 from motor spirit duties in Ireland, and £17,452 from motor cars.


I think that is quite true of spirit which is brought directly into Ireland and pays duty there. But there is a good deal of spirit which pays duty in England and is afterwards taken across to Ireland, and which, therefore, does not appear in those figures. It is not a very important point anyhow.

Then I come to the question of delay in payment. We would be very glad if the noble Lord would give us further information about that. I understand that the general policy of the Road Board is to pay a portion of the grant in advance as soon as the council are ready to commence work, and they have had no complaints as to lack of promptness on their part in making the further payments. They would be the last people in the world to want to put local authorities in a difficulty in the matter, and any complaint of the sort that was brought forward would, I am sure, receive prompt consideration from them.

I now come to the last point which the noble Lord raised—the question of numbers. The noble Lord probably knows the numbers that are published in the Report of the Commissioners of His Majesty's Customs and Excise, but that information, of course, does not give all that the noble Lord wants. It gives motor cycles, motor cars, and hackney motors, and the numbers of those are as follows. There are 48,857 motor cycles, 75,617 motor cars, and 33,199 hackney motors, the term "hackney motor" including the ordinary taxi-cab and such things as motor 'buses and tramcars, and no differentiation is actually made. They are not classified in that sense, though Table 92 of I he Report does give them by weights; and it is stated in the Blue-book that it has not been found possible at present to show separately the several kinds of hackney motor carriages in use. But, generally speaking, motor omnibuses are to be found in column 5, which gives the hackney motors which exceed two tons but do not exceed five tons, and their number is given as 1,887. Motor cabs and tramcars are included in column 3. That column is one ton or under, or exceeding five tons," and their number is 22,720.

With regard to commercial motors—that is, motors which do not pay an annual licence—I am afraid it is impossible to supply any sufficient data at all. As these motors do not pay an annual licence they are only registered once in their existence, and they are not necessarily removed from the register when their life comes to an end and they are broken up. One could, no doubt, get from the registering authorities the numbers of commercial motors that have been registered, but it would not help very much, because one would never know how many of them have ceased to exist. Therefore I am afraid, with regard to commercial motors, we cannot give the noble Lord what lie wants, but with regard to other motors we do at the present moment receive from the local authorities who collect the licence duties a return of the number of motors and the duties that they have paid; so that it would be quite possible to publish, if the noble Lord wanted it, a statement as to the number of motor cars by counties, and, secondly, the number of different classes which pay the different scales of licence duty. I understand that that would largely meet the point which the noble Lord raises. I think I have replied on most of the points to which the noble Lord has called attention. I can assure him that the Road Board will be only too ready to consider the points which he has raised in his speech, and I am sure, as I said at the beginning, that it will be a source of gratification to them to know that in the noble Lord's view they are, as we all think, conducting their work in a most admirable fashion.


My Lords, my noble friend behind me (Lord Montagu) no doubt approaches this subject with great knowledge from the point of view of those who own and use motor cars and those who are interested in the development of motor traffic on our roads. But listening, to his speech, I confess it appeared to me that he gave no sufficient consideration, if any consideration at all, to the views of those who approach it from a different standpoint—namely, the county councils, which represent those who have to pay the main burden of maintaining the roads, and persons using the roads who are not fortunate enough to be owners of motor cars. I think the speech of my noble friend was based upon an entirely wrong assumption. Re secured to assume that, however great and rapid the traffic on our roads might be, the main cost of maintaining the roads ought still to fall on the ratepayers. The history of turnpike trusts shows that tins view was not accepted when roads had to be practically re-made for stage coach traffic, and it cannot be accepted now. There is, no doubt, a small contribution now made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer towards the cost of maintaining our roads, and the tax imposed upon motors and upon petrol is a slight addition to that contribution, but in my mind it is not nearly enough, and this whole subject, as motor traffic develops, will have to be entirely reconsidered by the Government of the day with a view to a much greater share of the maintenance of the roads being imposed in some way or other on the general public and on those who use the roads for this rapid and heavy traffic.

My noble friend has complimented the Road board on the way in which they have carried out their duties. I have no desire whatever to criticise them. They had a difficult task to perform, and they have judged as between the competing claims of different parts of the country for assistance, I have no doubt, with great fairness and generally upon proper lines. Where a suggestion has been made to them for making a new road, or for lowering a hill, or for cutting off corners, or for widening a road, they have been perfectly right in maintaining the principle that the locality should bear a certain proportion of the cost of the improvement, because such improvements are for the benefit of all classes of traffic over the roads. But I cannot take that view where it is a question of improving the surface of the road by tarring or otherwise in order to get rid of the dust nuisance. The dust nuisance is solely due to motors. I ventured to tell my noble friend when he was speaking that the motors make the dust. At any rate, they raise it. There was no such nuisance before the invention of motors as there is now, where cottages in village streets and villas close to main roads near London are rendered simply uninhabitable by dust raised by motors. Therefore do think that the funds derived from the taxation of motors or petrol ought to bear the entire cost of the improvement of the surface which is necessary to prevent the nuisance which the motors cause, instead of imposing the burden on the ratepayers; in other words, I would suggest that the Road Board ought to make grants for such purposes without requiring a contribution from the locality.

I know that Parliament has laid clown in the Act under which the Road Board works the principle that these taxes upon motors and petrol are not intended to relieve the ratepayers of any burden that previously fell upon them. I voted against that, and I do not think it was a fair principle to accept; but it has been accepted, and I do not wish to argue that question now. I do, however, wish to say that I do not think motors are sufficiently taxed at present considering the mischief they do to the roads, and I hope that the Road Board will reconsider, with regard to the surface of roads, their rule of requiring a local contribution before they contribute anything to that purpose.


My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord opposite for so fully answering my Question and for the return which he proposes to give. Although it does not give all the information I should like to have, it goes a long way in that direction. With regard to what the noble Viscount has just said, I think he must have forgotten that in the old coaching days dust existed to an even greater extent than it does to-day, as the pictures and records of the time show. There was dust in those days on every main road where there was much traffic. I fully admit that motor cars raise dust, and they are now paying, quite rightly, for the alleviation of this nuisance. With regard to the claim of the county councils, I think the noble Viscount forgets that in addition to the actual grants of the Road Board county councils get the £150,000 I mentioned, and they received out of the Exchequer grant last Year a sum of £11000,000.


Not for roads.


If that grant had been divided, as it was prior to 1888, when county councils were set up, and a certain sum ear-marked for road purposes, that sum would have amounted to £3,000,000 or £4,000,000 at least, which is a considerable sum paid by the general taxpayer apart from the local ratepayer for the upkeep of roads. I do not know whether the noble Lord would suggest that motor traffic should pay the whole cost in respect of roads. I would point out that all other traffic has increased, and—


I stated that the line adopted by the Road Board is that they should share the cost.


I was referring at the moment to the observations of the noble Viscount, Lord St. Aldwyn, who contended that county councils had not received proper treatment. I submit that on the whole they have. I am a member of a highway committee of a county council and also a large ratepayer, and therefore I can look upon the matter from both points of view.


Before the subject drops, I would like to qualify one thing I said. In Scotland these licence duties are collected by the Excise and Customs authorities and not by the local authorities, and they are not, consequently, collected on a county basis. Therefore in regard to Scotland I think we shall find that it is not possible to give the returns by counties.