HL Deb 09 July 1913 vol 14 cc815-30

*LORD MONTAGU OF BEAULIEU rose to ask His Majesty's Government when the Annual Report of the Road Board will be issued; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: I quite understand that there are special reasons this year why the Road Board's Report has not been issued earlier. The fact that the able chairman and the excellent secretary of the Board have been engaged in certain work in connection with the International Road Congress may have delayed the bringing out of the Report, but I think that any time which may have been technically lost in that way has been well expended. But as a general principle I think your Lordships will agree with me that it would be convenient if the Report was produced earlier in the session. We have not been getting the Report until the beginning of August—last year's Report was dated August 1—with the result that, certainly in another place and to some extent in this House, there is no possibility of detailed criticism, for at that time of the year everybody is rather weary of Parliamentary matters.

The Road Board's Report has become a Report of a great deal of importance to the nation at large, and especially to country and district councils awl other local authorities. The Road Board now handles a comparatively large sum of money. Its revenue is approximately £1,000,000 a year, and it takes a very large, and so far very honourable, share in making the main roads of this country better and more fitted for the traffic they have to bear. I have nothing but praise for the actual work of the Road Board. They have, in my opinion, gone the right way to work, and if there are criticisms as to their administration of the funds in their possession they are only in this direction, that the Board are rather too keen in their dealings with local authorities and when they give a grant towards an improvement demand that the local authorities should provide more than those authorities think right out of local funds. It is contended also that the Road Board should help directly towards maintenance, and not confine their financial assistance to improvements. But as to that criticism it must be remembered that in the Act of Parliament which constituted the Road Board it was laid down that they were not to assist in maintain but only in specified improvements.

Later on we may hear something as to the position of London. London has some right to complain, because a large proportion of the taxes which form the revenue of the Road Board is collected in London and so far London has had a very small share of the expenditure. I am delighted to know that, by an arrangement entered into between the Road Board and certain local authorities on the west side of London, we are within measurable distance of having a trunk road constructed from somewhere in the neighbourhood of Hammersmith to take us out to the main roads leading to the south and west of England. That is a very much needed improvement, and a right thing for the Road Board to engage in; but it would be convenient in a case of that sort that we should have ample time to discuss such an important project at an earlier period of the session than the beginning of August. Considering that the financial year ends on March 31 it should be possible for the Report of the Road Board to be presented earlier.

Your Lordships will no doubt be glad to hear that at the International Road Congress, which held its session in London a fortnight ago, it was unanimously agreed by all competent foreign observers that the roads of this country, were on the whole the best of their class in the world. I think the Road Board must be given credit for having assisted to a great extent towards that result. It is a good thing to know that we are proceeding on the right lines, because, quite apart from all questions of horse-drawn or motor traction, traffic of all kinds increases daily, and the roads in future must be constructed to carry both fast and heavy traffic of a kind that did not use our roads in years gone by. One very wise thing that the Road Board have done, in my opinion, is that they have insisted on the provision of good foundations for roads. It is pretty well accepted now amongst road engineers that it is not the rolling of wheels over the surface of a road which wears the road away, but the crushing of the material between the crust of the road and the foundation. The use of bituminous material has very much diminished that wearing away. It is with that knowledge that the Road Board are working, and I hope that the result will be a great saving not only in wear and tear but also to the ratepayers' and possibly to the taxpayers' pockets.

As showing how important this road question is I may mention that we have in this country 27,700 miles of main roads and well over 200,000 miles of secondary roads. Therefore, the Road Board have to do, or may have to do, directly and indirectly, with grants for something like 230,000 miles of road. That indicates the importance of their labours. It is an extraordinary thing that at the present moment there is no Department of Government directly responsible for road administration. If there is maladministration in connection with sanitary matters, with the Poor Law, or any other maladministration there are Departments of Government to appeal to. But in the case of the roads of this country there is no responsible Government Department, although the taxpayer, apart from the ratepayer, provides quite a large sum per annum towards the upkeep of the roads. I suggest if the Government and the Road Board are thinking of any development of the Board's duties, and if noble Lords on this side of the House should be in a position to handle the question in the near future, that they should give serious attention to this matter and consider whether the time has not arrived when a national Department of Highways, similar to the Department which exists in France and in every other civilised country, should be established.

On the 230,000 miles of main and secondary roads in this country, with which the Road Board sooner or later may have to deal, no less a sum than £18,000,000 is spent annually out of the rates and taxes. That huge expenditure may be well or badly spent, but at present the only possibility of criticising it is in the council chambers of county councils and other local authorities. No Parliamentary criticism is possible, and if questions arise of national importance concerning roads there is no responsible Minister to whom we can appeal. I will give your Lordships an instance. When dust was admittedly a very serious nuisance the only questions that could be asked in Parliament were questions affecting the use of motor-cars as the raisers of dust, and not the sins of the roadmakers which were the real cause of dust. The drivers of motor-cars could be criticised, but you could not criticise the makers of the roads. I think that shows how inconvenient it is that there should be no Department to answer for the roads of the country. To show what ignorance prevails on the question of road administration I will quote an instance against the Party to which I belong. According to a report in The Times, which I believe to be perfectly correct, Unionist speakers at the New-market by-election, and I believe the candidate also, alleged that the difficulty of getting money advanced for the building of cottages for rural labourers was very great, while on the other hand large funds were paid out of the Development Fund to keep up the roads for rich motorists. We know, of course, that that is not so, but that certain specific taxes are imposed on all motorists out of which road improvements are made for the benefit of the whole community.

As regards the work of the Road Board, I understand that at the present moment there are certain difficulties in the way of the granting of the Return which I have suggested privately to the noble Earl. But what this House and the public generally would like to see in the Report of the Road Board which is almost due and in future Reports is some plain statement of fact as to the finances of the Board and the way in which they are managed. We would like to see a statement of the revenue on one side and a statement of the expenditure on the other, put in a simple and clear way year by year. At the present moment, owing to the curious system of bookkeeping adopted at the Treasury, it is only by most diligent search that we can extract from the Road Board's Report the real state of the Board's finances. It is only by means of Questions such as were asked in the other House the other day that we can ascertain what the revenue of the Road Board is under certain heads. We all know that the use of petrol continually increases, and that the petrol tax is very much more productive now than when it was first put on; but we know, on the other hand, that the revenue from the carriage tax, both motor and horse-drawn, has shown a tendency to remain stationary or decrease. It seems as if the number of horse-drawn carriages is declining out of proportion to the number of motor vehicles coming into existence.

Another point which I should like to make is this. Would it not be possible for the Road Board as a whole to be consulted more often as regards all kinds of matters concerning traffic? Every one who has studied this question knows that there is great need for the codification of our highway law. There are numerous Acts of Parliament, extending back to Tudor days, concerning traffic on the roads, and the present state of the law is chaotic. The traffic in London is well managed simply because of the tact of the police and the common sense of the public. But it is only in the middle of Section 78 of the Highways Act, 1835, that the rule of the road can be found. I ask, Has not the time arrived when we ought to codify our highway law?; and I suggest that the Road Board might well spend a portion of their funds in employing some skilled legal gentleman to draw up a codification of the laws which govern traffic on roads, and then this House and the other House should be asked to consider it, and, if thought advisable, place it on the Statute Book. The law is at present in such a state that local authorities and other people concerned in highway matters experience the greatest possible difficulty in ascertaining what the law is; and I am sure that the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack will corroborate me when I say that the Highway and Locomotive Acts are sometimes entirely contradictory.

The Returns of the Traffic Branch of the Board of Trade show, in the case of London, that whereas Londoners took 144 journeys per head in 1903, they took 228 journeys per head in 1912, and this year the figure will be higher. In the country it is just the same. Every one knows that the great highways are much more used now than formerly. Therefore, this has become an important national question, and the more responsibility that is put on the Road Board and the more funds that are placed at their disposal the better it will be for the nation at large. I have raised this debate in an entirely friendly spirit. I have watched the proceedings of the Road Board and there is nothing serious to find fault with; but I have ventured to submit a few suggestions to His Majesty's Government which I hope the noble Earl who will reply on their behalf will be able to adopt. I beg to move.

Moved, That there be laid before the House Papers relating to the proceedings of the Road Board.—(Lord Montagu of Beaulieu.)


My Lords, I agree very much with what the noble Lord has said as to the necessity of a Roads Department. It would solve a great many of the difficulties which we now meet with in local administration. When I talk of main roads I do not mean main roads in the technical sense. In the county of Huntingdon, for instance, no less than 93 per cent. of the roads are main roads, showing the peculiar definition in that county; whereas the average of main roads in other counties is 20 per cent. The main difficulty arises in the case of roads in urban areas outside our great towns, because it is obviously important that for exits from and entries into the great towns far wider roads are necessary. The local authorities say, Why should we spend these large sums of money on the maintenance of roads larger than we require for the benefit of other people? The fact is that the old local government areas are much too small, and you cannot get roads on a sufficient scale made even by cooperation between local authorities because of the very large expenditure involved. To some extent the Road Board relieve that difficulty, but only to a very partial extent, because, as Lord Montagu pointed out, the Road Board have nothing to do with maintenance, and it is very largely the cost of maintenance of the roads of which the local authorities complain.

I would venture to offer one or two criticisms on the administration of the Road Board. In administering these grants the Board have mainly dealt with rural areas and with inter-urban areas. I quite agree that great damage is done by motors and in other ways to the roads in rural areas, and that rural areas and inter-urban areas ought to be fairly considered; but I think that urban areas ought to have more consideration from the Road Board than they have received up to the present. These urban areas supply the funds, in the way of the Petrol Tax, the Carriage Tax, &c., for the Road Board. That is true of all our great cities. It is certainly true of London. Your Lordships have only to appeal to your own sense of smell to know the amount of petrol consumed in London, Yet when I look at the last Report of the Road Board I find that the amount of money granted to London is absolutely negligible; it amounts to only £1,200 granted to the Borough Council of Fulham. Considering the large proportion of the revenue of the Road Board which is contributed by London, I think London ought to receive more consideration.

The Road Board ought also to consider far more what are the requirements of the local authorities, and not attempt, as they very often do, to dictate to the local authorities on what principles they should conduct their own roads. There should be some interplay between them. I will take an instance of the recent administration of the Road Board. You have the suggestion of a great western approach to be made into London. The Road Board say they are prepared to grant half the cost of that great new road. Of the total expenditure, £1,000,000 falls within London and of that amount the London ratepayers would have to contribute half. It is very hard, indeed, to ask the ratepayers to contribute half of the cost towards a road mainly to be used by motors and rapid traffic. So far as municipal London is concerned, it is very well supplied on the whole with main exit roads. There might, of course, be others; but what London really wants is by-passes to relieve the existing great roads and also new roads passing between one great borough and another. I submit that London, being so vast, ought to be considered not merely as a town but as a conglobation of towns, and roads running between the borough council areas ought to be considered as inter-urban and contributions ought to be made accordingly.

May I add a word as to the amount which the Road Board contribute? It is prohibitive if the Board say that they will contribute only half the money. If it is a question of a road costing £1,000,000 or £2,000,000 you cannot ask the ratepayers to contribute £500,000 or £1,000,000 towards that great road. In my opinion the contribution of the Road Board ought to go to at least 75 or 80 per cent. for this class of road. In some parts of the country that is done, but where the sum is large the Road Board get nervous of spending their money and do not give such large grants. If 75 or 80 per cent. is contributed by the Road Board there will still fall on the local authorities, in addition to the balance of the original expenditure, the whole cost of maintenance. I think if the Road Board would modify its position in that respect much more would be done. I observe that a great deal of the funds of the Road Board are not spent, and I contend that those moneys were contributed in order to be spent and not to be merely invested. I do not say that the position of the Road Board is not a difficult one, but I suggest to the Government in a friendly spirit that the Road Board might, while not neglecting rural areas, extend a little more consideration to the large urban areas and to the views of the local authorities concerned. If that were done, I believe that great benefit would ensue to the roads in London and also in the great cities.


My Lords, I am sure that those who are responsible immediately as well as indirectly for the administration of the Road Board have every reason to be grateful to the noble Lord who initiated this discussion. The work of the Board is of an entirely novel character, and in those circumstances public criticism could only be of the greatest value; for naturally in the case of a new work of this kind the more minds that are brought to bear on the problems presented the better it must be. Those of your Lordships who have read the Reports which have been issued during the last two years will, I am sure, have found them to be of a very interesting character. The second Annual Report, to which reference has been made, was presented on August 1 last year, but the Board hope to present the third Annual Report within the next fortnight, a slight improvement upon last year. I shall certainly convey to the Road Board the wish which has been expressed that if possible an earlier date should be found for the publication of the Annul Report.

I am sure that the Road Board will appreciate the praise of their work which the noble Lord who raised this question to-day was good enough to express. But the noble Lord thought that in some cases the Road Board had been rather hard in their dealings with local authorities, and had not contributed as much as the local authorities would have wished. It is perfectly natural that expression should be given to that view, and I notice that a similar complaint was made by the noble Viscount who spoke last. Local authorities are like private individuals in this matter. Whenever they see sums of money lying about they are very anxious to get their share of them. It was therefore only natural that the noble Viscount, speaking on behalf of urban authorities, should express the opinion that they should have a larger share than rural authorities. I am quite sure that if representatives of rural authorities had taken part in this debate they would have expressed their desire that more money should be given to rural authorities and less to urban authorities. The fact of the matter is that in considering the respective claims of urban and rural authorities the Road Board must look upon the question from a detached point of view and hold the balance even, and do their best for the general administration of the Fund.

Generally speaking, what the Board do is to contribute a proportion, but only a proportion, of the amount of money which is spent upon improvements. Generally it is as much as 75 per cent., and the complaint which is made that they do not contribute more invariably comes from rural counties with only a sparse population. Those counties naturally suffer from the increase which there is in the cost of maintenance due to motor traffic, and having themselves a sparse population, with perhaps comparatively little traffic, they object to spending very much money upon the improvement of their roads. When that happens the Board do not urge them to spend more money than they can afford. The Board's view is that the work of improvement in counties of that kind is really not of a very urgent character. The Board are anxious, in the first place, to assist in the improvement of the more important roads in the country which connect the populous centres and carry a large volume of motor traffic, and they are not of opinion that any serious harm will ensue if roads in sparsely populated areas are left without those improvements until the more important roads are dealt with.

The policy by which the local authorities are expected to contribute something towards the expenses of improvements is one which has certainly received the approval of Parliament for a great many years past. It has always been held by Parliament that so long as the local authorities are made to bear a certain proportion of the expense you will have a more economical administration than if the whole of the expense fell upon a central authority. It is a well understood maxim, I think, in our local government that local authorities should always bear some portion of the expense. It is only natural, of course, that there should be this complaint from rural areas; but it is in the view of the Road Board sounder policy to deal first with more important roads and then afterwards deal with those rural areas to which I have referred.

The noble Lord and also the noble Viscount spoke of the great problem in London, and they thought that too little money was spent upon London itself. Your Lordships must remember that there is a large sum of money at the present time in the hands of the Road Board which is intended to be spent upon the new western approach road within the area of the Middlesex County Council. It is proposed to give a grant of£400,000 to the Middlesex County Council, which will go a long way towards the expenditure—between£500,000 and £600,000—which it is thought that this new road from Kew Bridge to Hounslow will cost. The length of the new road will be about, three and a-half miles, and those of your Lordships who have had experience of the difficulties of motoring in and out of London on that particular road will appreciate the relief which may he expected when this western approach is finished. The Middlesex County Council will provide one-fourth of the cost and the Road Board three-fourths, subject to Treasury sanction. I understand that the county council will ask for Parliamentary powers for the work in the next session of Parliament.

Reference has been made to one or two questions which have been discussed before in this House. The question of a new Department for Highways is not an unfamiliar subject to your Lordships, but it is one upon which I do not know that I can add anything very useful upon this occasion. The further criticism with regard to the accounts of the Road Board shall certainly be conveyed to the Board, and I have very little doubt that if they feel there is real substance in the complaint they will do their best upon subsequent occasions to see that their Reports are presented in a form more intelligible to the public as a whole. Had the noble Lord been in the House yesterday he would have heard a short reference to a third point which he mentioned—namely, the difficulty of highway law. We had it from the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack yesterday that this was an exceedingly complicated question.


I was here.


Then no doubt the noble Lord heard it himself. It was a dictum from the Lord Chancellor that there were few subjects in English law more complicated than the law relating to highways. It might, perhaps, interest the noble Lord if I gave the figures with regard to the income and expenditure of the Road Improvement Fund. The income since the constitution of the Road Board to June 30 last year, including interest on investments, amounted to£3,556,995. Out of that income the Board have indicated grants to highway authorities aggregating£2,596,752, leaving a balance of £960,243. Out of that balance short loans, amounting to£838,48l, have been indicated to highway authorities, so that your Lordships will see there is no large balance available now for further grants. The noble Lord is probably so well aware of the distinction between grants made and grants indicated that I will not take up time with regard to that point.

The other point which I think will be of interest to your Lordships is that a large portion of this money, although indicated and promised, has not been spent. It is pledged in respect of certain improvements, but it has not been spent. The reason for that is very largely to be found in Section 18 of the Development and Road Improvement Funds Act, 1909, which I shall venture to read to your Lordships— In approving, executing, or making advances in respect of the execution of any work under this Act involving the employment of labour on a considerable scale, regard shall be had, so far as is reasonably practicable, to the general state and prospects of employment. I think it is a matter of real congratulation that at the present time while employment is so good as it is in the country and there is no need for expenditure on unemployment work, this money, quite apart from what is available under the Unemployment Insurance Act, is accumulating for the time when distress becomes really bad and there is urgent need for the expenditure of money. Perhaps the most common criticism upon work carried out for the benefit of the unemployed has been that it is conceived in a hurry and that very often the money is largely wasted. Here on this occasion there is a well considered scheme of vast public utility, and funds are available for carrying it out. We hope that it may not be the case, but if there should be large unemployment and great distress among the population during the course of next year there will be this very large sum of money available for the benefit of the unemployed. I venture to think that that is a matter of very real satisfaction when we come to consider the possibility, however much we hope it may be avoided, of unemployment in the course of next year. I do not know that there is anything that I can usefully add in answering the various questions put to me, but I shall certainly take care that the Road Board are made acquainted with the criticisms that have been made, and I have very little doubt that they will try as far as possible to meet them.


My Lords, it may be of very great advantage that the unemployed should have proper provision made for them in the time of distress which the noble Earl reluctantly anticipates. At the same time I am a little doubtful whether great improvements in the roads of this country ought to be indefinitely postponed until the time of distress comes. After all, though it is very important that we should relieve unemployment it is equally important that a great industrial country like this should be properly equipped with roads, and I question whether the policy of hoarding money may not be carried too far. At any rate, I hope that the noble Earl and those who act with him will consider how long we ought to wait before this money is made available.

I am not able to go quite so far as did my noble friend in his interesting speech introducing this discussion in saying that we ought to have a Minister of Highways. At the same time I have considerable sympathy with him in that view, because I am perfectly certain that the policy of which the Road Board is the embodiment is only in its initial stage. It will require any amount of extension and development. The truth is that the old state of things under which the charge for the maintenance of the roads of this country falls primarily upon the ratepayers is altogether out of date. After all, why should the owners and the occupiers of real property in the various parts of England pay for the maintenance of a road which is primarily used, not by themselves or by their fellow ratepayers, but by persons and vehicles belonging to other parts of England? That cannot be defended as a sound policy. The charge should fall upon a much larger area; and I think that Parliament will ultimately come to the conclusion that, in the case of what I may call national or arterial roads, the burden must be made to fall not upon the ratepayers but upon the taxpayers of this country. That, I think, explains to some extent the policy of the Road Board in using more of their money for rural districts than for urban districts even so far as their operations have already extended, because in urban districts the principal wear of the road is by the inhabitants of those districts. It is clear in that case that the charge should fall upon the urban ratepayers; but in the case of these great arterial roads the local rural ratepayer uses them comparatively little.

This leads me to another point. As your Lordships are aware, the Act confines the expenditure of the Road Board to improvements and precludes them from paying towards maintenance. That limitation, as the noble Earl opposite will remember, we resisted to the best of our ability when the Bill was going through Parliament. I am quite sure that subsequent experience confirms us in the view that on that occasion we were in the right, and if I may say so respectfully, the Government were in the wrong. The noble Earl opposite (Earl RUSSELL) shakes his head, but I think he agreed on that occasion that the burden of these arterial roads ought to be thrown upon the taxpayer. Why only the making of the road? Why not the maintenance of the road? The people who wear out these arterial roads are not the local ratepayers but persons belonging to all parts of England. Therefore the maintenance, like the improvements, ought to fall primarily upon the taxpayer. I do not say that that should be so in the case of every road—I am speaking of national or arterial roads, with which your Lordships are very familiar. That appears to me to be the direction in which policy ought to move—an extension of the operations of the Road Board in the direction of bearing the cost of maintenance as well as of the improvement of these important roads; and I think probably in the administration of the roads as well. I think there is no such sound maxim as that those who pay for the road should manage the road—that is to say, should be primarily responsible for the management of the road. My noble friend Lord Peel spoke of a contribution of 75 or 80 per cent. towards the cost. That may be very proper in certain instances, but I confess that in the case of these great national roads the whole charge ought ultimately to fall on the taxpayer, and then the administration should be with the central authority representing the taxpayer. This discussion has been a very interesting one, and I hope that it may bear fruit and that we may see a little quickening of the operations of the Road Board and in the near future an extension of their powers.


My Lords, so far as the Road Board themselves and their administration are concerned I endorse everything that fell from my noble friend Lord Montagu, but on the question of the maintenance of the roads I am bound to say that I have always thought that the Road Board was founded on a totally wrong principle. I am of opinion that it is a mistaken policy to tax a special class. It is to some extent a return to the turnpike system—namely, the idea that the man who uses the road should be the man who pays for it. As a general rule the people who use the roads—except, of course, motorists who use them merely for pleasure—use them not merely for the benefit of the man who happens to be conducting the vehicle but for the benefit of the community as a whole; and I deprecated when the Road Board was established going back to what I called the turnpike system.

I agree entirely with the noble Marquess that these arterial means of communication should be national highways and should be supported by national money, and in that case, of course, administered by a Minister of Highways. I should not approve of grants of the taxpayers' money being handed over to local authorities and then that they should be allowed to administer them in any way they liked. If we have national highways they should be a national service, like any other service. The Road Board is somewhat of an intermediate stage, and I fear that while in this transition stage we shall always have this feeling of soreness on the part of local authorities that they are paying for traffic which is not their own. In the case of a sparsely-populated district between two towns this is a very natural and legitimate feeling on their part, and to that extent I hope we shall nationalise the burden of the rates and nationalise their administration. Every one interested in good road administration takes that view and supports it as the ideal of the future. I therefore have welcomed the establishment of the Road Board, although I deprecate the principle on which it was founded—namely, the taxing of a special class. I welcome it because it is paving the way towards a national administration of the roads. The reason why I shook my head at the observation of the noble Marquess opposite that the funds of the Road Board should be used for the maintenance of roads was that a pledge was given when this taxation was imposed that the money should not be used to relieve the ratepayers but for the purposes of road improvement only. That was the understanding between the motor industry and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.


It may have been a bargain between them and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but it was not a bargain between them and Parliament, because, as the noble Earl knows we did our best to persuade Parliament to agree that the funds should be used for maintenance as well as for road improvement. But I quite appreciate the point made by the noble Earl. It does make a difference that this money is raised from a special class and not out of the general funds of the country.


I desire to thank the noble Earl for his promise that our suggestions shall receive consideration. I agree with the noble Marquess that the funds of the Road Board ought not to be hoarded. The Road Board have great powers of borrowing. They can borrow up to£5,000000, so that if there was any sudden demand for the employment of casual labour they could always borrow to meet that emergency without any inconvenience. Therefore I think the policy of hoarding money is a bad one. As to the noble Marquess's suggestion about maintenance, I should be quite willing that taxes from motorists should go towards ordinary maintenance if other traffic paid something as well towards the funds of the Road Board.


I did not understand whether the accounts of the Road Board are going to be given in full in the next Report. Perhaps the noble Earl can tell us. It is important that we should see what amounts have been spent and what amounts are invested.


I think the figures in the Report which is due within the next fortnight will be in the same form as those in previous Reports. If, however, after having seen them they are not thought satisfactory by the noble Earl I should be willing to consider the question of putting them in another form which he may like better. As to the question of hoarding, I would point out that as Parliament has not yet been asked to give its sanction to the proposed new western road and powers must be sought during next session, it is inevitable that for the time being the money should be kept in hand for this purpose.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly.