HL Deb 07 August 1918 vol 31 cc648-59

LORD MONTAGU OF BEAULIEU had the following Question on the Paper—

To ask His Majesty's Government—

  1. 1. Whether it is proposed that the newly appointed Controller of Roads and Bridges in the United Kingdom (a military officer) shall control the construction, maintenance, and management of all roads in the United Kingdom.
  2. 2. Whether this officer has had any experience of road construction, traffic management, or local government.
  3. 3. How many officers and staff this new military-control department of roads possesses.
  4. 4. What is the annual cost, including salaries, of the Controller and his staff.
  5. 5. Whether the Road Board, the County Councils Association, and local authorities, county and borough councils, and district councils now responsible, by law, for road construction and maintenance, have been consulted.
  6. 6. Whether there is any intention of superseding or abolishing the Road Board or of continuing military control of roads and bridges in the United Kingdom after the end of the war.
  7. 649
  8. 7. What statutory authority, if any, the new military Controller possesses enabling him to interfere with and over-ride the considered policy and wishes of local authorities, and whether any special legislation is proposed to authorise interference with roads and bridges now maintained almost wholly by the ratepayers.
  9. 8. Whether in the new organisation there are any representatives of the interests of the users of roads or owners of vehicles; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I make no apology for raising this subject. The question is a very important one in war time, because roads are, or will be, subjects of the greatest possible; interest in this country, not only to county authorities but to the many classes of roads users.

Fortunately, to-day, I hope to be very brief, because since I put down the Notice on the Paper I have had certain communications with the War Office, and we have at any rate come to a preliminary measure of agreement with regard to certain aspects of this question. I know I shall be excused if, for a moment or two, I give the history of the controversy and also the views of the Road Board, on which I am the English representative. The roads in this country are in the charge at the present moment of something like 2,500 local authorities. The mileage of the roads under the district, county, and borough councils is about 230,000 miles, and it would be a very serious thing, and indeed unprecedented, if even under the Defence of the Realm Act any serious attempt was made by the War Office, or any Government Department, to take over the control of these roads.

The real history of this dispute between the Road Board and the War Office is rather difficult to fathom, but I may say this, that from the beginning of the war till the end of 1917 there had been, as far as I know, no serious controversy between the two bodies. The Road Board acted as agent for the War Office and other Government Departments in the repair and maintenance and in some cases the construction of new roads. At the end of last autumn there appeared a new title given to one of the officers of the Department known as D.L. 2—a title suddenly established—of Controller of Roads and Bridges in the United Kingdom. I was overseas at the time, but I am informed by the local authorities that that title gave great offence, and they read into it an attempt, on the part of the War Office to assume considerable powers of control over roads. I have since been assured that perhaps the fears were exaggerated. The fact is that in these days, although local authorities are only too anxious to assist the Government in every way, we all know that the Defence of the Realm Act has been strained in many directions, and I venture to think in this direction the provision of Section 5A, which is the particular section which gives the War Office power to deal with roads, has been very much strained indeed.

I do not wish, however, to go into any great controversial matters about this, but the fact was that until the end of 1917 the Road Board had done a very great deal of work for all Government Departments, who I am glad to say expressed satisfaction at the way it had been carried out. It still to-day is employing 8,000 hands by direct labour and superintending a great deal of improvement and maintenance work through the county and district councils. The particular section under which the War Office have undoubted power to control to a certain extent the repair of roads, was materially helped by an Order in Council of February 5 of this year, which gave the War Office power to take control over the maintenance of highways, and deal with damage done by extraordinary traffic, if the local authorities declined to make that damage good, but I may perhaps differ slightly from the noble Lord who is going to answer my Questions in thinking that that is where the Defence of the Realm Act has been strained. It is only in the case of damage being done and the local authority being recalcitrant that the War Office are entitled to interfere to any serious extent with the repair of roads.

The county surveyors also have represented to me that they have to do double duties. They have to attend on the engineers of the Road Board, and also on the controlling officers who act under D.L. 2. This gives them extra work and shows a certain amount of overlapping. I may mention that there has been one very useful result, I think, of the War Office taking an interest in the roads, namely in the establishment of the Road Stone Committee, which was appointed to take over the control of the output of stone quarries and to regulate the supply for the more important work that had to be done. That was, I think, an important departure on the part of the War Office, and I have nothing but praise for that. I believe it has worked on the whole fairly well. The County Councils Association feel very strongly about the matters to which I have been referring, and I am assured by the county surveyors that they feel very strongly about it; and so the Road Board in what I have said is not only representing its own views, which I think are moderate and can be sustained, but also the views of the local authorities and the County Councils Association, which recently passed a resolution supporting us.

No one denies that the War Office ought to have complete control over roads, and traffic over roads, in cases of invasion, and that they ought even without invasion actually occurring to see that main roads are suitable for military traffic. Nobody will grudge them that power, but I think they have gone a good deal beyond that, and thus this rather difficult position arose. I have also to admit with some regret that Sir George Gibb, who has been the very able Chairman of the Road Board since its formation nearly ten years ago, was taken away for other duties in connection with arbitration work and the Committee of Production, and therefore has only been able to give nominal attention to his duties at the Road Board. I do not think he will disagree with me in my opinion that if he had been able to attend regularly a good deal of the trouble that has arisen would not have occurred. We cannot blame the War Office for taking up certain work which had been abandoned to a certain extent, unwillingly, but owing to force of circumstances, by the Road Board. I venture to suggest to the Government that if the services of Sir George Gibb are so valuable, as I think, in his capacity as arbitrator and as Chairman of the Committee of Production, they should make some definite arrangement by which he should be relieved of the duties in connection with the Road Board or spared for those duties by giving half time service to the Department over which he has been appointed and in respect of which he is paid a considerable salary.

I am glad to tell the House that this afternoon I shall not trouble them with any long debate, and as regards the Question on the Paper if the noble Lord who is going to answer it will give me the satisfaction of an answer to paragraph 6 I will spare him, with the greatest pleasure, the task of giving detailed answers to the other paragraphs, which are rendered unnecessary by the friendly conversation which we have had since I put the Question on the Paper. I do not want to go into details of the arrangement which I hope may be come to, but I may tell the House this, that I have suggested to the Government that we should have a Joint Road Committee on which certain Government Departments and certain local authorities should be represented; that that Committee should take over certain duties from the War Office and certain duties which the Road Board are carrying out, and that it should be a Committee acknowledged by the Government as a Committee to deal with road repair and construction during war—with that class of construction and repair due to military or special traffic—because it must be remembered that a good deal of this friction has arisen over the question of the assessment of damage by timber traffic, which is a necessity of the country at this moment. In my opinion, it is not primarily a military necessity, although it is a national necessity. The Board of Trade is really as much interested in that matter as, or even more than, the War Office. I speak in no hostile spirit whatever to the War Office, because—as, perhaps, I may remind your Lordships—I have had experience for four years in India in the military sense, in connection with the roads on the North-West Frontier, and, in fact, at the present moment I produce a report every year for the Government of India on the roads from a military point of view.

I cannot be considered entirely a representative of the local authorities in this matter. On the other hand, I can claim to have been a very old member of the Hampshire County Council and, for a number of years, of its highway committee, and also a member of the County Councils Association. I trust, therefore, I shall not be accused of unduly favouring either the side of the military or that of the local authorities. I have no doubt that if this Committee is formed, as I hope it will be, we shall be able to secure the cordial cooperation of the local authorities. Certainly, so far as I am concerned, and so far as the members of the Road Board are concerned, we shall do everything we can to make the Committee, or some body like it, a success.

I think I shall be safe in asking the noble Earl to tell us when he replies that this authority, when it is created, will not be continued after the war and that then the whole question of the roads will possibly have to be reconsidered afresh. Military control of our roads should cease at the earliest possible moment after our military necessities, due to the war, have disappeared. There is nothing in which our county and district councils are more sensitive than the question of interference with their local rights in regard to roads. I am quite sure that my noble friends, who have written me on the subject, will agree with me in that statement. My object in raising the debate, although we have come to some form of agreement, is to say that I am glad we have been able to do so, that I dislike extremely the fact of Government Departments quarelling at all during the war, and that, so far as I am concerned, my efforts have been directed towards trying to get a compromise arranged, and to get some method whereby we could secure harmonious working between the War Office and other authorities. I hope the noble Earl will assure me on the point of continuing War Office control after the war. I can assure him that I shall try to work with the new Committee to bring about harmony between the War Office and local authorities.

LORD STRACHIE had the following Question on the Paper upon the same subject—

To ask His Majesty's Government what is the scope of the authority of the Controller of Roads and Bridges in the United Kingdom, and the extent of his duties.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I intervene to ask the noble Earl, when he replies, to be so good as to answer the Question standing in my name, which is germane to the subject just raised by the noble Lord. This Question has a somewhat pathetic interest in it from the fact that the last time the noble Earl, Lord Lich-field, was in the House—your Lordships know he was the very able spokesman of the County Councils Association—he asked me to take charge of it for him, as he would be unable to be present at the end of the Session. I undertook to do so. Therefore, I thought it necessary to put the Question, notwithstanding what the noble Lord has said, and to ask the noble Earl what is the scope and authority of the Controller of Roads and Bridges in the United Kingdom and the extent of the duty which the Government propose should be entrusted to him.

I should like also, on behalf of the County Councils Association, to ask to what extent will this Controller have power to interfere with local authorities in their control and management of, and expenditure upon, roads. When I say local authorities I include not only county councils, but, as the noble Earl knows, rural district councils, urban district councils, and municipal authorities which, in certain cases, have control of the roads in their own areas, and which, of course, enter into this matter as well.

I want to know farther whether, supposing the Controller orders new roads to be made, or roads to be improved because, he does not think their standard is good enough, or because he wants alterations, that will be done entirely at the expense of the Government, or will the local authority be compelled to contribute the whole or part of the cost? I can assure the noble Earl, on behalf of the County Councils Association, in the same way as my noble friend, Lord Montagu, has assured him, that of course then is no hostility to the War Office in this matter. As local authorities we are willing to do all we can to assist the Government. On the other hand, we have a duty to our constituents and to our ratepayers to see that, if obligations of national importance are put upon us in any particular area, their cost should not fall entirely on the local rates, but that the expenditure should be borne by the country at large, for whose good the expenditure is made.


My Lords, I eranestly hope, as Lord Montagu of Beaulieu has led us to understand, that the appointment of the Controller of Roads and Bridges will be only of a temporary character. I may venture to say that I have been closely associated with the subject for a good many years, as chairman of the main roads committee of the county in which I happen to dwell. I can, therefore, speak with some small knowledge and ex- perience of the value and ability of the experts who, in recent years, have had control of the roads in my own county. I cannot speak too highly of their ability and their earnestness of purpose. I believe that these gentlemen—they happen to be two in number—are typical of the county surveyors throughout the length and breadth of England.

With the knowledge at present at my disposal it seems to me that it would be very unfortunate to interfere in any way with men who have such a thorough knowledge of their business, and I sincerely hope that no friction will arise. I am sure that the county surveyors will do everything in their power to meet the War Office or any other great public authority in these important matters. They realise the direction in which their duty lies, and they are willing to do their utmost. I do hope that their authority will not be interfered with more than can possibly be helped, and I will only add that, apart from that, so far as I can judge, the introduction of fresh authorities is only an additional source of expenditure at a time when the country has to consider every penny of expenditure.


My Lords, perhaps before I answer the specific Questions which have been put to me by noble Lords opposite, it would be to the convenience of the House if I give, very briefly, an outline of the genesis and development of the Department at the War Office. I think there has been a good deal of misunderstanding on the subject, partly on account of an unfortunate name, and perhaps I may be able to do something to remove it. In the early days of the war camps, military centres, aerodromes, and munition factories, as your Lordships know, sprang up all over the country. Some of them were situated close to main roads, but many of them were badly situated in that respect, being served only by small roads which were quite unfitted to take heavy traffic.

It was, of course, at once obvious that the damage caused both in constructing these factories and camps, and, still more, by the actual traffic afterwards, would be very considerable, and that the cost of repairing the damage was not fairly a charge which could be put on the local rates. It then became necessary to allot the damage, where it had been at the instance of the State, to the taxpayer rather than the ratepayer. The Directorate of Lands Branch of the War Office, which prior to the war was responsible for dealing with claims for compensation in cases of damage to roads by extraordinary military traffic, has continued to deal with these claims for compensation after war broke out, and a section of that Directorate, D.L. 2, was made responsible. The Road Board was asked to become the agent for the War Department in settling these questions with local authorities, and from that time the officers of the Road Board have given us most invaluable assistance. We have consistently used the officers of the Road Board for giving us technical advice, and we have also been, of course, in very close touch with the surveyors of highway authorities, who have given us every assistance in their power. Therefore, your Lordships will not be surprised when I tell you that the Controller of Roads himself made very strong representations, when the House of Commons Retrenchment Committee in 1915 proposed to close down the Road Board for the period of the war, that the Committee's recommendation should not be adopted, as he was anxious to continue to make use of the technical staff of the Board.

Subsequently the Ministry of Munitions, and later still the Air Ministry, made use of this Department of the Directorate of Lands at the War Office to deal with the roads with which they are concerned. Apart from the actual damage to the roads, there were obviously many side roads which required widening, and also new roads to be made, purely and simply to connect main roads with factories and camps. At a later state difficulties arose in carrying out the necessary work owing to the shortage of material, and still more to the shortage of labour, and it became necessary to allot both labour and material to the places where most urgently needed. For that reason Defence of the Realm Regulation 5A was made, enabling the Army Council to take over the maintenance of roads where the highway authorities were unable to do the work themselves. The power has been very rarely used, and, as far as I know, it has never been used in opposition to the local authority. It is merely to assist them where they are unable to get the necessary labour to do the work which they would otherwise be ready to do. Thereafter a further Regulation was passed, Regulation 9GG (5), under which the Road Stone Committee was formed to control the output and sale of road material so as to ensure sufficient for the roads of national importance. The Committee consists, as your Lordships know, of representatives of the Road Board, local highway authorities, and the War Office.

Then there arises, finally, the question of damage from timber haulage. A large amount of timber was cut all over the country and used almost entirely for Government purposes. Contractors refused to do the haulage unless they were protected to some extent from claims for damage which it was quite impossible for them to foresee and which might be very considerable in amount, and, as they thought, possibly unfair to them. As the timber haulage was almost entirely for national purposes, the Government decided that it was only right that they should take over the responsibility for this damage under certain conditions. The first of those conditions was, obviously, that there should be some machinery by which the pocket of the taxpayer should be safeguarded from unnecessary damage by controlling, as far as possible, the traffic to roads which were able to stand it. Regulation 5c was therefore made, and the officer at the head of the section of the Directorate of Lands became known by the title of Controller of Roads and Bridges, United Kingdom. As the noble Lord said, that name gave rise to considerable apprehension.

The Army Council never contemplated forming a great military Department to control roads, or to maintain roads and bridges, nor to take away the duties of local authorities. All that was intended was to safeguard the taxpayer from the liability of any unnecessary burdens, the actual work of maintenance being carried out under the highway authorities in consultation with the Road Board. It was proposed that officers should be appointed to regulate and control traffic so as to cause as little damage as possible, and to see that only such damage was paid for as was chargeable to the State. The officer at the head of that Department has been engaged on this work since September, 1914, and has had experience of a somewhat similar character before the war. He has a staff of thirty-six, of whom fourteen are officers, and the total cost is under £8,000.

As to the question asked by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu whether it was the intention of the War Office, to continue this military control of roads and bridges after the war, I imagine there will certainly be some control for a short period after the war, for obvious reasons. Camps will have to be pulled down which are no longer required. But the Defence of the Realm Regulations will come to an end with the war, and—though I cannot, of course, give a pledge that a future Government will not abolish what this Government may decide to do—I shall be very surprised if there is any question of establishing a military control over roads and bridges once the necessities of the war and demobilisation have been met. The Army Council have never had any intention of undermining the authority of local bodies, or of displacing the Road Board. I am bound to admit that there has been a certain amount of misunderstanding and friction, I think quite unnecessarily, chiefly because of the name "Controller of Roads." The very last thing that is desired by the Army Council is that there should be any misunderstanding or friction with local authorities. We are absolutely dependent on their good will and assistance to carry out this scheme of control, with, of course, the co-operation of officers and members of the Road Board. Therefore, we have no intention of taking up an obstinate attitude.

I am very glad to be able to tell your Lordships that, largely owing to the assistance of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, we hope we have now a scheme, which we are about to inaugurate, which I think will do away with any misunderstanding. The scheme has been approved in principle by the various Government Departments, but not in every detail; therefore I cannot give it in full to the House. The general lines of it are that there shall be set up a Committee, called the Joint Roads Committee, which will consist of representatives of the Road Board, local authorities, and the Government Departments concerned. It will not be a new office, but the Committee will take over the work of A.L. 2 at the War Office, and, of course, also the work of the Road Board, and we hope by combining these duties and responsibilities, and by getting representatives of the other Government Departments concerned, we shall be able to avoid any possibility of friction and overlapping. As your Lordships see, our desire is to work very closely with the local authorities; and I can only repeat that it is thanks to them and to the way in which their officials have helped us, that we have been able to carry on the very large amount of traffic of an extraordinary character entirely due to the carrying on of the war that has been thrown on the roads.


My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his very interesting reply, and in the circumstances I withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.