HL Deb 06 July 1922 vol 51 cc302-8

LORD NEWTON rose to ask His Majesty's Government if they are aware that forty local authorities in the London police area exhibited notices "Walk on the Left" On July 1 and that the change has been widely approved in the Press; and whether having regard to the fact that the Ministry of Transport and all the national organisations of local government have recommended the change, the Home Office would be willing to authorise the police to assist in recommending it, as has been done with success in various large provincial towns which have already adopted the change.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a question which I have already brought twice to the notice of my noble friend. I should like to take this opportunity of pointing out that the proposal does not originate with cranks and fanatics, but is put forward by business people representing transport, such as the tramway and omnibus companies, and people of that nature. The proposal has not only been adopted by no fewer than forty local authorities within the Metropolitan police area, but has been recommended for adoption by the County Councils' Association, the Association of Municipal Corporations, the Urban District Councils' Association, and the Rural District Councils' Association. It has also been approved of by the Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Transport, and it has been adopted, and is actually in operation, I believe with success, in Ayr, Birmingham, Bristol, Blackpool, Coventry, Glasgow, Halifax, Nottingham, Exeter and many other places. I should like to add, and to lay stress upon the fact, that the proposal is regarded with benevolent neutrality by the Metropolitan Police, although they have not ostensibly committed themselves in favour of it.

On July 1, last Saturday, as the result of a campaign which was largely supported by the Press, invitations and exhortations were addressed to pedestrians in London to walk on the left, and, so far as I am able to gather, the results were by no means unsatisfactory. When I say that they were by no means unsatisfactory, I bear in mind how difficult it is to get people to change fixed habits. I admit that there is one section of the population to which all appeals and exhortations would be perfectly useless—I allude, of course, to those females of all ages who congregate in solid masses in front of the great drapers' shops, and upon whom, probably, no means of persuasion short of machine guns or tanks would have any effect at all. The passage of these persons along the pavement is not influenced by any considerations of their own safety or the safety of the public, but is determined by the nature of the shops which are to be found in the course of their progress. The ordinary person, if questioned on the matter, would probably reply that, so far as he was aware, there was no rule in existence, and that he was perfectly indifferent as to which side of the pavement he walked, provided that he were requested to do so in a reasonable manner.

The only real, solid objection to the proposal appears to come from the City Commissioner of Police. I desire to speak with all respect of this gentleman, who, for all I know, may be a most capable official, but I cannot help feeling the suspicion in my mind that he must have an affinity with a certain Austrian general, who laid it down as a principle that all changes should be resisted, even if they were in the nature of improvements. I cannot conceive any reason for adhering to the ancient practice, unless it is that regard is paid to the fact, alluded to by my noble friend the other day, that some hundreds of years ago people used to walk about carrying swords, and, therefore, it was more convenient to move in the present way. But the City Police Commissioner has the audacity to contend that you are actually safer with the traffic moving behind you than with the traffic facing you; in other words, that, if you step off the pavement with your back to oncoming traffic, you are in less danger of being run over than if you are facing the traffic.

No alderman, or Police Commissioner, or common council man, or even a Lord Mayor, is going to convince me that that is anything but absolute nonsense. I have had so many hairbreadth escapes myself from accidents arising from this practice, and I expect many other people have had the same experience, that, to my mind, an argument of this kind is perfectly valueless. As an instance of the absurdity of the argument, I may point out that, if I am not mistaken, workmen employed upon railways, platelayers and men of that kind, invariably face the trains, in preference to working with the trains behind them, and, against the mistaken views of the City Commissioner of Police, I can also quote the Metropolitan Police, who, I have reason to believe, are favourable to the change.

The only argument that is worth considering at all in favour of the existing practice is that a change might lead to confusion. That is precisely what it would remove. Confusion arises owing to the present practice. If, for instance, you are crossing a road in the neighbourhood of this building, and if you stop on a refuge, you will be confronted with the legend: "Keep to the Left." When you have advanced a few yards, and reached the pavement, you are expected to conform to the old, silly practice of keeping to the right. If you travel by the tubes, you will see displayed in the stations the exhortation to "Keep to the Left." If, on the other hand, you go to a congested area, like Wimbledon at the present moment, where the lawn tennis tournament is being carried on, the public are invited to keep to the right. If, again, you happen to be proceeding along the Strand, you are invited to keep to the left until you reach Temple Bar, when, I presume, the City Police Commissioner would exert his influence, and you would be requested to keep to the right.

The most striking instance of the confusion of this arrangement is supplied in a letter which I observed in The Times this morning. It appears that pedestrians crossing Richmond bridge are invited by overhead placards to keep to the right, whereas there is chalked upon the pavement an invitation to walk on the left. Surely this is an absurd and ridiculous state of which I do not think you could find in any other civilised country. So far as that goes, I am absolutely certain that there is no other country where there are two rules, one for pedestrians and another for vehicles. Obviously, what is required is unification, and the first thing to do is to assimilate the rule of the road and the rule of the pavement. The only solid argument which anybody can pos- sibly advance in favour of the present system, except for its antiquity, is that in country lanes, where there are no footpaths, it is safer to keep on the right side of the road; but a lane without a footpath is not a roadway in which there is likely to be much traffic, and pedestrians can very well look after themselves.

This is a change which is really only necessary in crowded areas and in towns, and once the practice is adopted in the Metropolis I have very little doubt that it will be followed elsewhere. In fact, I have not the smallest doubt that this proposal will ultimately be adopted. It is very much in the same position as the question of daylight saving when it was first proposed. That proposal, which has been of the greatest possible benefit to everybody in this country, and I might say in Europe, was vehemently resisted by the same kind of people as resist the present proposal. I am certain that this change will come, but at the same time it will be very considerably delayed unless the Home Office show its approval of the project. I hope, therefore, that my noble friend, in view of what I have stated, and in view of the sympathetic statements which he has already made on previous occasions, will be able to assure me this afternoon that the police will be instructed, not to order people to walk in a particular way, but to exercise a certain amount of discretion in the matter, in an unostentatious way, and bring about that which I believe will be for the general convenience and safety of the public.


My Lords, my noble friend asked me if the Government are aware that forty local authorities in the London police area exhibited notices "Walk on the Left" on July 1. I can only, say that we have no official information as to how many local authorities in the London police area are in favour of the change. I think that on the last occasion the noble Lord mentioned fifty-six, but now it appears that there are forty in favour of the change. I do not know the exact figure, but we do know this: that the City are not in favour of the change.


That is only one authority.


Quite so, but we know that one is not in favour and we do not know how many are actually in favour, and at the present moment my rights honourable friend is not prepared to recommend the Metropolitan Police to take action in the matter as suggested. I might, however, give a little more information of a general character as to how the matter is progressing in the provinces. I think I said on the last occasion that there was a considerable difference of opinion, according to the information of the Home Office, on this question, and that we proposed that the matter should be discussed at the district conferences of chief constables.

Since I made that statement the central conference of chief constables has been held at the Home Office. This question was raised there, and I believe was discussed at considerable length. It was found that there was a very wide difference of opinion between these gentlemen, quite a number being opposed to the change. I should say, of coarse, that these chief constables were expressing their personal views only, the opinions of their districts not having been ascertained. Of course, their views may have coincided with those of the districts from which they came, but not officially so, and it was agreed at the conference that the question should be raised and further discussed at the district conferences. That is all the information I have, and in view of the state of opinion on the matter my right honourable friend is not prepared to go any further at the present juncture.


My Lords, I live close to that big street—Oxford Street—referred to by the noble Lord, where the ladies in London crowd against the shop windows, and during some part of the day it is exceedingly dangerous to walk in Oxford Street. If you, so to speak, hop off the kerb, an omnibus or a taxi may hit you, and you may wake up in hospital with your leg off. It is excessively dangerous. I do not quite understand the answer of the Government. They say they have very little information, but surely the noble Earl has seen on the pavement the notice: "Keep to the Left."


I said that we had no official information as to the number of local authorities who have adopted it.


I suppose even officials walk about and see these notices. I should like to know who has paid for these notices and posters, because it would be very interesting information if we could get it. I should also like to ask Lord Newton whether, in the places he has mentioned, they have really obeyed this order, or taken it in good part, and are keeping to the left, because I saw a letter the other day from an indignant gentleman who said he walked where he liked. He intimated that this was a free country and he had every right to walk where he liked. If he walks off the pavement in Oxford Street he will be killed to a certainty. I think it would be a good thing if people would keep to the left. In that street the present condition of affairs is excessively dangerous, and more than one person has been killed. I sympathise with the noble Lord, who said he had had very narrow escapes of being killed. I am very glad he has escaped, because we should be sorry to lose the clever and witty speeches which he delivers in this House.


My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed to answer the question of the noble Earl. I understand that in the places to which I alluded, where the rule has actually been instituted, it is considered to work successfully. I may be misinformed, but that is my information. I should like to add that I protest against the idea that, because the City Police Commissioner does not approve of this proposal, he is going to hang the whole thing up. The City is only one of the London local authorities; it covers only a square mile; and why should a proposal which everybody recognises as being in accordance with common sense be indefinitely hung up because this gentleman chooses to oppose it? I make a most emphatic protest on behalf of all people of common sense in this country. It is a grotesque position to take up by a man who has no foundation for his opposition, and I trust that some means will be found of overcoming this obstruction. I hope my noble friend will assist me in keeping the question alive, and eventually bringing this obstructive official into line.


My Lords, I take the view myself that Lord Newton indicates about the desirability of keeping to one specified side of the street, but I should like to say that the Commissioner of the City Police is a man of great experience and standing, and, if he takes an opposite view, I have not a doubt that he does so for very good reasons; at least, for reasons that satisfy him.

[From Minutes of July 5.]