HL Deb 18 May 1922 vol 50 cc528-56

LORD HARRIS rose to move to resolve; "That the user of roads, both those which, as regards width, are not suitable, as well as those which are suitable for heavy motor vehicles, has become so great, and the financial burden thrown on ratepayers in rural parishes, owing to the increased cost of making roads sufficiently strong for such heavy vehicles, has become so serious, that the subject is deserving of inquiry by a Committee of Parliament."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I make no apology for bringing this matter before your Lordships for the third time this year. On the last occasion that I did so the noble Earl who was leading the House encouraged me to show him whether my arguments were sufficiently strong to justify my suggestion that this matter was of sufficient importance to be referred to a Parliamentary Committee rather than to a Departmental Committee, which up to now has considered part of the question. On the first occasion that I brought forward the subject your Lordships agreed with me that a grievance did exist as regards the schedule of licence fees, in that if the licence fees imposed on light vehicles are fair, then those imposed on the heavier class of vehicle, which does the greater damage to the roads, ought to be higher than they are.

Your Lordships agreed to that proposition, and I then communicated with the Department and asked whether the Government were disposed to refer the subject to a Parliamentary Committee. They replied that the matter would be under the consideration of a Departmental Committee. Well, the Departmental Committee has examined this matter, and has given its decision, and I am very doubtful whether. if it goes into the matter again, we shall get such an examination of the whole subject as I think it deserves, and whether in the end there will be very much difference in the schedule. Therefore, I then asked the Government whether they were disposed to refer the matter to a Parliamentary Committee. My noble friend, who was leading the House on that occasion, thought—no doubt it was my fault—that I was making a suggestion that there should be a Parliamentary Inquiry into local taxation generally, but when he saw that he had misunderstood me he said that if I could bring forward arguments to justify my suggestion, consideration would be given to it. I am here to-day to justify, if I can, my suggestion that this matter is of sufficient importance to deserve an Inquiry by a Parliamentary Committee.

In the first place, as regards the schedule of rates, I am not going to detain your Lordships by going into the rates at any length, but I will illustrate them by one case. A motor charabanc or omnibus carrying, I think, up to twelve people, pays no more than a light Ford car carrying five or six. That seems to me to be inequitable. As regards the effect—I do not want to be misunderstood—I am not suggesting that there is a grievance against the Department. The Department, I believe, has been doing its very best to get a system of taxation on the right lines so that those who use the roads should pay for them. I have no doubt that it made the best struggle it could as regards the schedule of rates.

I think, too, that it recognised and carried through this very important point, that the Department is the authority which decides whether a local body has a grievance or not. In that way an obstructive local authority interfering in a line of route is got rid of. That, I admit, is a great advantage, because we do not want to interfere with the people who seek to get out of the metropolis, or any other great urban centre, into rural places or to the seaside. We are only too glad to think that it is possible. Of course, a not very important local authority which is obstructive, say a district council, might interfere very considerably with the enjoyment of a large number of people who wish to get out of the urban areas. That may be looked at from another aspect with which I will deal directly. Therefore, I say that I do not think we have any serious grievance against the Department.

Let me illustrate what has happened by a case which came before my notice yesterday. At the meeting of the Kent County Council yesterday, a report of the roads committee came up, which stated that there is a real grievance in some of the highway districts by reason of some of the minor district roads (especially in tourist districts) which are not classified, and therefore not in receipt of any grant from the Ministry of Transport, being largely used by heavy motor coaches during the summer season. The surface of such roads, they say, is not strong enough for such traffic, and cannot be made so except at great expense, which the district councils naturally consider should be defrayed from grants derived from the fund specially formed from the Duties charged. This fund, they add, is already allocated to the roads as classified, and if a wider classification is to be made the fund must be enlarged by increasing the Duties. And they conclude by saying that the matter is one which demands investigation.

That is what the committee reported, and the County Council then passed a resolution unanimously stating— The Council requests the County Councils Association to approach the Ministry of Transport with a view to a reconsideration of the whole question both of the relative rates of taxation of the different classes of motor vehicles, and the user by such vehicles of classified and unclassified roads; and is of opinion that the subject is of such importance as to be deserving of Parliamentary Inquiry. As an illustration of the point made by the roads committee of that County Council, I will take the district of Sevenoaks. That district has a long length of district roads to maintain. In the last twelve months it spent £23,000 in maintaining its roads. What was the contribution which it received from the fund administered by the Ministry of Transport? £300 ! £300 towards an expenditure of £23,000 upon roads, many of which are being used by these heavy vehicles. That, I think, shows the grievance.

I submit that an Inquiry by Parliament is justified for this reason, that the necessity of centralisation, which has been forced upon the Ministry of Transport, is absolutely contrary to the principle of local self-government as laid down in the Act of 1888—I think that is the date. My noble friend, Lord Long, is here. He has a great knowledge of local self-government and will correct me if I am wrong in the view I entertain that it was the intention of Parliament then that such matters as these should be left to county councils. It is a fact that no parish council, no district council, and no county council has any scrap of authority, either as regards the route taken by an omnibus company or by a trading company owning lorries. During the war the county council had a power. It had a power to refuse a licence to a line of route or a line of transport—I really forget which it was. That power has been taken away. I submit that the Ministry of Transport could not help themselves; they had to centralise. But it is contrary to the principle of local self-government. Therefore, on that ground also, there is sufficient justification for having this matter inquired into by Parliament.

It is quite obvious that as these bodies have no power of resistance a constitutional grievance is created, and there will continue to be agitation until an Inquiry of a superior kind is made. The district councils (I am not sure about the parish councils) have the remedy that they can present a petition to the Department to inquire into the legitimacy of the use of this or that particular road by heavy transport. Then, I think, the procedure is that the Department asks whether the district council has consulted the county council. If the county council agrees with the district council a local inquiry is set up, and the matter is investigated on the spot. But, obviously, that procedure must take a very long time. And that is the only remedy, so far as I know.

I have given two grounds upon which I submit that a Parliamentary Inquiry is desirable rather than a Departmental Inquiry. Here is the third. Your Lordships must have seen that the railways are not going to be quiescent under this competition; they see that the conveyance of goods by road is eating into their business, and they are now bringing Bills before Parliament to enable them to put their lorries on to the roads. That means a considerable increase in the number of transport vehicles, a considerable increase in the wear and tear of the roads, and eventually, unless very great care is taken, it means such an additional burden on the shoulders of the ratepayer that there may be a serious danger of what is very common in these days—namely, a strike; a strike of the ratepayers against burdens which they regard as unfair and insupportable.

I submit to your Lordships that something novel has arisen, which only began in the first years of the war. A new kind of transport has sprung into existence, and is making use of the ordinary means of getting about the country—the roads—which were never intended for that kind of vehicle. In those circumstances the proper procedure is for the promoters to come to Parliament, just as the railways had to do when they wanted to get about the country originally. At this very moment, if a railway company wants to obtain running powers over the line of another railway company it has to come to Parliament, and I submit that the position of this new means of transport all over the country—very desirable, very necessary, very useful, but still novel, and doing a good deal of damage to the roads—is somewhat similar, and ought to be inquired into by Parliament.

A suggestion was made to me yesterday—which, of course, is only conjecture—that it is very possible that some day or other, in order to overcome the obstruction of a small local authority, the roads which are classified as able to bear this heavy traffic might be put under the management of the county, just as the main roads were put under the county in the past. Your Lordships know, of course, that where a district road grew very important and became a heavier charge on the local ratepayers than they thought was fair, they appealed to the old Quarter Sessions and, subsequently, to the county council to classify that piece of road as a main road, which then became a charge upon the county instead of upon the district. Very possibly that might be a way out of the difficulty of obstruction by a local authority. As I said before, it is merely a conjecture of mine, though I do not think it is unsound, because it is based upon the old principle of the county maintaining the through routes. In the case of the particular traffic we are discussing, it would be necessary to classify the roads as fit to carry it, and that would be a county business.

I will detain your Lordships no longer. I have submitted my arguments in support of the contention that this subject is worthy of inquiry by a Parliamentary Committee rather than a Departmental Committee. I do not know what were the terms of reference to the Departmental Committee, but I should doubt whether they included this question of whether or not what has been done is not an infraction of the intention of Parliament as regards local self-government. I should also think those terms of reference did not include the consideration of this very important question as to whether these heavy vehicles which are run by every kind of company ought to be allowed to travel upon any road whatsoever until some local authority finds the courage and is prepared to meet the expense of a local inquiry. I beg to move.

Moved to resolve, "That the user of roads, both those which, as regards width, are not suitable as well as those which are suitable for heavy motor vehicles, has become so great, and the financial burden thrown on ratepayers in rural parishes, owing to the increased cost of making roads sufficiently strong for such heavy vehicles, has become so serious, that the subject is deserving of inquiry by a Committee of Parliament."—(Lord Harris.)


My Lords, I think it will be agreed that the noble Lord has made out his case as to the desirability, indeed the necessity, of a Parliamentary Inquiry into this matter of heavy motor traffic and of all motor traffic on the roads. It must be the experience of every member of your Lordships' House that it is essential that something should be done to regularise this traffic and to place on those who use the roads a greater share than they now bear of the heavy expenditure incurred. As the noble Lord said, our roads were never constructed for, and it was never contemplated that they would have to carry, such traffic as now moves along them. It is perfectly unreasonable in these days, when we are told that motor traffic is only in its infancy and that what we see to-day is nothing to what is going to happen in the very near future in regard to goods and commodities that will be carried along our roads and also in regard to increased passenger traffic.

I had a proof sent me of a paper which is to be read to-morrow at the Institute of Transport, and I have no doubt your Lordships have also received copies. In this proof it is stated that a ton of goods passing by rail from Liverpool to Manchester pays in respect of the provision, upkeep and renewal of the line upon which it travels twopence to threepence per mile; that is the cost to the railway company after carrying a ton of goods. A ton of goods performing the same journey in a motor lorry upon the highway from Liverpool to Manchester pays less than a farthing per mile. That seems to be grossly unfair. It is a matter of pure chance that our present motor traffic has become the user of our roads which were never intended for the purpose. When our roads were developed from mere bridle paths to carriage roads they were at first insufferably bad. It was in 1833 that Sir Henry Parnell pointed out, in a treatise on the subject, that the improvement of our roads at that time had been so marked in comparison with the roads in other countries, solely due to the fact that those who used then had to pay for the upkeep under a system of tolls. We all know that we cannot have tolls in our day in regard to motor traffic, but I contend that what is essential is that heavy and fast-going motor traffic should construct their own main trunk roads and then allow the local authorities to determine what are main, branch, and third-class roads.

Two estimates have been given as to what would be the cost of putting 36,000 miles of classified roads into a fit condition to bear this heavy motor traffic. One estimate was £198,000,000 and the other £500,000,000. Obviously, if you are going to impose on the ratepayer even half of the lesser sum, it will be a burden which he will be totally unable to bear. At the present time I believe many local authorities ask the Ministry of Transport that their roads shall be closed to motor traffic because the burden has become so heavy. In regard to Scotland, I was talking with OUT road surveyor a little while ago and he agreed that the only fair thing to do was that the big main trunk roads should be paid for by those who are going to use them. That seemed to me to be a not unreasonable suggestion to make. The railways were built at great expense, and to put our main roads into a fit condition to bear this heavy traffic would require the enormous amount of money I have already mentioned.

I hope, therefore, that His Majesty's Government will recognise the extreme reasonableness of the Motion made by the noble Lord. Not, only in the interest of the ratepayers and the taxpayers, but also in that of those who want to use the roads for heavy motor traffic, the roads should be put into proper condition for carrying that traffic. At the present time the roads are absolutely incapable of carrying very heavy lorries—which, we are told, will in all probability be made heavier and will increase both in numbers and in size—or all the very fast traffic, which means that the wear and tear of the roads will become greater so that the present method of financing their upkeep will be rendered impracticable in the future.


My Lords, before the noble Earl replies on behalf of the Government I should like to ask him whether his attention has been called to a decision of this House, sitting in its judicial capacity, which was given a few weeks ago, and which has not yet been reported. The noble Lord can get a copy of the judgment from the Judicial Office. It is the case of the Weston-super-Mare local authority. It does not cover the whole ground, or nearly the whole ground, to which the noble Lord has adverted, but it did decide this. There are Highway Acts which provide that when there is brought over a road traffic of a heavier kind than that for which the road has been designed, or to which it has been accustomed, the local authority is entitled to recover from those who use it the expense of repairs which the local authority has been put to because of the heavy traffic. In the case of a great main road, it has to be made suitable for whatever traffic would in the ordinary course pass over it, but there are a great many roads which have not been made up to that standard, and they are not the only roads.

What was decided by this House was that the mere fact that the traffic owners have been accustomed for some time past to carry heavy traffic over the weaker kind of roads is no ground for their resisting the provision imposed on them by the Highway Acts, which enable the road authority to recover from them the cost to which they have been put in repairing the roads and keeping them up to the mark. It is worth while referring to that decision to see what the nature of the burden is. I agree that it does not cover the whole, or nearly the whole, of the subject to which the noble Lord has adverted, but it is certainly a consideration to be taken into account in any inquiry which is made.


My Lords, I ask leave to support my noble friend, Lord Harris, in the Motion which he has made, and I would direct the few remarks that I propose to offer to your Lordships not so much to prove that there are existing grievances—nay, more than grievances, evils—.which call loudly for remedy, but to emphasise what is the essence of the Motion of my noble friend, Lord Harris—namely, that the Inquiry should be by a Parliamentary and not by a Departmental Committee. The noble Viscount who has just spoken has referred to a decision of which I know nothing, not having seen it. He has told your Lordships that there is a means of recovery—which, I understand, has been emphasised by this recent decision —where the traffic is extraordinary, or where certain circumstances of a special character would appear to justify the local authority in seeking redress. That power, in one form, has existed, as your Lordships know who are familiar with this complicated highway question, for many years. But that power is not satisfactory. It is too cumbersome, and does not really meet the difficulty.

This case demands Parliamentary Inquiry for this reason. It is not a mere question of traffic; it is not a mere question of the person who uses the roads paying for them; it is not a mere question of the character of the vehicles which pass over the roads. It is not one of those questions, each of which involves a variety of other subjects. It is a question so large, and one that opens up so many branches of inquiry into so many matters, that in my view it is only by a Parliamentary Inquiry that you can get the sort of investigation and Report that you require. Most of your Lordships are familiar with Departmental Inquiries. They are very admirable ways of getting a certain class of information. I have been responsible, in probably every Department with which I have been associated in a long career, for the appointment of a great many Departmental Committees, but they have not the authority, and they cannot have the authority, that is necessary if you are going to inquire into this question.

Speaking I am sure for all of us, Lord Harris said that he desired an amendment of the existing condition of things, and that nobody desires to stop the heavy charabanc or motor conveyance which conveys people from the towns to the country. We do not want to place any improper impediment in their way, but we do desire that that kind of traffic should be regularised, and we want to be satisfied that those who use the roads for this purpose are, at all events, paying their fair share. There is another kind of heavy motor traffic, and that is the charabancs which are used locally. To them I attach far more importance than I do to the charabancs which convey holiday people from Bristol to Salisbury City to see our beautiful cathedral, or down to Southampton. I do not want to stop that traffic, but I attach the very greatest importance to that new institution, the local charabanc, which is a blessing to the people of country districts, enabling them to get in and out of the town cheaply and easily. I should be very sorry to think that anything was to be done—certainly I would do nothing—to interfere with or check that new development.

But it is not in the interests of these heavy charabancs, conveying either through or local passengers, that the roads of our country districts have been made, or are rapidly being made, imitations of the London streets. Enormous sums of money have been spent in making roads with a surface like glass. That is a branch of the subject into which this Parliamentary Committee would enquire. Those who are making roads of that kind are doing it under pressure. Force majeure is compelling them to do it. As Lord Harris has pointed out, they have no means of checking the traffic. It is their duty to provide the road, and they must provide a road as strong and as smooth of surface as is possible, and in order to do that at anything like a reasonable cost they are making roads which are unsafe for horses and cattle. This raises another branch of inquiry. Anyone who chooses to traverse our country roads which now have this glassy surface cannot fail to see often on those roads the marks of the suffering of dumb animals which have fallen there, and in their struggles to get up have been badly injured. It may be necessary to have such roads, but if it be necessary I submit that it is necessary also to make some provision for the passage both of horses and cattle of every kind.

I am satisfied from my own experience that a Departmental Inquiry is useless for the purpose which we have at heart. This road question is a very serious one. I have referred to the cruelty—for it is nothing else—practised upon dumb animals as a result of the present kind of road in many parts of the country. But there is another danger. Some of the charabancs are so broadly constructed that they occupy much more than their proper share of the road, and they make the passage by them of other vehicles, which are just as much entitled to the road as they are, not only difficult, but often very dangerous.

The difficulty does not stop there. Anybody now traversing our country roads—I am not talking of the main roads, but of the non-scheduled roads—can see for himself what is taking place. Only the other day I saw an incident in a narrow country road. I came round the corner, and I found an immense engine, as big as one you would see on one of our main lines, and there were four trucks behind it. It was, in fact, a train, and not a lorry or a motor vehicle. Here was what I can only call a train travelling along this narrow country road, and in going round one of the corners it had got into the side of the ditch, and there it was stuck. No one could get past it. Everyone had to go round another way until these unfortunate people had extracted their train from the ditch. That is an aspect of the subject which ought to be inquired into. Are our roads to be used for the passage of trains? That is what it amounts to at the present time. It is not merely an ordinary vehicle; it is an engine drawing several vehicles.

These are only some of the questions that require investigation. It is not merely the difference between rates and taxes. Yesterday we were debating the salaries and pensions of County Territorial Associations' secretaries, and the noble Earl who leads the House told us that it involved a great expenditure. The question we are discussing to-day involves no expenditure by the Government. What we ask is the appointment of a really strong Parliamentary Committee, which can cover all the ground and make a Report under these different heads. It is necessary in the interests of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. A most vicious system has grown up by degrees. It has been my business to follow these questions in Parliament, but I do not know how on earth this system of Grants-in-aid has grown to its present proportions. All I know is that Parliament votes the money and the ratepayer finds the money, and there is no one, not even the most experienced chairman of a county council or a finance committee who knows the proportions under which the expenditure is borne by Parliament and the local authorities. Immense sums are being squandered which could be saved if you had a wise decision as to the kind of roads we are to have, what the traffic is to be, and under what conditions that traffic is to be allowed to travel.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked me whether his statement regarding local government was correct. So far as my knowledge goes, it is absolutely correct. The present system is absolutely flying in the teeth of all we have been preaching in this country for the last forty years—namely, that there are certain questions which should be left to local authorities to decide. They have no power at all. They are compelled to provide roads for a traffic which has grown up rapidly, since the war or just before the war, and it amounts to a public scandal—I say it deliberately—and calls for urgent redress, not merely in the interests of the taxpayer and the ratepayer, but also in the interests of the safety and convenience of the public, and for the protection of dumb animals now exposed to sufferings to which they ought never to be exposed. In my judgment you will only get a proper inquiry from a Parliamentary Committee, and in the interests of the public, those who have to use the roads and pay for them, and in the interests of the Exchequer, I hope the Government will accede to the request.


My Lords, I have listened with the greatest possible interest to the speeches of noble Lords who have put forward very fairly the great grievance of ratepayers on this question. I share that grievance. Long ago I came to the conclusion that the present system by which our roads are maintained cannot go on much longer. At the present moment, while the rateable value has increased by a few millions, the expenditure of county councils and district councils has gone up, in some cases, to as much as three times what it was before the war. Lately, I have had the fortune to be in the County of Kent, and I have noticed there, as elsewhere, the great hardship in regard to the third-class road—which is the greatest hardship of all—where a small local authority, with a small rateable value, has to keep its roads up to a standard far in excess of local requirements because they happen to have in their district roads which are used by heavy vehicles which smash them up. These small local authorities control about 140,000 miles of road, about two-thirds of the whole mileage, and they are feeling the effect of this heavy traffic more than any other body.

I am aware that ratepayers are becoming alarmed. There is hardly a county council in England in which the ratepayers have not lately put forward strong representations on this point. The rise of rates has been remarkable. I have pointed out before how great it has been. Between 1914 and 1921 rates have risen from £71,000,000 to £149,000,000, or more than double, while the rateable value has only increased from £211,000,000 to £223,000,000. There is also a great disparity in the charges of different districts. In Herefordshire, for instance, the charge is 3s. 11d. for highway purposes, as compared with 7½d. that Lancashire spends on its highway rates. Therefore, it is clear that there is great injustice in some cases, and no equality in the way rates are levied for highway purposes. On that ground I support an Inquiry; I think the whole question wants revision and reconsideration.

We have now, in addition, a new element which requires some attention. Lord Harris and other noble Lords have alluded to the fact that before long the railway companies may come on to the roads with a large number of vehicles. That will add greatly to the strain on them. The railway companies plead that they are large ratepayers, contribute largely to the highway rates, and therefore should have the right to come on to the roads. That question is still under consideration in another place, and I will say nothing further about it than this, that if it is allowed we shall have to pay for a much greater use of our roads.

I think it is hardly realised by the Ministry of Transport how much damage the heavy motor vehicle does to the roads as compared with the lighter motor vehicle. As far as I can get them, the figures show that commercial vehicles pay about ten per cent. of the total of the highway rates. If you take the expenditure on our highways at £60,000,000 they pay £6,000,000 towards that sum. But I must admit that they do ninety per cent. of the damage, and now that the Ministry Of Transport has allowed a greater weight per axle than formerly, and as they run at a much higher speed as well, it is time that the whole question of these speeds and weights should be considered. An axle weight of eight tons is allowed on a single axle. That is far too great a weight to allow. In the case of a traction engine, there is not only the traction engine itself, but often two and three trucks behind it; and they do an immense amount of damage to the roads. In my own district the constant passage of a traction engine and its trucks over a certain piece of road has so disintegrated that road that it has cost the ratepayers five or six times as much as they would otherwise have had to spend, and at present those who do the damage do not contribute anything at all of this expenditure. That is manifestly unfair. Consequently, I support the noble Lord in his request for a Committee to inquire into the matter.

Having said so much, I should like to say a few words in defence of motor traction. It has not had a single friend in the House so far to-day, but I think there is something to be said from the other side. First of all, as the noble Viscount, Lord Long, mentioned just now, nothing has done more to help the countryside than the advent of the carrier and the Ford van. Nothing has so helped people to get about as motor cars, and they have helped even more in the country than in the towns. With railway rates at their present figure, motor traction is the only way of bringing any form of competition into play against the railways. I know cases in which we in the country have had to abandon the use of railways entirely because the rates have been put up to such a high figure, and if you put difficulties in the way of motors by putting a heavy tax upon them you will make it more difficult to carry goods at cheap rates. I believe it is very important to maintain the facilities of transport in this way. The only result of penalising motor tractors would be to drive the traffic back upon the railways. Naturally, the railways would like that, but from the point of view of the trader and the consumer it is, to my mind, very important not to overtax even the heavy vehicles.

What should the Government do in this case? I think it would be very difficult to ask a general Committee of this House, or of both Houses, to decide upon technical matters. I do not know that there are many noble Lords or Members in another place who would be qualified to take these matters into consideration and to decide upon them, but I think that a general Inquiry would be a good thing from the point of view of the motor industry, which is very dissatisfied with the present system of taxation. It would also be a good thing from the point of view of the ratepayer, who has really come to the end of his tether and is not inclined to pay any more; and it would be a good thing from the point of view of establishing some definite relation between the Grants-in-aid of local taxation and the money which is taken from road users for the repair of the roads. Consequently, I support the noble Lord in his request for a Committee to reconsider the matter, and I think it would benefit everyone if this were done.

We must be careful of one thing. At the present moment the motoring industry, which employs a very large number of men in this country and in which many millions of pounds are invested, is in a rather parlous state. It finds it difficult to produce vehicles at a profit, and there is no very great demand. We must be careful that nothing is done further to depress that industry. If we are too hard upon the owners of motor vehicles we shall lead to a diminution of the demand for the products of the industry. While I support in a general sense the request of the noble Lord, at the mine time I think that, as the noble Viscount, Lord Long, said just now, it should be on the wide ground of not interfering with the work that is already being done by Committees. There are, as I believe the noble Earl who replies for the Government will tell us, two Committees sitting at the present time at the Ministry of Transport investigating questions of taxation and construction. Whatever they report, they could not take the place of a Parliamentary Committee, and whatever decision they reach should be referred to that Committee. They can do very useful work in that way. Let me conclude by saying, on behalf of the motor trade, that they are dissatisfied. I know that the ratepayer is dissatisfied, and I think the whole system wants reconstructing. On those grounds I support the Motion moved by the noble Lord.


My Lords, I do not know what is the reply which the noble Earl who represents the Ministry of Transport is going to make, but if he intends in any way to accede to the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, I should like to remind him that, on a previous occasion when Lord Harris introduced the subject into this House, I ventured to make a few remarks about the effect of heavy motor traffic and its speed in urban areas. I notice that the noble Lord's Motion is confined entirely to rural areas, but in my opinion just as much damage and injury are done by heavy motor traffic, going apparently at any speed its drivers please, in the narrow streets of urban districts, and additional damage is caused by the great noise and vibration that arise in such places. While entirely agreeing with all that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has said, I hope that if an inquiry is to be held into the effect of heavy motor traffic on the roads there will be included in its scope the effect and the speed of such traffic upon streets in urban areas.


My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, will press his Motion to a Division if the reply of the Government is unsatisfactory. In all these discussions on the comparative advantage of railway and road transport we are arguing from insufficient data. On more than one occasion, I have urged the Ministry of Transport to have inquiries made and figures published of the exact cost of road repair and road upkeep per ton per mile. I believe there are absolutely no figures today which show this, making due allowance for the class of road, the material of which the road is made, and the weather conditions under which haulage is carried out. I have always been very much interested in this matter, and in France during the war I was able to get a good many fairly accurate statistics. I do not know if your Lordships will believe me, but on one occasion 80,000 tons of material, pulled over 14 kilometres (roughly, nine miles) under winter conditions by motor lorries, necessitated 43,000 tons of road material being used to keep the road in repair.

I will give a parallel case from the North of England. A timber merchant was asked by the local council to pay at the rate of 4s. 3d. per ton per mile for timber hauled over a piece of road. That was the charge which the local council thought necessary, possibly for a second class or third class road. I would suggest to Lord Harris that, if this Committee is formed, one of the figures at which they should be instructed to arrive is what, under varying figures of transport, is the actual cost of hauling a ton of material over a mile of road. I think that figure would give more value to any comparison of the respective merits of motor traffic and haulage by rail.

The second point to which I want to call your Lordships' attention is the question of extraordinary traffic, which was raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Haldane. That is one of the matters into which the Committee should inquire. It should attempt to arrive at a definition of extraordinary traffic, and I have no doubt that such a decision would be very valuable, for extraordinary anomalies exist. I heard of a case in my own county the other day. We were unable to tax an individual who, instead of sending the material for his house by sea or rail, decided to carry it across the county. This was no advantage to us, because he lived outside the district and did not increase its rateable value. On the other hand, there are certain carriers of timber who, although they have paid rates and taxes for the whole period of their existence of seventy years, are charged to the full extent if they have extraordinary traffic. I think that the law and custom which have arisen from such definitions as exist on the subject of extraordinary traffic should also be inquired into at the same time.


My Lords, I wish to raise my voice in support of the position that has been taken up by almost every speaker that we have heard to-night, as to the absolute necessity of having this matter inquired into not as a mere local question, and one involving technicalities, but as one which of a certainty will become a serious national question before many years are over. It is not when greater troubles exist, when local authorities feel greater grievances, and when the users of motor vehicles feel greater grievances, that an Inquiry should be ordered, but it is now, in advance. I have had practical experience of very large portions of the roads in Kent, Hampshire and Essex, and of that part of the country where I live—namely, the Isle of Wight—and I can confirm absolutely, by cases that have come under my own observation, the use of the roads which has been mentioned by Lord Long.

Any one who uses the roads at the present time will agree that there are three large questions involved, which are not Departmental questions, but which affect, and certainly will affect, the whole country. It is obvious that this huge volume of new traffic, whether of charabancs, or steam engines with trailers, or large motor carriers with trailers, each month shows a larger and still larger increase. I think it was suggested by one noble Lord that this traffic would probably injure trade in one direction, by the practical exclusion of light motor vehicles, owing to the difficulty and danger of using the roads. That may or may not be the case—in my humble judgment it probably will be so—but it is not a question merely for a Department, it is a question for the whole public of this Kingdom.

The next matter which is brought under one's observation is that this thing has come to stay. It will not vanish on the Department waving its hand, or making regulations, or holding inquiries, but it is a real live factor of modern life, and will go on increasing. The cost of accommodating existing roads, whether main roads or roads which, owing to changing circumstances, may become main roads, is enormous, and it will increase fourfold as this particular form of traction increases. Then there is forced upon one the question of who is to pay for it. Is it legitimate that those who derive the least advantage from the roads—namely, the farming class, who have no interest in this huge competition with the railways which is taking place along these main roads—should be called upon to pay, as they are being called upon to pay, more and more as time goes on? But, whether it be right or wrong, that is not a question for a Department.

Then there is another question which is certainly not one for a Department. The present system under which roads are maintained casts most unequal burdens upon different parts of the country. In some places which may lie between large centres the roads are used to an enormous extent, and parts of the roads which pass through merely rural districts are subjected to the traffic of huge motor coaches. Is it right that that state of things should continue? Is it just that those who derive the least advantage should probably have the largest amount to pay? Is not; this a matter which is purely national, and which ought to be paid for out of the general funds of the Kingdom? It may be that it is, or it may be that it is not. In my opinion, which may be perfectly immaterial, it is coming to that, and in a very short time. Is it not clear that we ought to take time by the forelock, and, by means of the only tribunal that can look into those questions which are not merely local and not merely technical, have an Inquiry now? I humbly urge upon the Government the acceptance of this Motion.


My Lords, I will do my best to deal with the very considerable variety of problems raised this afternoon. Almost every question relating to the difficulties arising from motor traffic has been submitted to the House. I confess my task would have been much easier if my noble friend, Lord Harris, and the noble Lords who support him, had condensed this Motion into the terms of a reference to a Parliamentary Committee. I should then have known more exactly what it is that they require, than I can gather from speeches from which it is almost impossible to define what is wanted, unless you wish to refer to a Parliamentary Committee the "whole question of motors traffic and the problems arising therefrom." I do not want to speculate as to what those terms of reference would be, but I think, if only in justice to myself, that I should be allowed to say that until I know really what is required it is very difficult to see what precise answer can be given. I think, however, I can offer two or three observations which will show that no Parliamentary, or indeed any other, Committee is needed to inquire into two or three of the problems that have been raised to-day.

I will take in the first instance the resolution mentioned by Lord Harris and passed a day of two ago by the Kent County Council, and Lord Long's uncomfortable experience of coming round a sharp corner in a country lane and meeting a traction engine with three or four trucks behind it, part of the train, I gather, having subsided into a ditch. The responsibility for these difficulties does not rest entirely, at any rate, with the Ministry of Transport. Provision is made in the Road Act, 1920, by Section 7, for that very point. Any local road authority is entitled to approach the Ministry of Transport and ask that roads unfitted for that kind of traffic should be closed, or else that the traffic should be bound to use such roads in one direction only. The Ministry of Transport does not take the initiative in these matters, and does not act upon its own authority. It only follows the request of the local authority, and does not do so until a local inquiry has taken place. Then, if the road is shown to be dangerous, it is closed.

The County of Kent, I observe, has never made application that a road of this kind should be closed. It evidently does not find the grievance serious. Some counties, however, take a very strong view on the subject, and Westmorland, for example, has had no fewer than twenty-three roads entirely closed against motor traffic, either owing to the frequency or sharpness of the angles, or because the road is too narrow for motor traffic at all. The procedure may not be very rapid—it certainly cannot be called slow—but it is very efficient; and it is not a procedure which in any way interferes with the responsibility of local government; quite the contrary.

One other point—a technical point, too —namely, the control and construction of these roads. Of course, I quite understand what was behind Lord Lamington's remarks. The proper way, in his opinion, to spare these roads is to prohibit traffic upon them. But the prohibition of traffic is a power which is only used, or which ought only to be used, to promote safety of life or the convenience of circulation. It is rather dangerous to use this power in order to economise expenditure. But when Lord Lamington argued that our roads are in a shocking condition, and getting worse, I cannot help feeling that he rather exaggerated the situation, or at any rate that he rather ignored its difficulties.

We have passed through a period when roads have been subjected to a greater pressure than ever before, when a new form of heavy and damaging traffic has been developed in a very rapid manner; and finally, when, owing to conditions of labour, of prices, and so on, it has been impossible to spend as much upon roads in upkeep and repair as would have been desired. Three factors, therefore, have combined against the surface of the roads. But, so far as my own experience goes, the roads of this country, whether in industrial or in rural areas, are, broadly speaking, as good for work of this kind as those in any other country in Europe where a similar amount of traffic exists. And although much can be done, I must remind your Lordships also that much is being done. I have heard it said by people whose opinion is well worth listening to that the condition of the main roads of this country to-day is very little inferior to the condition they were in before the war; in some cases it is actually better. Therefore, I hope Lord Lamington will forgive me for saying that he places the case against the condition of the roads rather too high.

The other point is that the costs of construction and of repair are falling very considerably. In many cases the county rate has been reduced, and at the same time the amount of work upon the roads has not been diminished proportionately; in other words, more work can be done for the same amount of money. Another point upon which I very much question if a Parliamentary Inquiry is the proper procedure to adopt is as to the technical problems involved in the construction of road surfaces. Economy in construction is a subject which is naturally and constantly brought before the Ministry of Transport. Committees actually exist to-day (I do not know whether your Lordships know this)—voluntary committees, of course—in various parts of the country to watch this problem, to secure up-to-date information about costs, construction, stability, and the point that Lord Long mentioned just now, the danger to animals. A report has been made on that very point, and the greatest trouble was taken to inquire into it, with all kinds of experimental horseshoes, for instance, in order to find out if something could be done to mitigate the danger to horses from smooth surfaces of roads. That, therefore, is a constant subject of inquiry in various parts of the country by pretty competent people with technical knowledge, and probably that is a better way of getting at a great variety of results by different methods of construction and the employment of different materials than could be got from a Committee of Parliament.

Lord Harris's main point dealt with the classification of cars. He said that should be a subject of inquiry, and I quite agree. My only doubt is whether a Parliamentary Committee is as suitable as a non-Parliamentary Committee composed of people connected with the motor world. The actual scale of Duties now in force was based upon the classification which was reached after long and very close inquiry by people who represented all the different types of car, which cars were called upon to pay the Duties. That, I say, was an agreed schedule of taxation. It was embodied verbatim in the Act of Parliament. I think it has been working for twelve or fifteen months, and, whether it has worked well or badly, it has produced a great deal of money—about £10,000,000 I believe—and the fact that £10,000,000 is being devoted to the assistance of local authorities on their roads is one of the reasons why a control which was not required years ago when the State made no material contribution has, I think, to be imposed to-day. If the State is now paying £10,000,000 towards keeping up roads (there are, I think, 37,000 miles of them) it is not wrong to argue that the State should have some measure of control—a joint control with the local authority in its expenditure. That schedule to which Lord Harris referred was, as I say, drawn up by agreement, and I believe it has worked very well.


It was not quite an agreed form of taxation; it was strenuously opposed.


The schedule to which I am referring, which lays down the scale of taxation between this car and that car, was agreed among members of the Committee who were directed to inquire into the subject. My noble friend does not deny that. I have not got the list of the Committee here, but I can give it to any noble Lord who wants it. It was a Departmental Committee of twelve or fourteen people, I think, who were directed to raise a certain amount of money from cars and to draw up a schedule of taxation of so much on this basis, so much on that basis, and so forth. That Committee unanimously agreed upon a schedule. I do not think my noble friend, Lord Montagu, has quite apprehended what I am saying. No doubt the whole motor world objected to having to pay ten millions of money; there is not a doubt of it. But these gentlemen agreed upon the incidence of taxation between one particular kind of car and another and one particular kind of power and another. That schedule was reported, was made public property, and was embodied verbatim in the Act of 1920. However, it is not a very material point, and I will not pursue it further.

The point is that this was only fifteen months ago and a great deal of experience has been gained in the interval. We have seen how the incidence worked out; where there are grievances; where some cars are clearly paying too much; and where it can be substantiated that others are paying too little; and a good many weeks ago it was settled that the Committee which originally drew up this schedule should be invited to review the position in the light of the experience which has subsequently been gained. The Ministry of Transport is perfectly prepared to review the situation in the light of that experience.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, expresses a doubt whether the existing schedule will be changed. Let me read to him the terms of reference to the Departmental Committee on that particular point. This is the Committee which has already' reported on the subject, which is still sitting and inquiring into analogous problems, and will now have the duty of revising, if they so think fit, the decisions they previously arrived at. The terms of reference say that the Committee are to— take into consideration the objections to the present system of taxation of mechanically propelled road vehicles in the light of experience gained, and to report whether any more satisfactory alternative method of taxation can be devised, or if the present system can be modified or revised to meet such objections so as for the purposes of this Inquiry, in either case to produce a revenue equivalent to that produced in the financial year 1921–1922. That proviso is inserted in order that the Committee shall not say: "We will revise the classification and instead of drawing £10,000,000 from motor cars, we will reduce it to £6,000,000, or £8,000,000, or whatever it may be." The terms of reference are very wide and empower the Committee, if they so desire, to inquire, for instance, whether a fuel tax is preferable to the present system, or if it be possible to devise a mileage tax, or whether the metal tyre shall pay more than the rubber tyre. In fact, the terms are so wide that the Inquiry will not, I think, be limited in any way. The Inquiry will be public, and evidence can be presented to it by any accredited authorities on the subject.

That is the problem which my noble friend, Lord Harris, desires shall be placed before a Parliamentary Committee. I ask him very earnestly to consider whether that highly technical problem is not best dealt with by a purely technical Committee. I will give him, in very few words, the reasons which led me to this conclusion. In the first place, the classification and taxation of cars has already been exhaustively discussed by the existing Committee. It is a problem, I have satisfied myself, of the most extraordinary technical complexity, and it is unfamiliar, and will remain unfamiliar, to anybody who has not made a study of these mechanical problems. It is not a matter in which the ordinary common sense of any one of your Lordships is sufficient to settle on broad lines what the classification should be. I have looked through some of these cases and I assure your Lordships that the terminology used in them is such that every third or fourth word is entirely alien to the thoughts and conversation of anybody except a skilled mechanic. This is so technical a question as to be one which, I think, must be referred to a technical committee.

The Committee which has already dealt with the problem is, I think, well qualified to consider how far changes are necessary. I really can assure Lord Harris that to the best of my knowledge there need be no fear that this Committee will refrain from changing the incidence of taxation if a sufficiently good case is made out. There is no amour propre in the matter at all. If they change the incidences they will change them because they are convinced that those changes are necessary. The task, I admit, is a very difficult one, and they will have extremely difficult problems to settle. Lord Harris says that char a banes pay too little, and that light cars pay too much.


No, I never said that.


I beg the noble Lord's pardon; I thought he did.


No. I said that if the light cars are heavily taxed the heavy cars ought to pay a good deal more.


I think that must be a first cousin to my interpretation of what Lord Harris said. Anyhow, the noble Lord said that as between one style of car and another there was inequality.




If that can he shown, then the Committee will do their best to rectify the mistake. But when Lord Lamington goes so far as to say, for instance, that heavy traffic must build its own roads, or when it is argued that special roads are to be made for horses and cattle, I do not think that this Committee, or indeed any Parliamentary Committee, can venture to face the gigantic cost which anything of that character would involve. Lord Lamington's remarks were so drastic in their terms that—


There is no possibility of a gigantic cost in reference to horses and cattle. That will be covered by the grant for the preservation of existing roads.


I misunderstood what my noble friend said; I thought he said that by-passes ought to be made for the purpose.


No; I said that the tremendous suffering entailed on dumb animals under the present system ought to form the subject of a separate Inquiry by a Parliamentary Committee; but I did not indicate the remedy.


I misconstrued what my noble friend said. I thought he said that by-passes would be needed for the purpose. I acknowledge that motor traffic has great disadvantages and, I think, great enemies. It is rather significant that the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, should have risen and said: "I think it is necessary to say a word in defence of motor traffic."


I am not a great enemy of motor traffic. What I say is that it should be run on proper lines.


I do not want to follow that point too far, but if it is once conceded that heavy traffic is to go off the public high roads, we are faced by a prospective outlay which is so great that we know that heavy traffic will have to cease altogether. I think that really must be acknowledged. The only further point which I would urge in favour of this difficult question of classification being referred to a Select Committee is this. The Departmental Committee has one advantage which a Parliamentary Committee has not. It can sit through the recess, and it is not subject to the changes and chances of Parliamentary life. There is much more assurance against frequent change of personnel on such a Committee. It is very important that this Committee should begin at once its researches, and conclude them at the earliest possible moment. Every one connected with the motor world knows that people are extremely anxious on the subject, and desirous that it should be inquired into. I therefore press your Lordships not to agree that a Parliamentary Committee is the proper form of Committee to inquire into this technical question.

As regards railways using the roads for their traffic by running fleets of lorries, my impression is—I say it subject to correction—that that can only be done by sanction of Parliament. In every case special Parliamentary rights have to be obtained before the railway can act in this manner. If that is so, your Lordships, or the other House, have merely to order that the subject shall be referred to a Select Committee, and Parliament can then do or say whatever it pleases.

If your Lordships, as I hope you will, support me in not duplicating the inquiry into the classification of cars which is already going on by appointing a Parliamentary Committee as well as a Departmental Committee, the only other subject that is outstanding is the relation of local and Imperial responsibility—not the relations of local and Imperial finance, which have not been discussed to-day, but the relations of local and Imperial responsibility. It is a very difficult, a very large, and a very important subject. I cannot say that Parliament ought not to inquire into it, but I hope, if it be settled that Parliament should inquire into it, that they will not limit the inquiry to the relatively small question of rates in regard to motor traffic. If that is to be inquired into the reference ought to be larger. There are many more outstanding questions, and front a money point of view more important outstanding questions, than that of the rates. It is far too large a subject for me to give a definite answer upon today. It is far beyond the terms of the Motion on the Paper, but if Parliament should so decide to have a Joint Committee or a Royal Commission on the subject, I should greatly hope that it would not be limited, but would deal with a variety of subjects of great interest and importance.


My Lords, may I say one or two words in reply? With reference to what was said by the noble and learned Viscount opposite respecting excessive traffic, I have here a paragraph which deals with that. It is from the report of the bridge and roads committee of Kent, and says— It is now exceedingly difficult and costly to sustain claims of extraordinary traffic, or recover the same in the Courts, as the view is held that, as the users of the roads arc contributing largely towards the cost of maintenance, they are entitled to expect special consideration. I always make a point of studying, as far as one can from the ordinary channels, the information contained in the reports of cases in the Courts in regard to excessive traffic, and my experience entirely bears out the statement which I have just quoted. People are getting very chary indeed of bringing actions for excessive damage. In this particular case the claimants seem to have been successful, but only when they got to the House of Lords. I wonder how much it cost them to get to this House. A county council is not going into expenditure of that kind very readily with the experience which, as I know, it has already had.

I have to thank my noble friend very gratefully for the extremely careful and earnest way in which he has dealt with the subject, and I think I may claim for myself, from the speeches which have been made front every part of the House and from his own speech, that the subject was worthy of very serious consideration. My noble friend deprecates the subject being examined into by a Parliamentary Committee front two points of view—namely, the classification of vehicles, and the distribution of the amounts of the fees. That, he says, is already being inquired into by a Departmental Committee. There is no necessity for a Parliamentary Committee to go into it in detail, for they can have the results so far obtained laid before them, and they will be able to judge, like an impartial referee, whether the relative rates are fair.


If this Committee recommends a change it will involve a change in the Statutes, and therefore must come before the Court of Parliament.


I was not impressed by the terms of reference. So far as I can remember the Committee were to examine into and report on the system of taxation. It was not necessary to take into consideration the objections to the present system of taxation of mechanically propelled vehicles in the light of experience gained, and to report whether any alternative or satisfactory method of taxation could be devised. It may be possible that under the terms of reference read out by my noble friend the Committee may go into this point. My first point was as to whether the relative rates are just, having regard to the damage caused to the roads. I hope that the terms of reference cover that point. I can imagine it being argued in the Committee whether they do so or not. I think sonic noble Lord asked who were the representatives on the Departmental Committee. I think I can give them. The Chairman is Sir Henry Maybury, representing the Ministry; and there are representatives of the Royal Automobile Club, the Commercial Users Association, the Automobile Association and the Motor Union, police authorities, agricultural local authorities, London and Provincial Omnibus Owners' Association, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, and the Board of Customs and Excise. It sounds as if there were rather a preponderance of motor users and manufacturers as compared with local authorities.

As to the main question of whether or not it is advisable to refer this to a Parliamentary Committee or not I confess that I am not influenced by my noble friend's appeal. He asked me to consider carefully whether this was the best procedure, and I must state that I think it is, not merely from my own opinion but from the arguments used in every part of the House to-night. One after another noble Lord brought forth reasons why it is desirable that this matter should be inquired into by a Parliamentary rather than by a Departmental Committee.

My noble friend says he would have been happier if I had submitted the terms of reference. I always thought it was rather the privilege of the Government., if a Motion of this character were carried, themselves to consider what terms of reference are acceptable to them, and then to report what they have agreed to refer to the Committee. But, without committing myself, the words which have been suggested to me might be to this effect: To inquire into the control and user of roads in rural districts and the incidence and costs of constructing and maintaining the same, and to report whether any, and if so what, change is desirable in such control or in the incidence of the cost. Something to that effect is desired having regard to the extraordinary change that is coining over the user of the roads— almost without warning to local authorities. In these circumstances, I feel I am justified in pressing my Motion and if necessary going to a Division.


My Lords, may I intervene for one moment. Lord Harris has introduced at the last moment a question which all your Lordships have omitted from your speeches this afternoon —namely, the incidence between local and Imperial taxation. That is a subject which has been discussed by six or seven different Committees, Royal Commissions, Parliamentary Committees, Departmental Committees, Select Committees, for the last ten or fifteen years.


Does the noble Earl include in Imperial taxation these licence fees? Only the day before yesterday they were local taxes.


All I am saying is that the noble Lord has raised the question of the relation between Imperial and local taxation. That subject has not been before your Lordships this afternoon, and I think it would be a great pity if it is re-opened in isolation in connection with motor traffic alone. As was the case yesterday, I am bound to recognise that your Lordships desire some form of Parliamentary Inquiry. I have tried to convince your Lordships that I see no useful purpose at the present juncture, when the technical points are being considered by a Committee, in duplicating the Inquiry by a Parliamentary Inquiry, but I will not put your Lordships to the trouble of going to a Division on the Motion of the noble Lord.

On Question, Motion agreed to.