HL Deb 08 December 1936 vol 103 cc656-86

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, one hundred years ago the Highways Act of 1835 confirmed the position that each parish was responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of public roads in its area. It was soon recognised however that the parish was no longer the appropriate unit for local government either for highways or for the public health services which were required, and accordingly a series of measures in the latter part of the nineteenth century created a system of local government which recognised that satisfactory highways could not be secured through the machinery of the parish and local justices. Rural districts, urban districts, a new class of borough called the county borough, and county councils were established and to these authorities were gradually transferred highway duties and powers. The last administrative reforms so far as highways are concerned were contained in the Local Government Act of 1929 which made the county councils the highway authorities for all county roads in their areas.

Since those reforms were effected seven years ago the number of mechanically-propelled vehicles, excluding motor cycles, has risen from one and a half millions to two and a quarter millions, an increase of 50 per cent. The census of Class I roads shows that the number of vehicles passing nearly 5,000 comparable points was more than 34 per cent. greater in August, 1935, than in August, 1931, and bicycles showed 100 per cent. increase over the same period. These few figures indicate that once more we have to face a great change in traffic conditions. To keep pace with this increase of traffic, highway authorities have been forced to find more money from their ratepayers and, when every allowance is made for grants from the Road Fund and the block grant, the balance falling upon some authorities where the rateable value is low forms a very heavy burden. As a result of the restricted and varied local resources, there is considerable lack of uniformity throughout the country in such matters as actual road construction, road widths, surfacing, signalling, and so on. Every road user is fully aware of the differences in these matters when he passes from one local government area to another, and the sudden and unexpected change of surface will be recognised by all drivers as a potential source of danger. In addition to the county boroughs, there are more than eighty different county councils responsible for roads, and this fact does not make for that uniformity which your Lordships must agree is desirable.

There is indeed widespread agreement that the time has arrived when a further step in the direction of consolidating highway administration should be taken and that this step should be to make the State a more active participant in the road system than it has hitherto been. At the beginning of this year the County Councils' Association of England and Wales was considering the financial burden which the maintenance of certain routes of major through traffic importance was casting upon individual counties, and reached the conclusion that the construction, improvement and maintenance of certain roads of major importance should become the financial responsibility of the Ministry of Transport, the work thereon being carried out by the highway authorities as agents. No proposal could of course be acceptable to Parliament which involved the State paying the whole cost without also having control. If the State is to assume financial responsibility it follows that it should also assume an increased degree of administrative control. In general, I think I may say that the county councils, as a body, even if individually they may not be entirely agreed, have accepted the Minister's proposals as embodied in the Trunk Roads Bill, and have recognised the force of the arguments he has used that financial and administrative control cannot be separated. To attempt to do so might indeed result in constant friction. Here I should like to pay a tribute to the very helpful attitude which the County Conucils' Associations both in England and in Scotland, and the other associations of local authorities, have adopted and the assistance which they and their advisers have given to the Minister in working out the details of the scheme.

The roads which it is proposed to transfer are described in detail in the First Schedule to the Bill and are those which, in the words of the Preamble, "constitute the national system of routes for through traffic" in Great Britain. They are not necessarily those roads which carry the heaviest volume of traffic; on roads of that class, traffic generally speaking is of a seasonal character to and from popular seaside resorts. The roads which the Government have selected are those which are mainly used by the ordinary day-to-day commercial and private traffic proceeding to and from important centres. All the principal ports of the country lie on one or more of the trunk roads and some three-quarters of the county boroughs and large burghs are linked up. If I am asked whether they are strategic roads, I can only reply, in the words of the Minister of Transport, that the network of roads selected are broadly those indispensable alike in peace and in war. Most of the roads are roads which in earlier years have been chosen in co-operation with the highway authorities as routes of special importance from the point of view of through traffic, and to them special rates of grant from the Road Fund have been made under successive road improvement programmes. To those roads an addition of approximately 700 miles has been made in order to make the general skeleton more complete. It will be observed that out of a total mileage of 4,500 miles, some 1,200 miles lie in Scotland.

One of the few points of criticism that were made of the Bill during its passage in another place was the proposal in Clause 2 that roads in the Administrative County of London, in county boroughs in England and Wales and in large burghs in Scotland should be excluded from the scope of the transfer. It is no doubt possible to argue on grounds of logic that on a journey, say, from London to Fishguard, by a trunk road the motorist should be able to pass along a road in the hands of a single authority, even when it passes through built-up areas in such cities as Oxford, Gloucester, Newport, Cardiff and Swansea; but there are good reasons of a very practical character against the immediate attainment of such a logical ideal. The main roads through cities such as I have named and those through great county boroughs like Birmingham or Manchester have a high local value. Often they are the main streets of the town itself where the volume of purely local traffic is far higher than in the county areas between them. Moreover, the opportunity and the need for effective control by a central authority are less in such autonomous units as county boroughs. Further, as your Lordships are aware, the maintenance of classified roads in county boroughs is one of those services which was "block granted" by the Local Government Act of 1929, and any proposal to reduce the rate-borne ex- penditure of the boroughs would involve far-reaching financial adjustments.

It is, moreover, significant that the county boroughs themselves have not asked to be included in this scheme and have raised no objection to their exclusion. In many cases, however, the right solution for the congestion which a driver on a through journey experiences in cities will be the construction of a by-pass lying wholly or at least mainly outside the area of the county borough, and the Minister sees no reason why in those cases where the by-pass has to pass through its boundaries he should not reach an agreement with the authority to continue the road in its area to the same standard of construction and maintenance as it has on either side.

It would at this point be appropriate to refer to the relief which this Bill will afford to the counties. It is estimated on the experience of recent years that the average cost of maintenance of the roads selected has been in the neighbourhood of £1,660,000 a year. This sum has hitherto been provided as to 60 per cent. by grants out of the Road Fund and as to 40 per cent. out of local rates. The cost of road maintenance borne by central funds will, therefore, be increased by 40 per cent. or approximately £666,000. This is the additional sum that will result from the transfer apart from any increases which may result from higher standards of maintenance or more rapid introduction of minor improvements. It is not possible to estimate the sum that will be required for major improvements to bring the roads up to modern standards over a period of years. Before such works can be put in hand on any extensive scale a detailed survey will have to be made and this is bound to take time. At present the cost of improvements is met by grants out of the Road Fund at rates varying from 75 per cent. to 85 per cent. In future the whole cost of them will be borne by the Exchequer. At present road improvement schemes on trunk roads costing over £6,000,000 have been accorded grant; these are being carried out under the five-year programme and schemes costing another £12,000,000 have begin submitted.

The Minister of Transport has informed the associations of local authorities that it is not the intention of the Government to reduce the rate of grant for the maintenance of roads which are not transferred nor to curtail the five-year programme now in course of execution. Nor is it proposed to demand specific contributions to future works on trunk roads from the local authorities, but the relief they secure from the transfer will be taken into account in connection with the general Exchequer contribution payable to them which is due to be reviewed as from the beginning of the next financial year when the third fixed grant period begins. Negotiations on this matter are now proceeding and legislation, for which the Minister of Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland will be responsible, will be necessary before the 31st March next to determine the precise amount of the contribution for the next quinquennium. It is therefore not necessary in the present Bill to include provisions to deal with adjustments between central and local finance arising out of the transfer of the responsibility for trunk roads.

The Bill which now reaches your Lordships' House after having passed through all its stages in another place, confers no powers on the Minister of Transport different from those which the highway authoritites already possess in relation to these roads. The opportunity of this Bill has not been taken to effect any alteration in the highway law generally. The Government agree, and many of your Lordships must feel from your own experience, that in numerous respects that law requires amendment and consolidation, and it is the Minister's hope that in the not too distant future consolidation may be effected. The principle on which the Bill is based is to make a clean transfer of responsibility from the beginning of the next financial year—April 1 in England and Wales and May 16 in Scotland. On one point, however, a transfer is not proposed. The Government do not consider that any liabilities for outstanding loans and loan charges should be transferred. This is a purely financial point which it may be unnecessary to pursue as a definite decision has been taken upon it elsewhere.

By way of explanation, however, I may perhaps be allowed to point out that this Bill is not a Bill for the purchase of revenue-earning undertakings which would properly involve a transfer of loans and loan charges. It is a Bill to relieve the highway authorities of their future burdens. Certain authorities have raised loans to enable them to effect improvements, others have financed those improvements from revenue. In each case the asset to be transferred is the same—a road. In each case the liability incurred by the ratepayers in the past is the same; although where the works have been financed from revenue the liability has been extinguished, but where they have been financed from capital the liability is continuing. The Government have given very careful consideration to the representations which have been made to them on this matter and have reached the conclusion that there is no ground of equity or expediency why a further relief should be given to those authorities who have elected to finance their improvements by borrowing.

Should this Bill receive the Royal Assent it is not the intention or wish of the Minister to establish an elaborate new organisation up and down the country for executing works on trunk roads. He intends, so far as possible, to delegate his functions to the councils who are now doing the work and have the necessary staffs and experience at hand. In order to secure continuity for the initial period he proposes to make an Order imposing these functions upon the authorities for a period of two years. Thereafter he would propose to enter into voluntary agreements with those authorities who are competent and willing to accept the delegation. When the authorities act as his agents he will be able to secure that the standards which he will lay down shall be observed. It must not be assumed that the effect of this Bill will be to produce a brand new road system within the next two or three years. Road improvements must proceed gradually, and one of the limiting factors is finance which by the new method of feeding the Road Fund will henceforward be provided from moneys voted by Parliament who will pay regard to the varying needs of the community. The Bill, however, does provide the opportunity for effective central control over the important roads of the country, and it is the Minister's intention, while expediting improvements obviously needed, also to take immediate steps to put in hand a survey on which the roads can be re-designed, paying attention to the needs of motor traffic, the safety of road users and not least of pedestrians, and, what is of equal importance, the preservation of the amenities of the countryside. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Erne.)


My Lords, I am sure we are all of us indebted to the noble Earl for the very clear statement he has made in moving the Second Reading of this Bill. It is a measure which I desire on behalf of my noble friends on this side in no way to oppose. Fundamentally the principle involved is one of which we approve. But when the Government proceed to come along in our direction we always are a little suspicious, and we have to examine not only their measures but their motives before we can allow the matter to pass. The noble Earl has given us a full statement with regard to the Bill and has said that it is not likely that the full establishment of a Government-controlled perfect road system can be expected within the next two or three years. I think possibly the Government will find some difficulties, but nevertheless this step towards what we on this side of the House simply call nationalisation is a step in the right direction. The noble Earl pointed to the lack of uniformity which at present exists and also to the restricted local resources of a good many of the local authorities. He very rightly concluded that if the Ministry were going to pay 100 per cent. of the cost, it would be necessary for them to have full control. I think that some of us listened very attentively to what the noble Earl said with regard to the increase of traffic—34 per cent. greater in the last four years.

There are several considerations to be taken into account, and if I may do so I should like to ask for a little elucidation of the Bill itself. To begin with we are given very little information with regard to the financial provisions of the Bill. We are given information in percentages and we are given references to costs in the past, but we have not any very clear idea of the amount which it is the intention of the Government to spend out of the Road Fund on these purposes during next year or the next few years. I hope very much that the projects of the Minister of Transport will be laid before Parliament before he embarks on any very ambitious scheme. I am not quite clear with regard to Clause 5, which deals with the delegation of road functions to local authorities. I understand the wording of the clause, but I should like an explanation as to whether this delegation of road functions to local authorities is going to be the ordinary practiced—that is to say, are they in most cases going to act as agents for the Ministry of Transport, or does it mean that in certain cases where they have shown special efficiency, and are ready to do their work with expedition, the Minister of Transport will entrust them with the work? Or, again, does it mean that if the improvement or construction of the road has been made they will in all cases have delegated to them the business of maintenance, which is a very important business and has an annual cost of a, considerable amount? That is what I am not quite clear about. That there should be a special clause providing for the delegation of functions to the local authorities would at first sight seem to imply the resignation by the Minister of the hold over the local authority which he is assuming and the handing of it back to the authority. If any noble Lord is replying to this debate, perhaps he would kindly put me right on that point.

The Minister of Transport is likely to find a good deal of difficulty in the claims of local authorities. At present some authorities are good, some are bad and some are indifferent. Some go ahead with very little stimulus from the Ministry, and others lag behind. When the whole control is simply under the Ministry it will be left to their discretion which roads shall go ahead and which must be deferred until later. In some cases, therefore, a keen local authority which would naturally have gone ahead is going to be told: "Ah, but your particular road is not as important as two or three others we have, and you must be held back." It seems to me that the Minister may find this sole control over the order and the claims to priority of these roads a rather difficult function to perform. I do not suppose that bridges actually come under the Bill, but at the same time we know of cases where a new bridge may involve a considerable extension of a trunk road. I would refer especially to the Humber Bridge, because that was before the Ministry when I had the honour to serve in it. It was a matter of considerable complication and difficulty, but we were making a start, and there is no question that this is one of those main roads to be constructed which will be of extraordinary value to that part of the country.

I heard the noble Earl say one word about safety, and I searched the Minister's speech and did find just one minor reference to safety on the roads, where he said: They must be designed so as to permit the utmost fluidity of traffic consistent with the requirements of public safety. I have a very great admiration for the efforts of the Minister of Transport and I have every sympathy with him, as I always have for any conscientious failure. We must admit that he has been a failure so far as safety is concerned, and although I do not want to turn this into a debate on road safety, which could far better be discussed under some special Motion, I must draw attention to the fact that these great trunk roads that are now going to be made broader and broader and driven through the country on all sides, are in themselves one of the major dangers which bring about the high total of accidents. I noticed that a learned Judge, in giving his opinion the other day in some motor accident case, said that within his experience the majority of the accidents he had come across were on the main trunk roads. I believe that is perfectly true. I speak as a motorist myself, and I am perfectly certain that these gigantic speedways which are being made are in no way connected with road safety. It seems to me sometimes a very doubtful policy that the Minister of Transport should with one hand be helping these speedways, these racing tracks, and with the other hand trying to check the terrible toll on the road. I do not think we can dissever this question from this Bill, because to my mind these vast roads (whose ever-increasing breadth does not make any difference to the accidents, but only increases the flow of traffic) are likely to be an aggravation of the danger from which we now suffer.

What is the Government's real motive? I do not think it is their love of nationali- sation. I very much dispute the suggestion that road safety is the main object of this Bill. Their intention may be to increase the flow of commercial traffic so that these roads may be used for the great commercial vans and trolleys which are increasing greatly on the roads. But I believe most of all that this is really part of the policy of what is euphemistically and very inaccurately called "defence," driving big roads from all centres to the ports, owing to the enormous importance of a free flow of traffic from munition factories, from aeroplane factories and from all the various military centres to the coast should war break out. I make no comment on that suggestion except to say that if it is part of the Government's motive, then the resources of the Services—the War Office, the Admiralty and the Air Service—ought to be drawn on to pay for these trunk roads.

I cannot help conjuring up rather a hideous picture of the future, with this mania for broader and broader roads, more and more of them, the diminishing of the countryside, the cutting-down of village corners and old village buildings, the by-passes which grow into the most deplorable suburbs of appalling villas. If the movement were serving any great, socially useful purpose, if the life of us all and the accomplishment of all of us were greatly enhanced by it, we should all submit to these things; but I very much doubt that. At any rate so far as there is necessity for trunk roads to be constructed, so far as there is necessity for dangerous corners and bridges to be repaired, so far as there is real necessity for the surfaces of roads to be uniform and the best possible—and, I would add, so far as there is necessity to get a uniform lighting system on many of the roads—all that is to the good, and we on this side welcome the measure because the Government have undertaken to do that from a central authority on behalf of the country.


My Lords, I should like if I may to congratulate the noble Earl on his speech, which was a model of clarity. At the same time I should like to make a reservation as to the new verb which he introduced—"to block-grant." I hope that during his career at the Ministry of Transport he will be cautious, or else they will corrupt his prose. I am interested in something which Lord Ponsonby mentioned at the conclusion of his speech—namely, the amenities of the countryside. Lord Ponsonby complained that the word "safety" occurred once only in the noble Earl's speech. I do not complain because my phrase consists of four words only, although they were the last four words of Lord Erne's speech. I wonder, however, if they were intended as a peroration or, perhaps, to make good an oversight.

When the Government step in and control 5,000 miles of our roads, their influence upon the amenities of the countryside is going to be very great indeed, and I want to put two points which can be concisely stated. Firstly, about the improvement of existing roads and the road widening which is very common through inhabited areas. We all know cases where such road widening is very costly process, where it is wasteful, because it destroys valuable property, where it is deplorable, because it wipes out beautiful property, and where at best it is unsatisfactory as being no more than a compromise. The solution of the by-pass is not nearly often enough used and, regarding Lord Ponsonby's reference to the horrors which are so often associated with a by-pass, it is not the fault of the Act of Parliament which produces this ribbon development and enfolds all new by-passes in long lines of cottage property; the fact is that the Act of Parliament is not adequately used. Ribbon development can be controlled on these by-passes by the exercise of the powers under the Act, which make it possible to avoid all compensation for frontage values to agricultural land. Road improvement has inflicted great damage upon the countryside, and I think now that the great roads are to be handed over to the Government, steps must be taken to see that this shall not occur Any more.

There is one other aspect of road amenities to which I should like to refer. I do not know, but I expect that in course of time, when these roads are all managed in fact from Westminster, there will be a real danger of standardising our roads. There will be one type of kerb running from London to Aberdeen and one type of fence running from London to Penzance. The whole tendency will be to work it on mass production at the minimum cost. I think that will be a great pity. The characteristics of the county and of the countryside would be respected, in order to avoid the uniformity which is so characteristic of the railway. It would be a thousand pities that the roads should be modelled upon the railways. Neither of the matters that I have mentioned is suitable for Amendments to an Act of Parliament, but I think both are legitimate and germane to the discussion on the Second Reading of this Bill, and at a later stage I hope we may get a statement from the Government, which I trust may be satisfactory.


My Lords, I do not rise to oppose the Bill in any way, although I must venture to put in a gentle protest against its drafting. It is too late, I know, to do anything about it, but this is an example or legislation by reference of the worst type I have ever seen. I venture to say with great confidence that there is not a single member of your Lordships' House who could tell what the Bill meant without many hours of study. I do not admit that I am much stupider than the average member of your Lordships' House, but I am certain it is true of myself. I will not trouble your Lordships with any great number of instances, but I would just lice to draw your attention to the Interpretation Clause, the object of which is to make the Bill more intelligible. Here is the kind of thing: 'Classified road' means a road classified by the Minister under the Ministry of Transport Act, 1919, in Class I or Class II of any class declared by him to be not inferior to those classes for the purposes of the Local Government Act, 1929. Then a little later on, we read: 'Improvement' has the same meaning as in Part II of the Development and Road Improvement Funds Act, 1909. And there is similar definition of "traffic sign." Why on earth could not the draftsmen have said: "that is to say," and then copied the interpretation out of the Improvement Act? That would have made the Bill intelligible. However, I think it is too late to protest against these things now. I believe that Bills are often made unintelligible deliberately, in order to curtail the number of Amendments in another place.

My other observation is that which Lord Ponsonby made—namely, that there is nothing at all about safety in this Bill, and I am reluctantly compelled to agree with him that we have to deplore a complete failure to secure safety, so far. The most that can be said is that the growth of deaths and injury is not quite so great, as before the Minister of Transport took office. I do not make that as a bitter comment on his administration, because I think he has done his best from his own point of view. He has done what he thought was necessary, and at all events one most important thing: he has published every week a statement of the number of deaths which have taken place. That I think is a very valuable change. But the result is that it is regarded quite as a good week if only 125 deaths take place in that week. The number sometimes goes up to 150.

We had a debate the other day on the situation in Spain, and some of my noble friends explained how the rebellion arose, through the failure or incompetence of the Spanish Government before the rebellion took place. They read out a number of figures as to the deaths that had occurred during the four months preceding the outbreak of war. As I understood the figures, they came to about fifty a month, which is rather less than one-tenth of the deaths which take place in this country on the roads. Fifty a month is between twelve and thirteen deaths a week, whereas we are fortunate if there are only 125 deaths in a week. We have not had a rebellion in this country, and I am glad of it, because I do not think that is the proper remedy. We have a simpler method of changing our Governments, and perhaps that would be the proper course, but I cannot say for certain because the previous Governments were no better than this one, indeed perhaps worse.

But it is not a matter for joking. It really is intensely serious. I have not dilated on the injuries but of course they are colossal—a quarter of a million in the year. And yet my noble friend in the very interesting and able speech he made had only one sentence referring to safety, in which he regarded it, at any rate for the purpose of his peroration, as apparently of less importance than the preservation of the amenities of the countryside. I am afraid that in saying that he was only saying what the Department wished him to say, and though I entirely agree as to the importance of maintaining the amenities of the countryside, I cannot myself agree in the least that that is a more important matter than preserving the lives and limbs of His Majesty's subjects. The truth is that if this great evil is to be dealt with it must be dealt with courageously and completely. It is of no use tinkering with it any more. The evil is not due to some question of road surface, or the fogs, or even to the incompetence of the drivers. I have to some extent to admit that some of my suggestions in past times have not been proved to be of any value. Not I particularly, but others, have suggested that the incompetence of the drivers has a good deal to do with it. Well, we have taken steps to diminish the incompetence of the drivers, but they do riot appear to have made any substantial difference. No doubt recklessness does cause a certain number of deaths, and by "recklessness" I mean an exercise of the quality of care markedly less than you may expect from the average human being. Of course speed in a sense is the cause of it all, because if we went slow enough there would be no accidents.

But broadly speaking those are not the causes of the slaughter on the roads. The cause of the slaughter on the roads is to my mind quite certain and simple. It is that you are trying to use the same road for traffic going at four or five miles an hour and traffic going at sixty or seventy miles an hour. It is not a question of exercising care. Even if everybody is extremely careful there will still be a large number of accidents if you insist on doing a thing which it is, from the very nature of the case, impossible to do safely. I have often thought that the whole of our trouble arises from the fact that this problem has been treated as though the motor car were a kind of improved horse carriage, and that the same kind of treatment that operated for the safety of the public in dealing with horse carriages was enough if you exaggerated it a little to deal with the safety of traffic where motor cars are common. It is untrue. These are for that purpose small railway trains, going with the speed and the destructive force of railway trains. We have succeeded in making the railways of this country incredibly safe. I say "incredibly" because nobody thought when the railways started that they could possibly be made as safe as they have been made. But they have been made safe. Accidents do occur, but very rarely. Passengers are very rarely killed, and even the accidents to railway servants, who necessarily perhaps have to run even greater risks, have been very materially diminished. If it can be done with the railways it can be done with the roads; but you must apply the same principle in both cases. You must not rely on the exceptional care of the users of the roads, you must provide conditions under which accidents will not occur unless there is an exceptional want of care. We have not really tackled that problem.

I agree with my noble friend that it is impossible to turn this into a debate on the safety of the roads, and I will not go into the details of the various suggestions which might be made in that direction, but I am quite sure that that is the central fact. You will have to have fast roads and slow roads, and on the slow roads the traffic will have to be brought down to something like the level of the old horse traffic—I do not mean the actual level, because of course a motor car is no doubt a much more manageable thing than a horse vehicle; but something of that kind. You will have to bring it down to twenty or thirty miles an hour at the outside. But the fast roads will have to be treated as railways and protected, with necessary modifications, in order to avoid accidents. I am sure something of that kind is essential. I am told it will cost a great deal of money. Well we are prepared to spend millions—and as far as I am concerned properly—in defence of this country. It is really fantastic that we should not be prepared to spend a relatively much smaller sum in getting rid of this wholesale destruction of life in this country. I very earnestly press this view on the Government. In a very encouraging phrase of my noble friend's he said that the Government recognised that great changes in our highway legislation were necessary and they were determined to carry them out. I hope that means that they are really thinking out a serious and far-reaching scheme for producing safety. The thing is not impracticable. You have done it on the railways: what you have done on the railways you can do on the roads. But you must deal with it seriously, vigorously and, it may be, even expensively. The thing is worth the cost, and I earnestly hope the Government will apply their minds to this great problem.


My Lords, I was unable to be in the House during the whole of the noble Earl's speech, so I do not know whether he referred to the Schedules or not. I should be surprised if he did, because the Schedules contain many objectionable features. They seek to do away with the right of an aggrieved party to appeal to Quarter Sessions. There is one case where the recommendations of the Donoughmore Committee are entirely ignored. Now, I understand that the Committee stage of this Bill is to be taken on Friday.


No, Monday.


I understood it was to be put down for Friday, and I protest against the Bill being taken on Friday because it will be very difficult to get a House. If the noble Earl can see his way to putting it off until Monday I think it would ease the situation to a considerable extent.


My Lords, I do not want to discuss the question of safety. As the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, has quite wisely said, the matter of safety is one of very great importance indeed, and it always astonishes me that whereas people were so ready to be horrified when a railway accident took place in former years, in these days when they see the weekly toll of motor accidents on the roads they seem to pay very little regard to it at all.

I have risen to make one small suggestion arising from the speech of the noble Earl who introduced the Bill. He referred towards the end of his speech to the preservation of the amenities of the countryside, and just before that he referred to what I understood was an advisory council to the Minister of Transport which apparently sometimes comes into operation. Only the other day there was a leading article in The Times newspaper pointing out what valuable work had been done by the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, of which my noble friend Lord Crawford is a prominent member, in regard to preserving the amenities of this country and probably also, therefore, in advising or directing changes that the Minister of Transport may wish to make in the laying out of our roads. That being so, I want merely to throw out the suggestion that if this advisory council is to be put into operation from time to time to advise the Minister as to what are to be his powers under this Bill, the Government might include on that advisory council a representative of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, who, I think, would give very valuable assistance to it.


My Lords, I should like in the first instance to press the point made by Lord Bertie regarding the taking of the Committee stage of this Bill on such an early clay as Friday of this week. If possible it should be postponed until Monday of next week.


My Lords, I can give an assurance on that point at once before I speak on the main subject. We will take the Committee stage on Monday. That would be much more to the convenience of the House, and I am sure your Lordships would not mind in these circumstances the Report stage and the Third Reading fallowing rapidly, because we all want the Bill to become law before the House rises for Christmas. On that understanding we will gladly put down the Committee stage for Monday.


I thank the noble Viscount for that assurance. Several of the speeches to which we have listened this afternoon have tempted us rather outside the field of this Bill. They may be important matters which the noble Viscount on the Cross Benches and also the noble Earl, Lord Crawford, mentioned, but, as I think both speakers said, these matters are dealt with by the Ribbon Development and other Acts and are not really germane to the Trunk Roads Bill. The Trunk Roads Bill, as far as I understand it—and I must admit, with the noble Viscount, that it is a little difficult to understand—is to transfer from a number of local authorities to one central authority the responsibility for the construction and maintenance of certain through routes. It contains a "skeleton"—I think that was the word used by the noble Earl in introducing the Bill—of important roads which are used for national purposes. In dealing with a skeleton of national routes it is first important to be sure that we have all the component parts of the skeleton present before we proceed to clothe it with sinews and flesh. On the lines of the prophet Ezekiel, it is important that bone should come to its neighbour bone before you clothe it with sinews and flesh or put breath into the skeleton. For that reason we should carefully go over the skeleton proposed.

I understand from what the noble Earl said in introducing the Bill, and from what the Minister said in another place, that consultations have taken place with the county councils and other authorities. So far as I am aware, the only consultation which has taken place with the County Councils' Association of Scotland was at a meeting when those present on behalf of the County Councils' Association were told what was the skeleton. There was no consultation with them as to what were the proper bones to put into this skeleton. If I may for a moment refer to the skeleton as it affects Scotland, I think all your Lordships who are aware of conditions in Scotland will appreciate that the Scottish skeleton has had a terrific duet in the ribs, and that the eastern ribs have been either severed or driven right into the internal anatomy of Scotland.

I do not know whether the Minister was tempted to do so from the knowledge that in Dunfermline there lies the body of one of the most famous Kings of Scotland whose ribs had been sawn open in order to take out his heart, or by the knowledge that the natural route to the great North Road had one link essential to make it complete, in the construction of a bridge across the Forth. I am not aware which of these considerations influenced him, but it is a fact that the route which continues from London to Edinburgh and from Edinburgh afterwards to the North does not take the natural economic or proper route. It takes a divergent route from Edinburgh via Stirling to Perth—a route which covers seventy miles as against forty-five miles by the direct route; and if it were proper I should like to press upon the Minister even at this late moment to substitute for the route he has suggested in this Bill the natural, economic, and historical route of the Great North Road via Queensferry and Glenfarg to Perth.

My second point has been already referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and one other speaker this afternoon. That is, with regard to the maintenance of the approaches to, and of roads crossing, trunk roads. The Minister, in Clause 5 of the Bill, undertakes to pay the cost of a bridge, but he does not undertake to maintain the road crossing that bridge, or to maintain the embankment which is necessary to take the road over the bridge. I can quite understand the force of the argument that the maintenance of the actual roadway, being part of the responsibility of the county council on each side of the trunk road, should be handed over to them when made, but it is adding very materially to the responsibility of a local authority to add to it also the cost of maintaining walls or embankments which may be necessary to carry that road over the trunk road.

My third point has also been referred to by one other speaker this afternoon. That is the anxiety which we feel—particularly speaking on behalf of a county in which there is not a single yard of trunk road—that the Minister, in taking over these large responsibilities for the maintenance of trunk roads, may be tempted, perhaps not during the present five-year programme, perhaps not in the case of schemes which have already been submitted, but in the future, to starve those counties and those local authorities who are not scheduled under the Trunk Roads Bill. I therefore hope that some of these points will receive the consideration of the Minister and that it will be possible for him to accept some modest Amendments on these lines.


My Lords, with reference to what the noble Earl who has just sat down said about meetings that have occurred between Government representatives and the Association of County Councils, I should like to say that I was present at one meeting of the Scottish Association of County Councils with the Minister's representatives and I wish here and now to pay a tribute to the consideration and the fairness shown by the Government officials who met us that day in the various matters that were brought up for discussion. While saying that, however, I cannot admit that the representatives from Scotland are entirely satisfied with this Bill.

One is glad to know that the Government have given assurances that no curtailment will be made in the old money grants which have always been received by the local government road authorities, notwithstanding the fact that the Road Fund now has been absorbed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Whilst not doubting the Government's good faith on this particular question, I would like the noble Viscount who replies to make assurance doubly sure by assuring us that the upkeep of the new trunk roads will be by means of new money, and not by money taken from the sources from which the original Road Fund was derived. At this moment it is rather difficult to understand where this new money is coming from, and if the noble Viscount who replies could state that it will come from the probable increment which is expected from those sources from which the Road Fund derived its money—that is to say, from the increase in the number of licences which grow greater in number every year—then we should be satisfied that there would be some source from which this money would come. But the Government are only human, and one never knows whether, should a money or some other crisis arise, they would be able to give so much to the county council rating authorities as they have done in the past. I repeat, I am not doubting the Government's good faith in the matter, but a time might come when something would cause them to say that it is impossible to produce the same amount of money as in the past.

I desire to associate myself with what was said by the noble Earl who spoke last with regard to bridges. I think that the county councils' responsibility for a cross-road should cease where the loop-road—the clover leaf idea—goes off from this county road. Their responsibility should cease there, and the Government should take all responsibility for the maintenance of the loop roads as well as the approaches to the bridge on each side. I have had some approximate figures worked out. If you take a typical bridge the construction of the approaches would cost from £6,000 to £6,900 and the maintenance £65 per annum. In the case of linking roads, the construction would amount to £4,800 and the maintenance to £128 per annum. I come from a county in Scotland of great traditional and historical value to the country—the County of Ayr. The County of Ayr is probably rich enough to be able to stand the strain of this burden on the ratepayers—and it will be a great burden on the ratepayers—but there are other parts of Scotland which, it seems to me, could not bear the strain nearly so easily as Counties like Ayr or Lanark—such counties, for instance, as one finds in the Highlands, where there are very few ratepayers to whom it would be much more of a burden to carry the maintenance of the side roads that are so necessary in order to cross over the other roads. In my own County there are about ten crossings in fifty-seven miles of trunk roads, and you have to multiply the figures which I have given by ten to arrive at the considerable burden which will be on the ratepayers of the county. I hope the noble Viscount who replies will see his way to concede some measure of help to the ratepayers of my County as well as to the ratepayers of other parts of Scotland.


My Lords, I do not want to say anything that would in the least give the idea that I am opposing this Bill, but I cannot help saying that I do take rather strong exception to the sudden change of policy on the part of the Government. Generally, when they are doing anything with regard to the motorist, they carry their policy to the furthest possible extreme. Now they are stopping half-way just at the moment when they really are doing something which would be of real value. The noble Earl in introducing the Bill explained that the county boroughs were being expressly excluded, but he did not explain why no power was being given to include them at some future date, and why the Government were not giving themselves any power to bring into the Bill roads which at the present moment are lying outside it. He did talk about thinking for the future, but he omitted to explain why the Bill left the road of the future outside its scope at the present moment. I personally cannot see any argument against giving the Government further powers. I know it will be said that the Government can bring in a Bill at a future date to give themselves any powers they require. My answer to that is that the Minister of Transport has already taken vast powers for future use without having the need for a new Bill, and that if the Government let this Bill go as it now stands, a new Bill will be necessary. When the time comes for that Bill the probable answer will be that pressure of Parliament is such that there is no time to pass such a Bill. I cannot see why, when a few moments could be spent now in passing the necessary clause, we should jeopardise the future and make it necessary later on to spend some days in passing a new Bill.


My Lords, I have a certain human sympathy with my noble friend Lord Cecil, who said that he did not find this a very easy Bill to understand. In the midst of a good many other preoccupations I have been trying to understand the Bill, and I must admit that on the face of it it is not a very easy measure to follow in all its details. But I can assure the House there was no intention on the part of the draftsman to make it difficult, like an examination paper. He was trying to make it short, and I am afraid it is quite inevitable that there should be legislation by reference when you have got a whole chain of highway legislation. It is not the fault of this Bill that you have a whole series of Highway Acts going back somewhere into the dim recesses of time; and, unhappily, the highway law of this country is already governed by that chain of Acts. I am afraid there is only one way out of that in order to get something that he who runs may read, and that is at some future time to try to get the whole highway law codified into some more or less reasonable document. That is exactly the trouble with these things. You either have to do some nice, short, algebraical formula, which is exactly what the draftsman with great skill has done here, that puts into one short equation a reference to six Acts of Parliament, or you have to set the whole thing out in longhand. There is no chance of setting it out in longhand if we are to have this Bill. I think that, cumbrous though that single Statute might be, it probably would be a good thing to try to get the highway law into one document if that is a possible thing to do. At any rate my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport, who never shrinks from a herculean task, I believe proposes to set himself that proposition.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, is in a horribly suspicious frame of mind, though I think he is not quite as suspicious of us as he is of his own Party. He suspects our motives, and I am not sure that I am not the villain of the piece. He suspects that the genesis of this Bill was not devotion to Socialism—with that I quite agree—but that it is in some sinister way a part of the defence programme. He suggests that the selected roads lead from munition factories to the ports and that that is the idea at the back of the Bill. That was all quite new to me. The idea of this Bill originated at a time when the attempt to disarm was at its height. The discussions with local authorities as to which roads ought to be included in the scheme go back a good many years. The simple truth was told by my noble friend the Earl of Erne when he said that the Government and local authorities had got together to try to see what were the roads of the country upon which the mass of traffic ran day in, day out throughout the year. I think the map will show that, although the scheme may be criticised here or there, we have achieved a pretty good result in linking up all the great centres of population in the country. That is how the roads were selected. If I were asked on what principle we selected them my answer could be given in two words: "efficiency" and "equity." We want to get an efficient and reasonably uniform system, and we want to do equity to the local authorities. The latter is very important because so many of the great roads go through rather sparsely populated country areas. It seems to me that if a vast trunk road connecting two large towns passes through a rather poor country area it is only fair that it should become a national charge. That is why we are doing what we are doing.

Then the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, asked me if I could give him a financial estimate. I cannot give him a better financial estimate than the one given in the explanatory Memorandum which accompanied the Bill. On these roads last year £1,664,000 was spent, and judging by the generous nature of my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport, I do not think that less is likely to be spent in the future. An exact estimate cannot be given. We want to make these roads really good and there will be an estimate produced every year. It is only in the annual estimates as they come forward that you can get the programme of expenditure for the year. I think it was the noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, who asked for an assurance that we really meant what we said when we promised that we would not reduce the rate of giant which has been given to the local authorities for the roads they maintain. We did mean that and we do mean that. The five-year programme will go on in its entirety. I can assure my noble friend that it would be no safeguard to treat the Road Fund as a road fund. Having an assigned revenue has not always in the past been a complete guarantee that that revenue would never be touched for other purposes. It is not a good system of finance to have assigned revenue. I think it is much sounder to hold the Government to their pledge, and to hold the Chancellor of the Exchequer firmly to his pledge, that there will not be a reduction of the rates of grant or any change in the spirit in which these grants are given.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, also asked whether we meant delegation to be the regular procedure under Clause 5. My answer is that most certainly we do. The first part of Clause 5 gives the Minister power to make his arrangements with local authorities, but the noble Lord will see in the latter part of Clause 5 that there is power for the Minister to make an order during the first two years to the local authorities to carry on for him. That shows that delegation is to be the order of the day, because we propose to maintain continuity by Order pending agreement. I may say that it will not be at all an arbitrary Order. The Ministry of Transport is already in touch with the local authorities as to the form that the Order shall take. There will therefore be what I may call agreed instructions. While we shall get the services of the local authorities the Minister will be able to ensure uniformity of practice, and I do not think my noble friend need be anxious that the keen local authority will be left in the lurch. I do not think he need anticipate that the standard of maintenance and development of roads will be the standard of the lowest local authority. It is much more likely to be the standard of the highest. One reason why this Bill is necessary is that there has been such a variety of standards on the main roads. That is not necessarily a matter of blame to the local authorities. You cannot expect a poor local authority to expend a lot of money on an important main road which, though it runs through the county, may not be the most important county road. It is in order that we may have a high standard that this Bill has been introduced.

Now may I say a word about safety? When my noble friend mentioned safety in the latter part of his speech I am sure it was, not done just by way of peroration. Safety is a matter which obviously is present to our minds all the time. It could not be otherwise. I think the toll of the roads is quite terrible. Perhaps I ought not to say it, but I was going to say that if you could take a given number of miles of roads as compared with the same number of miles in the air, I am not at all sure that the air is not safer than the road to-day. Certainly I often feel a great deal safer flying in the air to-day than I feel driving on some of these roads at the week-end. True, there are no safety provisions in terms in this Bill, and, as my noble friend said, there really could not be. He said, indeed, that if we were to debate this question of safety—and the Government would welcome such a debate—it would be more appropriate to do so on a special Motion than on the Second Heading of this Bill. That really means that special provisions about safety could not find a place in this Bill. That is true, but one of the objects of this Bill is, indeed, to ensure safety.

Take the dangers that exist on these roads. A very common one is lack of footpaths. I think it is a terribly dangerous thing that people should have to use these great trunk roads, particularly at night, as their means of going on foot from house to house, and should only be able to get out of the way of a motor car by climbing on to the grass at the side—if grass there be. The division in the road, separating by some bar the traffic going one way from the traffic going the other, makes people drive carefully and prevents them cutting in and out; this is very important. The bicycle track along the side of the road is another means of safety—though it seems to be about the most difficult thing in the world to get the bicyclists to use such a track when you make it for them. Other safety provisions are proper approaches into the road, the "over-and-under," the tracking of the smaller road at a proper angle into the road, and another thing which my noble friend mentioned, a kind of parallel to the railways—signals.

I shall be interested to hear from him on another occasion how he develops certain plans he has in mind, but we have gone some way. We have now these traffic lights, which are like the signals on railways and do, I think, greatly make for safety. We have other signs as well, and we can on these national roads get uniformity of signs and uniformity in the use of those signs. I think that is important, because if there is variety and a large number of different signs are put up simply by the idiosyncrasy of a local authority, a motorist does not pay so much attention to a sign as if he knows that the sign is put up for a real purpose at a suitable place. You can, at any rate, be much stiffer with him if he disregards what comes to be a uniform national sign. All these are things that do not find a place in any clause of this Bill; they would not be appropriate; but they are all things which it is our intention to do under this Bill and which without this Bill we could not do. I believe therefore that, so far from this Bill not considering safety, it will be the foundation of much greater safety. You cannot get safety all in a moment; it is going to take time to get these roads right; but the ideal towards which we move is, I hope and believe, not simply the ideal of making these roads great speedways along which people can hurtle at any speed. You can facilitate traffic, you can make fast driving safer, but above all you make the road a safer place for anybody who goes upon it at any time. Without this Bill you could not do that.

Now, next to that, not so important but still important, is the question of amenities. My noble friend Lord Crawford mentioned the desirability of using by-passes more, and said that if you have an attractive village you do not want to widen it all out and take all the attraction away from it. I quite agree, and my noble friend will see that in this way a power is given to the Minister to make these by-passes and bring them into the trunk roads; and then what has before been the trunk road passes back into the hands of the local authority and becomes the smaller country road. I have no doubt that power will be used.

Then the noble Earl talked about the bane of uniformity. This is not an easy matter. You have to strike a balance between getting a road which has the safety which my noble friend Lord Cecil wants, getting the traffic facility which is necessary upon a great trunk road, and not making the thing a horrible, ugly eyesore. You must have a certain amount of uniformity and a good deal of uniformity in order to get the conditions of safety and traffic facility. At the same time I do not think a uniform road, a road which is uniform in size, need necessarily be a hideous thing. Trees can be planted along it. Do not let us be afraid of taking enough space to do that. I think the Ministry of Transport and many of the great authorities have already done a good deal to make our roads much more attractive by planting trees along them. I was going along a road the other day which was bordered by masses of flowering trees which were extraordinarily attractive. The peaches had not done very well, but there were plum trees and pear trees. I had always been told that you could never do that in England because people would pick the blossoms, but I do not think there was a sign of that, any more than there is a sign of people picking flowers in the parks. I am sure that it will be the Minister's aim, while making the roads uniform if it is necessary, yet to make them at the same time, by planting and so on, as attractive as may be.

Viscount Bertie raised a question which I think he would do better to raise at the Committee stage, when certain special parts of the Schedule are being considered. In particular he said that a right of appeal is done away with. I think that is true in certain cases, and the reason is that if you are to have a central road authority, whether it is the Minister or whether it is a Central Board, questions of the general efficiency of the road, the maintenance of the road, the character of the road, and so on, surely must be within the Minister's discretion. If not, if there is a constant appeal from him—and I really do not quite know to whom it would be—you would not get uniformity.


It is the appeal to Quarter Sessions that is being done away with, and if these provisions were not contained in the Bill there would still be a right of appeal to Quarter Sessions.


No doubt my noble friend will raise this question at the Committee stage, when I can deal with it in detail. I was going to point out to him, first, that if you are to have a single road authority for your trunk roads I think you must give that authority the effective control of those roads in matters of size, design and the land to be acquired. When, however, you come to questions of compensation, then I think it is a wholly different matter. That was a question I specially asked. I cannot pretend to have verified every single clause in the Bill to find out the answer, but in every case where the Minister is given a right either to acquire land or to do something on land, in every case in which a person could suffer financial damage or in which his land is acquired, I asked specifically: "Is there any such case where the Minister is a judge in his own cause as to what he pays? I was assured that in no case was that so, but that in every case where finance is involved, any case of damage to land or purchase of land, there is an appeal to the official arbitrator. I think that is important.

Lord Rockley asked whether a consultation could take place with the Council for the Preservation of Rural England. The Minister has stated that he would be very glad on all appropriate occasions to consult with that body. Lord Elgin put in a three-fold claim. One I have dealt with. He made an appeal, like Lord Glasgow, that roads other than trunk roads should not be starved. He has got a firm undertaking about that. He also put in a claim the greed of which really amazed me. I was expecting some miserable English Peer to get up and ask why in a Bill which dealt with 4,500 miles of road, did Scotland get 1,200 miles. There used to be an old formula that Scotland got 11/80ths. They seem to have come off a good deal better in this Bill, and I do not think that they have a very great claim to come in and ask for more.


My proposal was to put in fewer roads rather than more.


I thought it was the other way about. I think my noble friend had two complaints. I know about his bridge road—the Queensferry Road over which a very attractive bridge has been built.


May I explain? The point is this: That in the Bill the road going north from Edinburgh to Perth goes by Linlithgow and Stirling and Dunblane, and is seventy miles long. The great historic road goes by way of Queensferry and Glenfarg, and is forty-five miles long, and it should be the road linking up Edinburgh and Perth.


I think that this point might be more specifically dealt with on the Committee stage. I thought it was the other road. I should have thought myself that it was more practical to have a road which the main mass of traffic must go along, because it does not have to go over a ferry, than to have a road which goes over a ferry, but if the noble Earl will raise the point on the Committee stage I will be more precisely instructed in it.


I am very glad to have the noble Viscount's encouragement, and to think that I may put down an Amendment.


I was not giving the noble Earl the least encouragement, but only offering him some information for what is is worth. I cannot hold out any hope that this list will be altered. If we once begin to alter it, then everybody would come along to say that they wanted this or that road. Again, the suggestion is made, I think by Lord Sandhurst, that we ought to have taken power to add roads at any time. I think that is a perfectly impossible proposal. Our proposal is that we should see how this list works, and at the end of five years, which coincides with the block grant period—far be it from me to use such an objectionable verb as my noble friend used!—come forward, if there is justification for it, and ask approval for additions to be made. If we were to do it in the way suggested the Minister of Transport's life would be made unbearable. So also would be the life of most of your Lordships, and of every member in the other House. Every local authority and every interest would come all the time begging the local member to try to get this or that bit of road put into the trunk roads. We should have lobbying worse than in regard to any tariff. I am sure we have taken the right line in having a skeleton put in the Bill and adding to it, if necessary, at regular periods.

Then, the reason why county boroughs are excluded from the scope of this Bill goes back to the 1929 Act. Their classified roads were included in the scope of the block grant when the county roads remained under the old system of percentage grants. They were so treated because I believe they wanted to be so treated. In the boroughs the trunk roads are really the main streets of towns, and I do not think the county boroughs as a whole are asking for different treatment from that accorded in the Bill. They did a pretty good deal with the Chancellor of the Exchequer when the 1929 Act was passed, and if we reopen the question of bringing in their roads, we should have to reopen that financial deal. I think that hardly any one of them would wish to see that done. I am afraid I have spoken at some length, but a great many points were raised in the course of the debate. I hope I have dealt with nearly all of them, but there will be a further opportunity on the Committee stage, which we will gladly take on Monday. I think the satisfactory thing is that, while suggestions have been made, there is complete unanimity that this Bill is a good one to pass.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.