HL Deb 31 March 1938 vol 108 cc543-53

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time, and may I, in doing so, crave that indulgence which I understand is always accorded to members of your Lordships' House who address your Lordships for the first time? After ten years of silence in the Whips' Office in another place, I feel that my task is certainly more diffi- cult. The object of the Bill is to enable local authorities to close certain suitable streets at certain suitable times, in order that they may be used as playgrounds for children. The Bill was introduced into another place on December rip last by Mr. Perkins, the Member for the Stroud Division of Gloucestershire, and it there received unanimously a Second Reading. At the end of some eight speeches the Minister of Transport addressed the House and said that the Ministry would welcome the Bill.

Before coming to the details I would say a word about the problem which has given rise to the need for some such legislation as is proposed. In all the big towns and cities of the country, especially in the North of England, there are hundreds, nay, thousands of children of poor parents who, because there are no playing fields near their homes, are forced to go out and play in the streets. It is the fact that it is not from any choice on their part, unless it be Hobson's choice, that they have to do this. The simple reason is that there are no playing fields or playgrounds near the homes where they live. It is easy in such circumstances to picture the haunting fear of the parents day by day, and all day, lest some calamity should befall them. Nor is that haunting dread an idle one, if one looks at the figures of streets accidents. I have made inquiries, but there were certain figures given in the debate in another place which I will take. In the ten years from 1924 to 1933 inclusive, over 12,000 boys and girls under fifteen years of age were killed in the streets in England and Wales alone, and over 300,000 mutilated or injured. This Bill may prove to be no solution of the problem suggested by these terrible figures, yet I think it will make some contribution towards reducing these figures and allowing children to play in greater safety. There is no new principle in the Bill, because three of the largest towns—Birmingham, Salford and Manchester—have already been to Parliament and asked for provisions similar to those contained in this Bill. They did so by Private Bill legislation, and one of the main purposes of the Bill now before your Lordships is to enable all local authorities to have those rights which this measure, if passed into law, will give them, and to be saved the task of bringing in Private Bill legislation.

May I now turn to the Bill itself? Clause r sets out the local authorities which are concerned. In England and Wales, except for London, the councils of counties, county boroughs, boroughs or urban districts are the local authorities involved. In London it is the council of the Metropolitan borough which may be concerned, because it is the highway authority; and in Scotland the county council and the town council of a burgh. There is a proviso at the end of subsection (1) of Clause r to which I very much wish to draw your Lordships' attention: Provided that an order made under this section with respect to any road shall make provision for permitting reasonable access to premises situated on or adjacent to the road. That I conceive to be a very important proviso, more especially when you remember that a little later on in the Bill there are certain penalties. Subsection (2) of Clause 1 provides a second safeguard for the ordinary user of the road. It says that the Minister himself must confirm the order before it becomes operative, and your Lordships will notice that the Minister may confirm the order either with or without modifications. Subsection (2) also provides a second safeguard—namely, that after the local authority has made an order closing a street to be used as a playground it cannot be confirmed by the Minister of Transport until twenty-eight days have elapsed. This is in order that all reasonable objections may be heard and considered, and that, if necessary, a public inquiry may take place. Clause 1 (5) imposes a maximum penalty of £5 for a first offence and £10 for a second or subsequent offence on any person who uses a vehicle or permits a vehicle to be used in contravention of an order made under this clause.

Clause 2 enables the appropriate authority to make by-laws to secure the proper and orderly use of any street in respect of which an order has been made under Clause 1; and by subsection (2) of Clause 2 these by-laws must also be con- firmed by the Minister of Transport. That is important because it not only makes an additional safeguard, but I submit that it would tend to give us that uniformity throughout the country which will be of great importance. Clause 3 contains provisions as to public inquiries, and I am told that the first two sub- sections are based on subsections (2) and (3) of Section 290 of the Local Govern-merit Act, 1933. The remaining subsections follow subsection (2) of Section 47 of the Road and Rail Traffic Act, 1933, which deals with the costs incurred in connection with inquiries held by the Minister. Clause 4 governs the Bill in its application to Scotland, and Clause 5 is the short title.

I will sum up now what may be said in favour of this measure. In the first place, I submit that it will make a great contribution towards enabling the children of poor parents to whom I have referred to play in greater safety. Secondly, I think it will reduce the number of fatal accidents, which at present number well over 1,000 a year, in addition to the children who are maimed and injured. I submit that there are proper safeguards in the Bill. It may be that more are needed, in which case they can be considered in Committee. These safeguards are, first, that the Minister of Transport himself must confirm, not only the order but every by-law made by every local authority in the country; secondly, that a period of twenty-eight days must elapse before the order by the local authority is confirmed by the Minister; and, thirdly, that the proviso in Clause 1 gives a proper safeguard for reasonable access to the roads, enabling anyone who lives in a road which is shut up to arrive at his house, to depart from it, to enable the doctor and various other people, who may quite properly want to use the road although it has been closed, to gain access to it. This Bill has passed through another place, where it was held to be non-controversial, and I hope very much that your Lordships will give it a Second Reading to-clay. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Denham.)


My Lords, my noble friends have asked me to say that we support the Bill, as our honourable friends did in another place, and I am very happy indeed to be able to congratulate the noble Lord on his maiden speech and on the very efficient and lucid way in which he has introduced this measure. I am sure I carry all your Lordships with me in saying what an acquisition the noble Lord is to your Lordships' House, and we hope that after having broken the ice he will take the plunge many times. With regard to the Bill I have only two things to say. One is that of course it must be recognised that this is no substitute for proper playgrounds and playing fields, and I am sure the noble Lord would be the last to wish to see any slackening in the efforts made to provide adequate space for children to play in. I know I carry the President of the Board of Education with me in that. The second thing is this. I am always horrified when I see young boys on roller skates on the public roads. It is a terrifying sight, and if I am motoring I begin to shiver the moment I see them. But you cannot put old heads on young shoulders, and the police (and you cannot blame them) turn a blind eye on this misdemeanour—for such it is. Of course, the children have nowhere else where they can take their recreation. I hope, however, that when sufficient of these suitable streets are closed there will be a tightening up of the law, because I am sure this practice must lead to accidents. When the Bill comes into operation and certain streets are closed I hope that the local police will he more stringent in preventing the use of other streets for this very reprehensible practice.


My Lords, on behalf of the noble Lords who sit on these Benches I desire to say that we also support the Bill. There is one important point which I hope the noble Earl who is going to reply for the Government will deal with when he comes to speak. The Conjoint Conference of Public Utility Associations, which represents the authorities concerned with the supply of gas, water and electricity, has to be certain that they will have reasonable access to these scheduled streets for the ordinary maintenance and repair facilities which they need. This of course also applies to telephone lines and cables and sewers. In order to avoid putting down an Amendment to the Bill we understand from the Ministry of Transport that they will be prepared to give an undertaking now, that in any Provisional Order made under the Bill the common form which is used under the Road Traffic Act will be employed on the following lines: Nothing in this Order shall prevent the driving upon the said road of any vehicle which is being used in connection with the maintenance, improvement, or reconstruction of the said road, or the laying, erection, alteration or repair in or near to the said road of any sewer or of any main, pipe, or apparatus for the supply of gas, water, electricity, or any telegraph or telephone wires, cables, posts or supports. If we are given an assurance that the Provisional Orders shall include such a proviso it will obviate any necessity for putting down an Amendment on the Committee stage.


My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken, I am quite ready to welcome the introduction of this Bill, and would congratulate my noble friend on the way in which he has introduced it. He was not very specific about a point which is puzzling me, and that is just what roads this will apply to. I think of the roads I know, and find it very hard to pick out one—I am referring to country roads—and say, "This road can he closed for several hours every day to be used as a playground for children." If my noble friend is dealing with the matter at any later stage, I hope he will be more explicit as to the class of road to which this is going to apply. A point was raised about roller skates. I am afraid it is not going to make very much difference to roller skaters. The last thing I can see the users of roller skates doing is confining themselves to a small area used as a playground. What I particularly want to say is that I have a certain number of Amendments here that I am going to put down on behalf of the County Councils' Association, and I hope my noble friend will give them favourable consideration.


My Lords, I also venture warmly to support this Bill. It is very refreshing to have a Bill which is not a Party measure and one in which the whole House can join in support. It is undoubtedly a very useful little Bill. Fresh air and good food seem to go together, and this Bill would undoubtedly be a great advantage to the children concerned. If I may say a word from the motoring point of view, I believe the motoring community as a whole welcome the Bill because it will tend to keep children out of the streets and out of danger to some extent. I would like to couple with that observation that wise discretion must, of course, be shown as to which roads are going to be closed, and it must be made perfectly clear in the Bill that Class 1 roads will not be scheduled. From one point of view this Bill is not an experimental measure because, as was pointed out by the noble Lord who moved the Second Reading, the principle has been adopted and put into operation successfully by certain of our larger corporations. This Bill really gives us food for thought. If we are going to have a national housing policy, we ought to have a national playground policy in due course. This is part of a child's life, and great attention ought to be paid to that side of the question.

So far as I have been able to see, there are only two objections to the Bill. One is the objection of noise. We associate health in youth with considerable noise. The more noise, perhaps, the greater pleasure and probably the greater good for the child, but it does not follow that it will bring greater satisfaction to the householders living in a street which has been closed and is being used as a playground. The other objection that I see in it is that this power might be used by certain local authorities to close a street or two and thus evade their right and proper obligation to provide the children with suitable playgrounds. It is utterly appalling to think that no fewer than 12,000 young children have been killed in the years between 1922 and 1933 and over 300,000 seriously injured. That alone seems to justify the introduction of this Bill. Then there is the other side of it. According to the criminal statistics for 1935, over 2,000 young persons under the age of seventeen were found guilty of playing in the streets. What an offence! Found guilty of playing in the streets! It does really constitute a reproach on us and on our system of government that no fewer than 2,000 young persons can be officially found guilty of playing in the streets.

The noble Lord who preceded me referred to certain amendments which ought to be made in this Bill. I do not want to take up the time of the House in referring to them at any length. It is quite clear that classified roads should not be used for this purpose, or any road that forms a link between two important roads on our highway system. I must say it is unlikely that such a road would be chosen, but that sort of point ought to be made clear in the Bill. Then, again, certain small local authorities like urban district councils, with a population of round about 20,000, will have the power to close certain roads subject to certain safeguards. Money for these roads generally comes largely out of the county council's purse, and therefore I feel not only that the county council, as the larger authority, should be consulted but that the consent of that body should be required. Then all persons affected ought to have an opportunity of expressing their views. I expect a good many of them would be opposed to closing, but even if they be over-ruled in the interests of the community as a whole, they ought to be allowed ample opportunity of expressing their views. In conclusion, I would, with great respect, congratulate my noble friend on this non-controversial measure which he has introduced in his maiden effort and thank him for doing so and heartily support the measure.


My Lords, like the speakers who preceded me, I am delighted to welcome a Bill of this sort, provided the need can be proved and provided other consequences of a more serious nature do not follow in its train. Every one of us who is a road user of any description must sympathise with the small children who have nowhere to go except, perhaps, a back street for the playing of their various games. We must all of us be anxious to see that they have just the same sort of facilities to play their games as the more fortunate of us had when we were young. Everybody must want to see adequate playgrounds. But I confess to a certain doubt as to whether it would be a good thing in principle that children should get into the habit, as they may well do under this Bill, of playing on the highway. We all know the terrible casualty roll. The noble Lord who introduced the Bill referred to the number of road accidents to small children. That number is sufficiently serious to make us think. Anything that gets small children into the habit of playing more on the highway than they do already might be followed by very serious results. The best we can do is to hope that it will not.

There are several questions arising on the Bill. The noble Lord who introduced it told us this plan had already been tried in Manchester, Birmingham, and Salford. That is so, but he did not tell us what the results of these experiments have been. I do not know whether the noble Lord who is going to speak for the Government will be able to say what the results of these experiments have been in these great cities. The Bill has also been tried in London—that is to say, certain streets in Paddington have already been brought within the ambit of the Bill. I understand that the experiment in Paddington at any rate has not been an unqualified success. I am told that it has met with the most whole-hearted opposition from many of the householders who are affected by it. I do not know whether that has been the experience of the northern cities to which I have referred. In Clause 1 of the Bill a "vehicle" is alluded to. What is a vehicle under this Bill? Is a bicycle a vehicle, and if so are the streets to be closed to cyclists? Is it proposed that cyclists who live in them are not to be able to use their cycles in the street either to get to work or to get home again? I should rather have liked to hear what is meant by a vehicle. I presume a bicycle would be covered by that expression.

Another point is this. Will these streets be sign-posted? That is very important in a large town like, say, Salford, where the experiment has been tried. Have any sign-posts been put up in Salford, Birmingham and Manchester to direct traffic as to whether streets are subject to closing, and if so what streets? I think a great deat depends in this Bill on the way in which the Minister carries out his obligations under it. The Minister should be careful to see that on no account, as the noble Lord who preceded me has already said, is any through route, any Class r road subjected to this Bill and closed under it. If this Bill merely refers, as I think it probably will in its working, to the back streets in our great cities, I dare say there is a good deal to be said for it. At the same time I think we want to be careful that we do not make things worse by trying to make them better. There is one other point that I am particularly anxious about, and that is that due notice should be given of any intention to close a road, and, as the noble Lord who preceded me has said, that all interests, the householders and organisations generally that may be affected, shall have every opportunity to put their case forward. I dare say it may be that from time to time orders made under this Bill may have to be subject to revision. I am not going to oppose the Bill, but I may have to put down one or two Amendments later. It rather depends upon what the noble Earl who replies for the Government is able to tell us.


My Lords, I happen to live in a back street which might be considered suitable for conversion into a children's playground, but I do not for a moment oppose the Bill. I welcome it, and I welcome the speech of the noble Lord who moved the Second Reading. At the same time I trust I shall not seem unduly neglectful of the interests of children if I seem particularly sensitive of the feelings of the inhabitants who dwell in the streets concerned. I would ask the noble Lord whether he would consider putting into the Bill a provision as to the maximum number of hours during which a street might remain open as a children's playground. I would request the noble Lord to consider what would happen during the school holidays if the street is open, it may be, for four or five hours during the day. It will be an excessive hardship upon the residents in those streets, especially if they are aged or infirm, and more especially if they are sick. I would therefore suggest that he should give his earnest consideration to the insertion of a provision limiting the number of hours during which a street could be used as a children's playground specifically to, say, three or four a day. The noise made by children playing in back streets is already quite considerable, and those who are in good health are able to take great delight in the noise they make. It is pleasant to hear children enjoying themselves. But, as has been stressed from various quarters of the House, the strain upon one's patience becomes rather acute when the noise continues for a very long period. I have brought forward these suggestions for consideration by the House with a view to the possible amendment of the Bill at a later stage.


My Lords, I should like to associate myself with other noble Lords who have congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Denham, on his very admirable maiden speech. I am glad to give the assurance for which the noble Viscount, Lord Mersey, asked, that exemptions will be included in orders made under the Bill in all appropriate cases. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, asked me if these playing grounds will be sign-posted. I can assure him they will be sign-posted. I am not absolutely certain whether they are sign-posted in the towns where the experiment has already been tried, but I can assure him that they will be sign-posted. I am not able at this short notice to give him an answer to the question as to what results have come from the places where this experiment has so far been tried, but I rather gather that it is a case of the children going off the main streets, which are being used by traffic, into a safety zone, as it may be called. I think that is a fairly sound argument against his argument that it would be a source of danger to have children playing in the road.

I am confident that the Bill will commend itself in principle to all members of your Lordships' House. It will help to secure some facilities for recreation in areas where they are most needed and where the more adequate provision for this purpose which we should all like to see cannot, for the moment, be made. I am sure we would all like to see facilities of that kind made. As I have already said to my noble friend Lord Howe, in addition this Bill provides a contribution towards the safety of children not only by affording them security in any streets which may be set: aside as play streets, but by attracting them from other streets where they are more likely to come to harm. I think that the safeguards in this Bill against any arbitrary or unwise exercise by local authorities of the powers proposed to be conferred on them are adequate, but this in any case is a matter to be discussed in Committee, if necessary. On behalf of the Government I support the Second Reading of this Bill, and confidently hope that it will pass without difficulty through all stages in your Lordships' House.


Could the noble Earl tell us whether the policy of the Minister of Transport will be not to apply this Bill to through routes, Class 1 roads?


Definitely, yes.

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