HL Deb 17 February 1949 vol 160 cc1005-20

6.24 p.m.

THE DUKE OF DEVONSHIRE rose to ask His Majesty's Government what is their policy with regard to road and street planting; what Department is at present dealing with this subject; whether they will reconsider their attitude towards the Roads Beautifying Association; and to move for Papers. The noble Duke said: My Lords, I make no apology, even at this late hour, for raising this subject, because it is one of very great importance. On what is done in the next few years will largely depend the aspect of England 100, 200 or perhaps 300 years hence. We have been discussing a Bill affecting roads this afternoon. How those roads are planted, and how the lay-out is worked, is a matter of vital importance now.

This business of planting trees alongside roads is very difficult and highly technical. It requires the most expert advice. There are a great many pitfalls. You can fall into error in many ways. You can fall into error concerning the kind of tree to plant, having regard to the particular soil or the climatic conditions. You can plant trees which will not have room to develop properly and which will be a constant source of trouble and expense. In these days of petrol restrictions, we do not have much chance of travelling about the country by motor car, but I did have the opportunity of driving along the Great West Road the other day and at one place—I believe it was somewhere in the vicinity of Ealing—I saw a most lamentable sight. The local authority has used birch trees for roadside planting. I suppose there is no lovelier tree than our native English birch, given a proper chance to develop. But, in this instance, the local authority had seen fit to plant the trees under telegraph wires. The result was that they had had to be sawn off horizontally, about twelve feet from the ground. It was a dreadful and horrible sight: a greater eyesore it would be difficult to imagine. As I say, this planting of roadside trees is a matter which requires expert advice.

Some years ago—it was in 1928, I think—the then Minister of Transport, Lord Mount Temple, brought the Roads Beautifying Association into being. He found a man of whom think it is not too much to say that he was a man of genius, Dr. Wilfrid Fox—and he has really been the driving force of the Roads Beautifying Association. He became the Honorary Secretary of the Association and collected around him a band of people who were real experts, and who devoted a great deal of time and trouble to the work of the Association. The Association was, of course, purely voluntary—that is to say, it existed, and local authorities could either go to it or not go to it. I think the Association may be said to have done its work well because it never once lost a client. Once a public authority, whether a borough council or a county council, approached the Association they invariably continued to make use of it and became subscribers.

We had men of real knowledge and experience, such as Lionel de Rothschild, who was Chairman of the Royal Horticultural Society, Mr. F. R. S. Balfour, Sir Arthur Hill, Mr. W. J. Bean (author of that great standard book Trees and Hardy Shrubs in the British Isles), Colonel Stern, who knows a great deal about planting in chalky soils, Mr. Cotton, who was the keeper of the herbarium at Kew and is now the President of the Linnèan Society, Mr. Gardner, Secretary of the English Forestry Association, Sir Charles Bressey, a very eminent road engineer, Lord Aberconway, who is now President of the Royal Horticultural Society, Sir Edward Salisbury, the present Director of Kew, Lord Robinson, and also representatives of the A.A., the R.A.C., the British Road Federation, representatives of Kew Gardens and (this is very important) representatives of the nursery trade, such as the Hilliers, father and son, who gave a great deal of time and trouble to the work of the Association and whose advice was of the greatest value. Not only have such gentlemen a tremendous knowledge of what to plant and where, but they also know where the right trees are available. I remember that we were once consulted by the Cumberland County Council about a windswept and spray-swept stretch of road. We recommended a particular tree for this which we thought would thrive. Mr. Hillier thought it was excellent, but that the combined resources of the trade could not, without some years' notice, produce one-tenth of the number of trees required. In that way the Association was able to give valuable service.

We went on for some years on these lines, constantly increasing our circle of acquaintances among local authorities and doing more and more work, until, in 1937, we were given a grant from the Ministry of £200 a year and local authorities were urged to consult us. In 1944, when Mr. Noel-Baker was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry, he invited us to formulate plans by which our powers would be considerably increased. Mr. Noel-Baker was going to suggest that we should have executive powers as well as the advisory function we were already performing. But then a change of Government took place, and all this came to an end.

The Association (perhaps rather rashly), in order to advertise the fact that we were in existence, and that our advice was available, held a sherry party and, still more rashly, invited the Minister to it. As I watched the Association's sherry going down his throat, I almost saw the mental processes going on inside his mind. He was thinking, "This will not do at all. Here are people who know their jobs doing something for nothing. This might be of advantage to 'the boys.' It might be one of their 'rackets.'" Soon after that, out of the blue, with what I might call brutal rudeness, the Minister dismissed Dr. Fox. Dr. Fox had done a tremendous work over a period of twenty years, and had devoted his great knowledge and an enormous amount of time and energy to his job. The Minister spoke very disparagingly of the work of the Association and told us to get rid of him. He also told us that the small subsidy of £200 a year would be discontinued, and that local authorities would in future be told to come to the Ministry, which was setting up its own department to advise on road planting.

I want to ask the noble Earl who is to reply what this service is costing. I understand that two officials are employed, at a cost of between £1,500 and £1,800 a year, and they must have their own staff—clerks, secretaries, typists, draftsmen and so on—and any of us who have had any experience of Government affairs realise that the cost of that increases year by year. What is being spent now and what services are being obtained? I want to know why this sudden change of attitude took place. What had the Roads Beautifying Association done to incur what seemed to be the very definite hostility of the Government? Maybe, since I was President of this Association, the Government did not like Dukes, or did they not approve of people who really knew their jobs? They certainly did not like something about the Association. When we found we had been dismissed, Dr. Fox was greatly discouraged. We felt it was no good trying to fight the Government and the Minister, so we called a meeting to wind up the Association.

At that meeting I put it from the chair that the Association be wound up. It was unanimously rejected. And, if I remember rightly, an Amendment moved by the county surveyor of Hertfordshire and seconded by the county surveyor of Surrey, that the Association be temporarily carried on, was passed unanimously. Since that time the County Councils' Association have repeatedly asked the Minister that the Roads Beautifying Association might be kept in being, and have asked to consult that body instead of his officials. At first I thought it was a case of "a job for the boys," but I did the Government an injustice. They did not get an old retired trade unionist for the job, but gave it to a young man from Kew, in his early twenties, who had done fifteen months' training at Kew before the war and who, during the war, had something to do with sowing grass on aerodromes. This young man was put in the place of a body with the experience and accumulated wisdom of the Roads Beautifying Association. He was a brilliant young man, but he could not get anything done because he was so tied up with red tape; and after a year he resigned and went back to Kew.

I do not know who the Government experts are now. A new advisory body was to have been set up. The noble Lord, Lord Aberconway, agreed to be chairman and we were to have some representation. From what I am told, this new body has never come into being, and, for reasons of economy, is being held in abeyance. Whom do the Government employ to give advice to local authorities? It is a matter of vital importance, because a mistake is not easily rectified, and pitfalls are numerous. Such trees as laburnum or flowering cherry, which can make an extraordinarily beautiful picture of an urban or suburban street, can be an absolute outrage in a bit of unspoiled English countryside. There are a great many questions of that kind, and in the combined wisdom and experience of our Association the Minister had a useful instrument which he could have utilised.

I do not say that the Roads Beautifying Association is the best body. But I do not think a young man can possibly have the knowledge or experience which the members of that body had. I resent the way in which, after years of service, Dr. Fox was thrown aside and a young official appointed in his place. The Association's system, when approached by a local authority for advice, was to send a panel of three or four members to the spot, to go over every inch of the ground, to examine the soil, what verges there would be and how much room there would be. This panel made recommendations which went before the whole technical sub-committee, which then advised the local authority, who might take that advice or not, as they pleased. Now they have to go to an officer who cannot have the breadth of knowledge and accumulated experience which was available in the Association. I ask the Government what this service is costing and what their plans are for its future. I should rather like to hear the views of the noble Lord who sits beside me, because in fact the views of the present Government are worth about as much as Tumbledown Dick's in the closing months of 1659.


My Lords, the beauty of Great Britain has been for many years a steadily wasting asset. Societies like the Council for the Preservation of Rural England have been valiantly trying to stem the tide of waste, but it is high time that we had something more positive to increase the beauty of our main roads. The Roads Beautifying Association have been pioneers. Examples of their achievements are the Colchester by-pass, the Guildford-Godalming by-pass, the Oxford-Woodstock road, the Henley-Oxford road at Bix, the Romsey by-pass, the Woodbridge by-pass and the Leicester City road. I should like to add to the tribute already paid by the noble Duke to the great value of the long service of Dr. Wilfrid Fox.

But what of the future? We are facing great developments. First, there is the construction of the new motorways, of which we have heard this afternoon. That will be undertaken by the Ministry of Transport. Then there is the improvement of trunk roads. That will be paid for by the Ministry, and the work will be carried out by the various county authorities. Other first-class roads will be the responsibility of the local authorities, but I understand that they will receive percentage grants from the Ministry of Transport. Let me ask your Lordships briefly to consider what is required under each of those headings. The great motor roads will be entirely new. There is no need in this small country for those roads to be constructed for very great speed, like the Pennsylvanian Turnpike in America. By all means let us avoid the German autobahn, which ruthlessly overrides the land forms for the sake of maximum speed. What we want is rather what the Americans call the fitted highway—the road which is adapted to the configuration of the district through which it passes. The new motor road should combine a high degree of efficiency with speed, comfort and general pleasure. The fitted highway, gently winding in response to existing forms, may be slightly longer between two given points than the inflexible autobahn, but it will be less costly, both in construction and maintenance, and will easily admit of a speed of 75 miles an hour without fatigue or boredom. Further, the cruising speed of cars along these roads will prohibit any detailed examination of specimens along the roadside. Anything like an elaborate collection of rare and interesting trees and shrubs will be out of place, except possibly at parking places and road junctions.

I must not go into details. I hope I have said enough to illustrate the importance of obtaining the right kind of technical advice from the outset. Both as regards the siting of the roads and the roadside planting, what we really need is the advice of a good practical landscape architect. As to the plants to be chosen, the details of planting and the upkeep, what is required is the help of a small committee, including expert horticul- turists. These considerations also apply, with appropriate modifications, to the trunk roads and the first-class roads. A good deal of work is still desirable in connection with the trunk roads of the country. Various improvements should be considered. Why, for example, should the two carriageways always be so close together? Why should there not be, for some length at least, a break of, say, 100 feet between them, with well-designed planting which would obviate dazzle at night? I must not detain your Lordships at this late hour on further points of this sort. They are points which may well be referred to a competent landscape architect. The honorary secretary of the Institute of Landscape Architects, Miss Brenda Colvin, last year published a very interesting book under the title Land and Landscape, which some of your Lordships may have read. That book seems to me to indicate the kind of help needed in connection with the improvement of our trunk roads.

As regards the other first-class roads, which are the responsibility of the county authorities, less planting will be required because the countryside has been less disturbed. I am glad to know that the Minister of Transport takes a keen interest in the whole subject. I should like very strongly to support the noble Duke in asking that the Committee which the Minister has in mind to form should be formed without delay. Such a Committee would naturally include representatives of the Roads Beautifying Association, of the Institute of Landscape Architects and of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England. I am delighted to hear that Lord Aberconway may be the chairman; no better chairman could be found. I hope this Committee will meet at once and work out for the Minister a set-up and a scheme for securing appropriate and economical treatment and upkeep of roadside planting.

I would venture to offer two or three suggestions for the consideration of that Committee when it meets. The first is that the Minister of Transport should keep in close touch with the Institute of Landscape Architects and retain one or more landscape architects in the capacity of consultant. A good landscape architect should be employed from the outset in siting and planting these great new motor roads, and a good landscape architect should also be available from time to time for consultation in connection with the trunk roads and the first-class roads in the counties. Detailed work on these will be undertaken, not by the Ministry, but under the officers of the local county authorities. In addition to the advice of a landscape architect, called in as occasion requires, each county, I suggest, should have a county committee ready to co-operate with him and to supervise the carrying out of his recommendations. It should not be difficult in each county to form a small committee of local people, familiar with local conditions, who will be able to superintend the actual planting and aftercare of the plants. The committee should include experienced horticulturists, a representative of the county branch of C.P.R.E., and so on. It would certainly arouse local interest, and would give encouragement on the spot to the protection and aftercare of the planting. In some cases suitable trees and shrubs, some of which are at present in short supply, might be presented to the committee by local growers.

Each county, I suggest, should have such a committee. All the counties differ a good deal as to their soil and climate. Cornwall, for example, should not be bracketed with Devonshire; if Cornwall should be bracketed with another area it should be with the West Coast of Scotland. Let Cornwall, Devon, and all the other counties have their own horticultural advisory committees. I need not remind your Lordships that some planting is essential—embankments and cuttings must be clothed with vegetation, if only to prevent erosion. If there is to be any planting, let it be good planting, with local knowledge. If unsuitable plants are chosen, if the top soil is removed and no provision is made for aftercare, the failure will be miserable. I had an incident brought to my notice not long ago. Certain planting was undertaken by an authority along a stretch of road. The farmer who farmed the adjacent land disapproved of what was being done. "I will plant a tree which will live," he said, "and yours will die." That actually happened; the farmer's tree did live, and the other plants died. I would urge that all the committees, whether local or central, should be small committees. We do not want twenty-five people to plant a few shrubs; we do not want representatives of every Government Department remotely concerned to survey the planting of every little group of trees.

I hope, the Minister, in consultation with his new advisory Committee, will give most careful consideration to the whole question of personnel. Is a special permanent staff of the Ministry for this one purpose really necessary? The advice of a landscape architect should be readily available as required, but what is needed over and above that might be supplied, in my submission, by the new Committee working at the centre, and the county committees supervising the planting in each county. Further, if the Roads Beautifying Association, which has done such valuable pioneer work in the past, is represented on this central advisory Committee (as it certainly should be), might it not be better for it to pass its life into this new Committee rather than to continue its own separate existence? I am not at all in a position to give a categorical answer to such questions as these. I should be quite content to have them considered carefully by the Minister and his new advisory Committee, but I feel it is very important that they should be duly considered without delay.

There is one other action I hope the Minister will take. The Ministry pays for the new motorways, and also for the trunk roads. Thus, the lay-out and planting of these roads will naturally be under the Minister's control, and I hope he will make definite provision for it. The other first-class roads are the responsibility of the county authorities, but as they are eligible for percentage grants from the Ministry, the Ministry is fully entitled to ask the county authorities to submit schemes for the beautifying of these first-class roads which are neither motorways nor trunk roads. I hope the Minister will do that. The House is very much obliged to the noble Duke for raising this important matter. It vitally affects the future attractiveness of the British landscape. I would add this thought: that the judicious expenditure of a comparatively small sum of money will confer a benefit on our children and grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren, for which I believe they will be sincerely grateful.

6.52 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the noble Duke need not apologise for drawing the attention of the House to this important work of road planting which, as the right reverend Prelate has said, contributes so much to the beauty of the English countryside. I assure the noble Duke that my right honourable friend the Minister is keenly interested in this work of road planting, and I hope that what I have to say will convince him that as much as possible is being done at the moment.

I should like to direct myself to the terms of the noble Duke's question, or rather to his three questions. I should like to deal first with his second question. The Ministry of Transport are the Department dealing with the road amenities to which the noble Duke has referred, and the Minister of Transport, therefore, is the responsible Minister. He takes responsibility because he is the highway authority for trunk roads, and because of the expenditure on classified roads out of the Road Fund. My right honourable friend also has general responsibility for roads and road safety. But in the exercise of his responsibility the Minister is, of course, in close touch with the Minister of Town and Country Planning and the Secretary of State for Scotland, who are concerned with the wider planning and amenity issues with which they deal under the Town and Country Planning Acts of 1947. The Minister of Health also comes in where the appearance of housing estates is concerned.

I will now pass on to the first question asked by the noble Duke, when he requested the Government to say something about their policy in regard to road and street planting. Before I go on to outline this policy, I should like to emphasise the importance of distinguishing between the policy that we wish to carry out—which all people who are interested in this matter wish to carry out—and the limitations to the implementation of that policy, due to difficulties arising out of the present economic situation. The Ministry of Transport has for a long time past—and indeed the noble Duke bore witness to that in his remarks—been fully alive to the importance of providing suitable trees and shrubs, as well as grass verges, as part of the design of modern highways. This is desirable, not only to improve the appearance of the roads, to make them more attractive in themselves and to prevent them from clashing violently with the country landscapes through which they pass, but also from the point of view of road safety.

The Ministers concerned have issued a number of circulars to highway and planning authorities on the different aspects of this problem of improving the appearance of roads and streets. I will not weary the noble Duke or the House by drawing attention to the details of these publications. I should like merely to point out that they demonstrate the interest and concern which this Government, and its predecessors, have felt about this matter. I would add that where my right honourable friend is directly responsible, in the case of trunk roads, he will endeavour to set an example to other highway authorities in the effective treatment of roads and in the practice of the precepts he has enjoined on local authorities. But what we can do at the present time—and I hope I shall have the noble Duke's sympathy in this matter—is, of course, severely limited by the general economic situation. The noble Duke is aware that, as a result of the reduction in highway expenditure, and of the cutting down of materials and man-power in 1947, road improvement schemes which can be undertaken at the present time are limited to those which are of vital importance. For the same reasons, severe cuts have also been made in road maintenance, and in the employment of labour for highway purposes.

It is therefore undesirable for the time being that either the Minister or local highway authorities should embark on any large-scale scheme of road planting. My right honourable friend has reluctantly decided that expenditure from the Road Fund must be limited for the present to small schemes, mainly those which are essential for road safety. For example, there is no objection to the provision of shrubs on central margins which will prevent the risk of dazzle from the headlamps of motor vericles, or of boundary hedges for the safety of road users. I am also informed that, to meet the Ministry's future requirements on trunk roads, a contract to the value of £4,373 was signed in 1948 for the supply of plants and trees from 1951 to 1957, and that further contracts will be entered into, according to the scale of requirements. Naturally we cannot anticipate at this stage the full amount of the requirements that will have to be met over a long period of time. My right honourable friend particularly regrets the necessity for going slow at the moment, as he has extensive plans for the planting of trees and shrubs on trunk roads. Indeed, he had hoped, as part of the post-war programme of road construction, to demonstrate how effectively this can be done.

May I now turn to the third of the questions asked me by the noble Duke, the question relating to the attitude of His Majesty's Government to the Roads Beautifying Association? Before the war, as the noble Duke has reminded the House, the Ministry of Transport relied almost wholly upon the advice of the Roads Beautifying Association. The Association, which was formed in 1928 as a voluntary body, worked in close touch with the Ministry of Transport and the local highway authorities, and besides publishing useful literature gave effective help and advice in the preparation of schemes throughout the country. Following the legislation of 1936, which made the Ministry of Transport the highway authority for trunk roads, the Association advised the Minister on schemes of trunk roads, and arrangements were made for an annual grant of £200 to be paid to the Association from the Road Fund for their services. The Association played their part in most of the important road planting schemes carried out in England and Wales, and the Government gratefully acknowledge the work they have done. Of course this acknowledgment applies perhaps with special emphasis to the work of Mr. Fox, the Honorary Secretary, who played such a very important part in the activities of this Committee. We are equally sensible of the valuable contribution made by the noble Duke himself, as President of the Association, and I should like to take this opportunity on behalf of my right honourable friend to thank him for what he has done.


Is the noble Earl going to say why, being so grateful to this great body, the Minister sacked them?


I am coming to that. In Scotland much assistance has been given to the Ministry by the Royal Scottish Forestry Society, whose work the Minister also wishes to acknowledge. Now I am coming to the next point, which deals with what has happened recently, and what we expect will happen, in connection with the relationship between the Government and the voluntary bodies who are prepared to help. In planning his post-war policy, however, my right honourable friend—and this is due particularly to the considerable increase in the mileage of trunk roads under the Trunk Roads Act, 1946—has felt that fresh measures were required to ensure the effective carrying out, supervision and co-ordination of schemes, and to achieve the greatest economy in the supply and use of plants and trees and in their subsequent maintenance. The Roads Beautifying Association was, of course, an advisory and not an executive body. Early in 1947 my right honourable friend, therefore, instituted a new post of horticultural officer in his Department and a fully qualified horticultural expert was appointed. An assistant horticultural officer has also been appointed—


Could we have the amount of the salaries?


That point was not mentioned in the noble Duke's Question on the Paper. I am afraid, therefore that I cannot at the moment give the figure for the salaries, though I will gladly supply it.


Perhaps it could be put in the form of an answer to a Question. It is important to compare the £200 which was the cost of this voluntary Association with the cost of the new officials, plus any other branch of this Department which has been set up. Perhaps if a non-oral Question is put down, the figure can be given.


I will certainly obtain the information. The work to be done has enormously expanded since 1946, and the whole-time experts are justified on that ground, and not in the least because my right honourable friend would not have preferred to use a cheaper agent.


I think the noble Earl told us that owing to the need for economy, practically none of this planting was now to be done except for a few thousand pounds worth of trees between 1951 and 1957.


I think the noble Viscount has misunderstood me—but the OFFICIAL REPORT will appear to-morrow and he can read what I said. These officials have responsibility for exercising continuous supervision over the matters I have just mentioned; and as a result of these arrangements my right honourable friend was obliged, from the end of 1947, to terminate the grant made from the Road Fund to the Association. Under the new set-up of the Department it was no longer necessary for him to ask the Association for advice on the preparation of individual schemes. My right honourable friend regrets this step, because it has evidently caused considerable discouragement to the Association. But he does not feel able to reconsider his decision, as the preparation and supervision of schemes of trunk roads will henceforth be done by his Department. Nevertheless, a wide field of activity remains for the energies of the Association, and my right honourable friend is most anxious to continue to receive their co-operation.

Many local highway authorities, especially those who do not employ their own horticultural officer, have in time past received valuable help from the Association, and will undoubtedly wish to continue to receive it. That is one function which it is hoped the Association will continue to carry out. The Association could also become a useful independent critic of the Ministry's schemes. My right honourable friend welcomes constructive, independent and honest criticism. When a more active policy becomes practicable, my right honourable friend considers that it may be desirable for him to appoint a small advisory committee of experts which he can consult from time to time on questions which are likely to arise. If he decides to do this, he hopes that the Association will join with other bodies in suggesting one or more names for the committee. I very much hope that the noble Duke and one or more of these experts may be willing to serve on this advisory committee which will help the Ministry of Transport in dealing with these matters.

I suggest that this is quite a normal arrangement. It happens in many cases that voluntary bodies do the pioneer work on a part-time basis. Then the work expands by reason of legislation and the consequently greater responsibility means that the Government have to employ a whole-time State paid expert. That is not to say that the Government wish to cut out the work of the voluntary body; it means merely that the voluntary body will be expected to carry on in a different way, and will discharge other but no less useful functions. I wish to assure the noble Duke that it is my right honourable friend's most anxious desire that the activities of the Roads Beautifying Association should continue, and that he will welcome any assistance that this organisation is still willing to provide for him and, of course, for the other authorities in the country.


Can the noble Earl give us any hope that the advisory committee is now being formed, and will soon get to work?


I cannot go beyond my instructions, but I will certainly bring the point to the attention of my right honourable friend, and emphasise that the matter is one of very great urgency.

7.6 p.m.


My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for the courtesy of his reply, and the charming way in which he has given it, but I am not very satisfied with its matter. He said one thing which interests me in particular, and I have no doubt that the county councils will take note of what the noble Earl has said. Our clear impression in the Association was that local authorities were told they must not come to us but to the Ministry's officials. I am glad to hear that local authorities are not forbidden to seek advice from the Roads Beautifying Association. I think that statement will be of great value. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.