HL Deb 14 December 1954 vol 190 cc351-77

3.46 p.m.

LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take to relieve the congestion upon the roads caused by vehicles carrying abnormal loads; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I now ask you to turn from one modern scourge to another. I am asking Her Majesty's Government what they are going to do to relieve the congestion on the roads caused by these growing numbers of abnormal loads. I suppose that the existence of this problem could be said to be the greatest possible tribute to the road transport industry, because in spite of the terrific cost it is still cheaper to trundle one of these abnormal loads "all round the mulberry bush"—as the pamphlet issued by the British Road Federation, of which the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, is president, so picturesquely puts it—than to use other means of transport. Be that as it may, I suggest that here there is a finger that is writing on the wall for this and future Governments. And what an indictment there is against past Governments for the neglect which they have collectively and individually shown with regard to this great problem! That is why we should all look upon this as a strictly non-Party debate.

We are all sinners; and I am not prepared this afternoon to apportion percentages of blame to either Party. I think, to use an expression which I used the other day, we can see Nemesis tapping the Ministry of Transport upon the shoulder. Now Nemesis is a most awkward female: she is one of the women you cannot get rid of; and she is going to follow this and successive Governments more and more down the tortuous roads of this country. I know very well that the long-term answer to this problem is more and better roads. Some of us have been saying that for about thirty years. But however much money this Government are prepared to allocate to better roads—I have heard various sums mentioned: £50 million per annum, £70 million per annum—perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, will tell us, if he can make up his mind, which part he is going to play: that of Dr. Jekyll, of the Ministry of Transport, or that of Mr. Hyde, of the Home Office. I suppose that to-day he will be answering for both.

But whatever sum of money is available, the proposals can only be long-term, because only a certain amount of work can be done every year. With the best will in the world, we cannot expect to see a complete solution of this problem by the provision of better and wider roads, and by the elimination of the difficulties which I am going to point out, for twenty years. What are we going to do in the meantime? We see a slowing up of traffic all over the country, mile after mile, hour after hour. In my view, it is imperative that something should be done to relieve congestion. The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, will forgive me for saying this—I say it with complete good will, because I know that the Minister of Transport is as anxious to find a way out of this difficulty as anyone else. It is no good the noble Lord coming to your Lordships' House and giving the type of Answer he has given on two previous occasions to Questions I have asked. I expect the Answers emanated from the Home Office—I do not know—but what the Government have to do, and I would beg the noble Lord to take it to heart, is to find some way of doing something, and not merely to find excuses for doing nothing.

The situation is desperate. The local authorities and the police are almost at their wits' end to know what to do. There are regulations covering the transport of abnormal loads throughout the country. The Minister of Transport was good enough to have them ail typed out and sent to me—I have them here. They are just about as congested as the roads, but, boiled down to simple language, anybody can transport a load of up to 150 tons in weight and 20 ft. in width, and of undefined length, just by saying that he is going to do it. The only regulation he has to observe is to give the county authorities and police authorities through whose areas he proposes to pass notice of what he is going to do. I can find nothing in any of the regulations which enables any authority to say to him, "No, you cannot do this." Any load over 150 tons, or over 20 ft. wide, may be carried if special permission of the Ministry of Transport is given. That is really bordering upon insanity.

When we consider that load in relation to our roads, there are many stretches of bottleneck which are only 14 ft. wide, and miles of road only 18 ft. wide. We have 3,000 bridges on our Trunk, Class I and Class II roads, the majority of which are not high enough to take the highest, and not wide enough to take the widest, loads; and 80 per cent. of our bridges will not carry more than 40 tons. That is chaotic. When we come to consider some of the roads, we see the chaos that is ruling and the ridiculousness of the present position. I will take three roads as examples. The first runs right through the centre of this country—indeed, we have only one trunk road, A.34, running down the centre of England. That road funnels the traffic from the Mersey to the Tyne, and right up as far as the Clyde; and it funnels the traffic from the East, West and South Midlands and the industrial North, through the City of Oxford, right down to the ports of Portsmouth and Southampton and the watering places from Weymouth to Southsea, on the South Coast. I have told your Lordships previously that approximately 150 times in the last twelve months the one-way traffic in the City of Oxford has been completely stopped so that abnormal loads could go through the wrong way; I now have the exact figure, which is 191 times.

Let me take A.38, which runs from Birmingham through Worcestershire. Over 1,000 abnormal loads went along that road from Worcestershire to Gloucestershire last year. Some of these loads scraped the houses on one side of the road or the other, and there were queues of traffic miles long. Let me take a road which I am sure the noble Lord knows—A.6, one of the two main roads in Cumberland and Westmorland, which takes practically all the traffic from Liverpool and Manchester north to Scotland. Then there is A.595, the only road serving West Cumberland, along which, last year, 102 abnormal loads of one kind were transported, guns for the testing range of the Ministry of Supply at Eskmeals. When this road is blocked (and it has been on many occasions) not one fire-fighting vehicle or ambulance can get down; it has to make a detour of 100 miles.

This situation is serious. When the noble Lord says to me, in reply to one of my Questions, that we have to consider the cost of taking these loads by ship, and that we have to consider our export market, I would reply that it costs industry and the community millions of pounds a year in congestion and frustration; and the accident rate goes up correspondingly. Let me take the position of one of our counties. The Chief Constable of Cumberland tells me that at times he has six requests a day to convoy abnormal loads. He makes a rule of convoying every load he possibly can over 14 ft., but when he cannot convoy, through lack of police power, he has to let these loads go on their own; and that means that the congestion is worse than ever. One of the greatest necessities in these remoter counties, such as Cumberland, Westmorland and Northumberland, and in some of the Southern Counties, is an increased number of police patrols. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, will give me his attention, because I am now on a subject very pertinent for him.

We must increase motor patrols, because in the conduct of these abnormal loads to relieve congestion as much as possible it is imperative that the police, who do this job most efficiently, should be in wireless communication with the police in the next town to warn them of their coming. Good as motor-cycles are—and they serve a useful purpose in police patrol work—they are not much good in the bitter winters in Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland. I do not know whether the noble Lord would like to ride a motor-cycle up Shap when there are 15 degrees of frost and it is snowing hard, but I should not. I would beg him to try and persuade the Home Office to sanction the purchase of more motor cars. The cost comes out of the police fund, and the Ministry of Transport have to provide for the maintenance. In passing, I may say that it is not very encouraging for constabularies to increase their mobile forces when they are tied down to a 1938 and 1939 schedule of maintenance.

Let me now turn to the sizes of some of the loads. It is not the weight that causes so much trouble—although that causes damage to the roads—as the width. I have picked out two cases from hundreds that have been sent to me—and could make the noble Lord a present of some good Christmas reading on the sizes of some of these loads. This is the size of some of them. I have here details of one that was 10 ft. 3 in. in width, with a length of 110 ft. and a weight of 135 tons. Then there is another 18 ft. 7 in. in width. 44 ft. in length, weighing only 25 tons. Those are some of the loads. What about their destinations?—and I should like the noble Lord to pay particular attention to this aspect. A 75-ton excavator was transported by road from the Isle of Grain to Port Talbot—.both places by the sea; a 135 ft. transporter went from Walthamstow to Carmarthen, one by the sea and one not far from the Thames. In another case, a 44-ft. long, 18 ft. 7 in. wide, 25-ton boat went from Hebburn-on-Tyne to the Admiralty gunnery establishment in Portsmouth. I am surprised that the Navy now have to transport their boats by road. Surely a boat of that size could go by sea.

There is another peculiar case of a barge. The barge was cut in two, and the two halves were carried by road, instead of the whole barge being sent by sea. The two halves had a width of 18 ft. 4 in., a length of 75 ft. and weighed 35 tons; and they went from a port on the east coast to a port on the west coast. Railway engines are assembled at one port and sent by road to another port for shipment: ships' lifeboats are sent from the Tyne to Southampton; ships' propellers from the Clyde to Southampton. Surely, some of these things could go by another form of transport.

There is the question of damage to roads. One county surveyor states that he had to spend £30,000 on a short length of road in his county, and this was directly attributable to these abnormal loads. Verges are cut about because of other lorries trying to pass the unwieldy loads. I have told your Lordships before of detours made necessary because of weak bridges, whether railway bridges or road bridges. There is a bridge at Beattock, just north of Carlisle, the avoidance of which involves a detour of 100 miles to get to Glasgow. Even on the A.1, the Great North Road, no load over 40 tons can go through Doncaster because of a weak bridge outside. When they are forced off these main roads they have to go through the little villages and towns, causing obstruction that is absolutely indescribable. There was the classic example in 1953, when a 90-ton load going over Ardrossan bridge went through it, on to the railway line underneath, with the result that the railway line in that part of Scotland was blocked for thirty-seven hours. The inspector who conducted the ensuing inquiry made some sharp remarks, to the effect that rail and sea transport had not been properly explored.

These abnormal loads are growing because there is no restriction on them, and they will continue to grow. I have made some research and I find that the heaviest load recorded as being carried on the roads of this country was one last year of 185 tons—at least that is all I can find; there may be others. The noble Lord who is President of the British Road Federation may be able to beat that, as may other noble Lords, and perhaps even the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, himself. Then there are trailers and the machines that draw them. It is nothing now to have a trailer with thirty-two wheels and sixty-four tyres which cost £30,000 to build. Then tractors. A great many of these huge loads require one tractor pushing and another pulling. On the A.34, at Beacon Hill, just outside Newbury, the whole lot stopped on the hill and put all the bus services in that part of Berkshire out of commission from eight o'clock one night until about eleven o'clock the next morning.

When I put this Motion down originally, knowing that there was to be a new Road Traffic Act, I was hoping to see some solution to this problem. I have read from cover to cover the Bill that will come before your Lordships' House next Tuesday, and it includes no mention of this problem, or of a lot of other problems. As I have said, I know that the long-term solution is bigger, wider and better roads. But it is costing the country too much to-day not to do anything. It is costing the police a great deal of money and it is costing industry a great deal of money, although it may save the individual. I am told by some of the people who transport these loads that the cost to the haulier is hundreds of pounds per mile, and yet that is cheaper than sending the load by rail or sea.

What are the railways doing? Surely they can do something to alleviate this problem? Those from whom we should get an example, Government Departments, are the worst offenders. We have the Admiralty moving ships by road, and the Ministry of Supply moving by road huge guns which, years ago, went by rail. The Royal Air Force do not even trouble now to dismantle their aircraft completely; and one sees aircraft that could be broken down still further being towed along roads in this country. I know that 75-ton tanks cannot go by rail because we have no bridges high enough, but the colossal confusion and chaos that some of these heavy loads cause by going through cities and towns is really beyond belief.

Now what is the answer? I wish to press the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, on this matter. I do not see why the taxpayer and the ratepayer should have to pay the police to safeguard the giving to some of these loads of a monopoly of the roads. It takes hundreds of police to do this, because some of the loads have to go through thirty or forty police districts. I am told by the chief constables of this country that it is perfectly easy to make a charge. It appears that the standard rate for the loan of a police officer is 7s. 6d. per hour, plus, if he has a vehicle, so much per mile for the car. These charges are made.


That is for private use.


This is for private use. It is no good the noble Lord trying to ride off and say: "What we are doing is safeguarding the rest of the people." Here is some body who is given a monopoly of a stretch of the road for a certain length of time. Everybody else is pushed off. The police are protecting that monopoly for him and he is not charged a penny. I do not say that by charging these people a few hundred pounds the difficulty would be completely solved, but it would at least relieve the taxpayer and ratepayer, and surely that is worth consideration.

I think the next action one could take would be this. As I have said, the limit of a load which anybody can transport is 150 tons in weight and 20 ft. in width. He need not get the permission of anybody; he simply says that he is going to do it. I am not so worried about the weight, but I suggest that the width should be brought down to 12 ft. or 14 ft. After that, the special permission of the Ministry of Transport should have to be obtained. When I say "the Ministry" I mean the local office of the Ministry of Transport. Obviously, the manufacturers would have to give notice of their needs to the transporter. Some of them would have to give six months' notice to find out whether he could convey the thing; others would give over a year's notice. When they have built whatever it is, the question is: will the transporter transport it? There is nobody now who says to them: "No, you must break it down. It may cost you a bit more, but the country as a whole is going to save a lot of money." I would say that the maximum width should be 14 ft. and a stipulated height. Some of these things are so high that, in a certain town not far from where I live, one load took down the whale of the overhead lighting. Nobody thought of measuring the height of the street lamps that were strung across the road. If the permission of the Ministry of Transport were required for loads over 14 ft. wide, that would do something to persuade these people to find other forms of transport.

We do not want any more regulations. The Road Traffic Acts are stuffed full of useless regulations, and we have a Bill coming before your Lordships next Tuesday that will stuff them with a few more. I am trying to be persuasive and not to regulate. The regulations which cover this problem to-day are simply nonsensical, because anybody can de anything.

There are many other factors that come into this matter which I will not mention to-day. I want to impress upon the noble Lord that we must do something about this problem; and we must do it very quickly. If we do not, the cost to the country will be great, and there will be, inevitably, frustration of the ordinary traffic. Next summer, cars will be coming on the roads at the rate of half a million a year, and very likely that will be stepped up, to 750,000. Look at the traffic last year on the main arteries of this island—the A.34, A.38 and the A.1. Nineteen county councils had 27,000 abnormal loads through their areas last year, and the number is growing apace. Something must be done. I beg the noble Lord, if he has not a sympathetic answer for me now, at least to prevail upon his two right honourable friends—two of them, because, while the Ministry of Transport have the responsibility and make regulations, they have no power to enforce them at all; that must rest with the Home Office—to do something to solve a very urgent problem. I beg to move for Papers.

4.7 p.m.


My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, for declaring my interest for me. It is, indeed, the first time that I have spoken in this House since becoming Chairman of the British Road Federation. Of course, I agree with much of what he has said, but I am rather horrified at what I believe underlies his speech, and I am somewhat surprised at his special pleading. It seems to me that he is saying: "The roads of his country are not suitable for such and such a type of traffic; therefore ban the traffic." To carry it to its logical conclusion, I would say that thousands of roads in this country are not suitable for any mechanically propelled vehicle. Is the noble Lord going to say: "Do not allow cars to go down those bad roads"?


If the noble Lord is going to challenge me on this—I am sorry he has started off on that note—may I say that I never said anything about banning the traffic? I said we must use influence to put it on another form of transport while we have such narrow roads.


I am sorry the noble Lord misunderstood me. I was not saying that he said that. I said that underlying his statement seemed to be that idea. I also rather disapprove of his special pleading, because when he gives examples of loads of various kinds, though he is right about some of them, the majority of loads are not going from port to port. They are going from an inland factory to a port for export, or they are going from an inland factory to somewhere else inland to be set up and to help in production. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, went on to say that this traffic is costing the country too much. He is quite right that it is nearly always—but not always—cheaper to move these abnormal loads by road than by any other method. At the moment, we are competing in the export market, which is getting more and more difficult, and we are trying to set up new plant here at the lowest cost of production. I do not think that a sweeping statement to the effect that these loads moving down the roads are costing the country thousands of pounds is necessarily true on balance.

I should like to mention a few of the many loads, not specifically chosen one by one, but the types of loads that have in fact to move by road. I will explain presently why they have to move by road. This list, I think covers the larger part of the abnormal loads that one meets on the road. First of all, the noble Lord himself mentioned rolling stock. Of course, one meets both locomotives and other rolling stock on the roads. They are, I think one may say, invariably locomotives and rolling stock which have been made inland and are being sent to the port for export, and, being out of gauge, British Railways cannot carry them. Then there are giant tankers for carrying liquids, such as milk, beer, oil and so on. In some ways they are less difficult loads than others, but some of them are abnormally large. Here again it is a question of cost. One can, of course, split these tankers or their capacities into two or three smaller tankers, but the cost of doing that is high. One saves much money by having these giant tankers. Then there are casting ladles. Some casting ladles, which cannot be taken to pieces, have capacities of up to 200 tons. They are rather awkward loads. They are nearly always made some way from the coast and they are nearly always, or in the majority of cases, sent to plants and factories inland. They are not things which are exported very much, except for a contractor who is doing some contracting work overseas.

Then we come to a very important export—the oil refinery distillation columns and other oil refinery products. It is perfectly true that some of these columns are 130 ft. in length. Incidentally, as I shall explain to your Lordships, that is one of the reasons why they have to go by road. Then steam accumulators, which cannot be broken up, are another type of load. They cannot be carried in sections; they have to be carried complete. Armoured fighting vehicles every year get bigger and heavier. Then there are castings. I think the noble Lord was referring to a casting when he mentioned a recent load of 185 tons, the biggest casting carried. Transformers and other heavy electrical equipment, which, for reasons of efficiency and use, are getting larger and larger and cannot be broken into sections, are also frequently met on the roads. They are made, usually, at inland factories and usually—and when I say "usually" I mean "very often"—are taken to factory areas inland. I am not going to deal with the instance of ships' propellers, because I think the noble Lard may have made a case for that particular load. There are net a great number of ships' propeller loads, though doubtless in his part of the world one meets more of them than in mine. Then aircraft wings and fuselages: some can be broken down and some cannot, and they have to travel about.

What are the methods of transport? Take the simplest first—canals. Most of these loads cannot go on canals because, apart from the question of bridges, the boats are too narrow. Railways are an obvious method, leaving out the question of cost. That is the obvious way to move some of them; but for railways these loads are in many cases very difficult because they cannot go under the tunnels—the loads are too high—and they cannot go under the bridges. In some cases the tunnels are also too narrow. The fact remains that railways cannot carry many of these loads—in fact, I should say that in the majority of cases they cannot.

The next method is carriage by ships. Apart from the fact that these loads have to move from the factories to ports for export, where they can be moved by ship coastwise, in many cases the ports at each end are not large. There are certain difficulties about moving these loads by coastwise shipping, and I will give your Lordships an example in a minute. The principal trouble is usually that there is not sufficient deck space on the coasters for these abnormally large loads, and, in most cases, the hatches are too narrow for them to be placed below deck. Here is a case in point to show the trouble we have in moving things by roads to places where it is absolutely essential that they should go. The other day there was a 120 ft. column weighing 75 tons, which had to be moved from Woolwich a mile or two to the King George V Dock. It would seem a perfectly simple thing to do to put it on a boat and take it down to the King George V Dock; but when the question was gone into it was found that there were not proper berthing facilities for a ship that would be suitable to handle that particular cargo. In addition, a floating crane big enough to handle that enormous column would have been required, and there was not enough depth of water to float a crane. Therefore that short journey had to be done by road. In the case of the railways there was the difficulty about bridges. Unfortunately, the load had to go ninety-seven miles through the centre of London. And so it goes on.

The noble Lord pleads that we should have further regulations—which he said would save the country money, though I think in the long run it would be more expensive—to stop loads of a certain Size, height and weight from being moved without a permit from the Ministry, except by alternative methods. May I detain your Lordships for a minute to tell you the cost manufacturers are put to in moving some of the larger loads? If they had also to apply for permission and go through all this business for the smaller loads as well, the cost would become prohibitive. With these larger loads of over 150 tons or over 20 ft. width, full particulars have to go to the Ministry, and they include details of the whole of the road to be used. What happens is this. The manufacturer obtains a tender perhaps some eighteen months before the job will be ready to move. The first thing he has to do is to get in touch with haulage experts. It may be that the job is an inland job and one which it is obvious will not go on the railway. The haulage contractor, therefore, has to survey the road. That is expensive and is one of the reasons why the cost of hauling these things is so high.

Suppose, for example, that there is a main road between two towns. You start off on twenty miles of it and then you come to a bridge which is too low, so you have to make a detour. You go on second-class roads and then find that there is another bridge which will not take the weight. So you have to go back and start again from the point where you first left the main road. This goes on for the whole length of the journey, which may be hundreds of miles. You try to avoid big towns but there may not be a by-pass. I know the noble Lord suffers severely at Oxford from these loads. It is all right on the North to South road, but they cannot get them round the town from East to West.


It is the other way about.


I am sorry; I was always bad at geography. You can get them East to West but not from North to South. Therefore you have to go through the town. The noble Lord the other day met one of these loads going the wrong way down a one-way street because the corner could not be turned the other way. Surely the answer is not to have to get a permit to move a small load through that sort of road, putting everyone who is working on the job to a far greater expense and involving further plans and further arguments with the Ministry, delaying the move. People are not going to take these loads through the middle of Oxford if they can help it, but there is no other way, and on that road they have to go round or through Oxford. Most of these loads cannot be moved by sea; they must be moved by road. Why make it more difficult for our people who are now trying to compete in the world markets, and add to their expense? I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, who is going to reply, will say two things. The real answer is, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has himself said, modern and better roads. What I am waiting for my noble friend Lord Mancroft to say is that that is the long-term solution, but that there is no reason whatsoever why it should not also be a comparatively short-term solution.

4.30 p.m.


My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, replies, may I just add my contribution. I was appalled to find how utterly complacent was the noble Lord who has just spoken. After all, he is President of the British Road Federation. I take it that the object of the British Road Federation is to look after the interests of all users of the roads.


For improving the roads.


For improving the roads. Surely the noble Lord is aware of the frightful nuisance it is to other users of the road that these huge loads should come along. Last Friday I left this House at about two o'clock to drive along the Great North Road, through Hatfield, Stevenage and Baldock, up to the North. A good deal of traffic was going my way, which made it very difficult for traffic coming the other way, towards London, to pass. There was a huge thing coming along towards me: it looked like an enormous boiler. I do not know what its weight or width was, but it was travelling at about five or six miles per hour. It did not impede me, as I was going in the opposite direction, but there was a queue something like two miles long behind this thing, coming towards London.

I should have thought the British Road Federation would have been concerned about how such transportations are conducted, so as to avoid the great inconvenience which is occasioned to other people. But not a bit of it; the noble Lord does not seem to be aware of the fact that there is any inconvenience.


I am sorry to interrupt the noble and learned Earl, but the fact is rather that we take the view that the way the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, suggested for improving things is not the way to do it.


Of course, it is quite obvious that the only long-term solution is to have much wider and much better roads. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, was perfectly right in saying that none of us can throw any stones at the other about that. To my mind, we lost our great chance when we did not accept the proposals of Mr. Lloyd George in 1929, when, in that awful period of depression, we did not get busy and set the vast army of unemployed to work building us new roads. But those are the years that the locusts have eaten; it is not a bit of good going back to that time. We did not do it.

I want to make this suggestion to the noble Lord opposite—it is the only reason why I have spoken, because I am not in any way an expert. It may well be true—I expect it is—that frequently these loads can be moved only by road. I quite understand that to move them ay rail would be impracticable; to do so by canal would obviously be impracticable, and I daresay that sea movement, too, would often be impracticable. So all that remains is the roads. But as we have got inadequate roads, and as we have these vast, heavy loads to be moved, may I make this plea: that it might be considered at, what time of the twenty-four hours these loads should be moved? It seems to me very odd that this aspect has not been considered. I should have thought that if a transporter had to give notice to some official of the fact that he was going to, carry these loads, to give the official an opportunity of studying the position, he might obtain consent subject to a condition about times.

After all, I suppose that, broadly speaking, between ten o'clock at night and seven o'clock in the morning our roads are relatively empty. It would cost rather more to send goods at night, because one would have to pay rather higher wages to the men concerned; but I would suggest that it he considered whether these heavy loads cannot be moved then, or at some suitable time of the day. In that way I believe we should prevent the grave inconvenience caused to the lieges who are using the roads of this country to get about their lawful business. I should like the Minister at any rate to promise me that that suggestion will be considered.

One thing I find a quite intolerable nuisance is some of this fair traffic, where one sees a heavy lorry towing three trailers. These vehicles block up the roads in a most insufferable way. I cannot understand why it would not be a practical and temporary solution (in the fullness of time we may get proper roads to deal with the situation) to try to space, out the traffic, and to say that certain types of traffic should travel only at certain times. Everyone would agree, I imagine, that, where these abnormal loads can be carried in some other way than by road, if it can be done without very heavy extra cost, then obviously that ought to be done.

For goodness sake, however, let us avoid one point of view here: do not let us be complacent about this matter. Do not let us try to blame each other for what we have not done in the past. It seems to me that we run the grave risk of having the traffic of this country brought absolutely to a standstill within the next few years. It is easy to find cogent arguments against doing anything, but I should like to find somebody who has some idea of trying to do something. It is in the hope that what I have said will be considered by the authorities, that I have ventured to make that suggestion to try to ease what I regard as a very pressing problem. For my part I thought that the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, calling attention to this problem was most useful and timely, and should immediately be taken notice of by the Government.

4.37 p.m.


My Lords, you may think it extraordinary for me to intervene in a debate of this sort, but having spent fifty years of my life in trying to improve traffic through various natural channels, I may be able to contribute something. I should like to remark that, in regard to the use of roads, or any channels which are inadequate for the purpose, it is surely the duty of the patient, or the Government if they are going to take on the responsibility, to find means of relief. At the same time, if it is a commercial proposition surely the public ought to know to what extent they are subsidising this easing of traffic. If large forces of police have to be mobilised in order to prevent me from reaching a destination on the Great North Road for a considerable period of time, then it seems to me that my fee ought to be increased in order to compensate for the profit that the transporter is making out of fulfilling a contract when he is not paying the cost of it. Let us know what we are paying to enable the man to deliver his goods.

I support the noble and learned Earl who has just spoken in regard to the timing of unusual traffic. Many of your Lordships may remember the time when an extraordinary weight of steel was brought into London to enable the architects' and engineers' plans for the construction of the Cumberland Hotel to be carried out. That was timed for a Sunday morning, when most of us were proceeding on foot to our destinations. If these considerations are borne in mind, and the contractor has to meet the price of delivering a certain article of goods at a certain place at a certain time, there is no reason why the public should pay a very large contribution to enable him to do it. It should be included in his price. It is his job to deliver the article on the site at a certain time, without any public subsidy, unless the public know what that subsidy is. Prefabrication can proceed to an enormous extent. The whole superstructure of a ship can be delivered on Clydeside and lowered on to the deck, instead of being built up on the deck; but that does not mean that your Lordships should have to pay for it. It may cost a little more to build it on the ship but why should the public pay?

Apart from these questions of ethics and economics, traffic can be dealt with in various ways. We know that it is possible to short-circuit natural channels. In case of necessity one may order an operation, instead of using natural channels, and in that way avoid damaging those natural channels—it may, indeed, save life. In another case, however, the physician may, when faced with a large stone in the bladder, break it up and transport it quite easily through natural channels; whereas if he tried to deliver it whole it might do the most dreadful damage imaginable.


My Lords, I was amused when the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, accused my noble friend of special pleading, then straight away frankly confessed that he was speaking, like a lawyer with a brief and from a brief, because he happened to be president of a vested interest. I do not represent a vested interest, but I am glad the noble and learned Earl has intervened, because I attend quarterly meetings on this vexed subject of road transport, and the question of these huge trailers is one of the recurring controversies. I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, will bring home to the Minister of Transport the fact that it will give great satisfaction to public authorities in this country who have to attend to roads and road repairs if, when the Bill is introduced, it includes a clause restricting the length of trailers.

4.42 p.m.


My Lords, I find myself standing, both geographically and argumentatively, about half way between noble Lords opposite and my noble friend Lord Derwent, behind me. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, for bringing forward this Motion. Let me tell him at once that I have the utmost sympathy for the whole of his arguments and the anxieties which he has displayed so pertinaciously, today and on two previous occasions. The only argument I have with the noble Lord is his suggestion that Her Majesty's Government do not share his anxiety. Let me put his mind right about that; we share his anxiety to the full. We are equally anxious to find some solution to this extremely difficult problem. How difficult that is has already been demonstrated clearly by my noble friend Lord Derwent, who has put forward some of the arguments from the other side. Moreover, we are all agreed that the real solution is larger, better and more roads. We also are not going to apportion blame for deficiencies in that respect now. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, asked for a figure. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, in a public speech the other day, said that in the new programme we should be spending two or three times more than the £14 million or £15 million spent last year. We all agree, therefore, on the long-term answer. Our problem today is to see whether we cannot find something to tide us over, or to ameliorate the position—because I must be frank and say that I do not regard this problem as completely soluble. I should be holding out false hopes if I pretended that more than a palliative could be found.

May I begin by asking noble Lords to bear with me while I briefly outline the legal position? It is necessary to get that clearly in our minds because if we are to meet the points of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, and take up the suggestions he has made, we must do so in the light of the legal position as it stands at the moment. This is not generally fully known. Vehicles carrying loads of the kind we have been discussing fall into three categories. First, there are "normal vehicles," which are governed by Construction and Use Regulations, Those regulations restrict the laden weight of the vehicle and load up to, roughly, 20 tons. Dimensions of vehicles generally are covered, but there is no restriction on width of load. It may interest noble Lords to know that my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation is now considering amending those regulations in order to restrict the width of a load to one foot overhang on each side, with a maximum of 9 ft. 6 in. overall width of lead and vehicle together. Many loads which noble Lords may consider as "abnormal" are carried on vehicles of this type.

The second type of vehicles are those carrying what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, rightly defined as "abnormal indivisible loads" which, on account of weight or size, cannot be moved on a vehicle complying with Construction and Use Regulations and cannot, without undue expense or risk of damage, be divided. The special vehicles which must be used to carry these loads are governed by the Motor Vehicles (Authorisation of Special Types) General Order, 1952, which lays down certain conditions as to speed, attendants, wheel and axle weights; that in appropriate cases notices and indemnities must be given to proper authorities; that weight of load and carrier together must not exceed 150 tons, and that the width must not exceed 20 feet. That is the second or General Order class.

In the third class are vehicles carrying a load where the weight of load and carrier exceeds 150 tons or the width exceeds 20 feet. It is here that the special sanction of the Minister is required, and it is only in these cases that the Minister has effective power to prevent any nuisance. I have laboured this point deliberately, in order to bring home to noble Lords how rarely, according to the law as it now stands, my right honourable friend has any power to intervene or lay down the law or direct a method of transport. That applies only in that third, very restricted, category.


My Lords, will the noble Lord forgive me for interrupting him, but this is a very important point? The Minister himself makes regulations in the second class to which the noble Lord has referred, and he has complete control there also.


That is perfectly true, and it takes me to my next point. The logical conclusion of the noble Lord's argument is to bring down the figure from 150 tons to 120 or 130 tons, and I promise the noble Lord that I will have that point most carefully looked at. My immediate reaction is that it will involve a tremendous amount of work for a large number of people. Although that is a superficial observation it is the immediate reaction in my mind. That is the only solution I can see at the moment in view of the provisions of the regulations as they now stand. The legal definition of these abnormal loads is immaterial, compared with the abnormal nuisance they cause; and that is what we are really worried about—not legal definitions but the abnormal nuisance that these vehicles admittedly cause to all road users.

Just let me show your Lordships how much nuisance there is. There were something like 10,000 to 20,000 abnormal indivisible loads moved by road last year, and of these only about thirty to forty required specific sanction by the Minister. The Chief Constable of Birmingham recently stated that an average of five "abnormal indivisible loads" passed through that city every working day. I do not think that will surprise anyone who has recently driven through Birmingham. Any single indivisible load of about 20 tons upwards is "an abnormal indivisible load." That covers everything we have been talking about: large excavators, electric transformers and all the things on that long list which the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, read out to us. According to the records available to me, the heaviest load pulled so far is a series of steel castings, each of 185 tons net—or 245 tons gross, with carrying trailer—for a new giant steel press in the United States, sent from Sheffield to Liverpool for export. If the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, who seems to have particularly bad luck in this respect, happened to get behind that one, I can only console him by assuring him that he was stuck behind 700,000 dollars worth of export.

The noble Lord asked me whether I had had any experience of that sort. Yes, I have. I was in Salisbury at about 3 o'clock on the afternoon of September 12 of the present year. Anyone who lives within 100 miles of Salisbury will know why I single out that particular date—it was the date on which Mr. Chipperfield's circus was moving in from one direction to entertain the citizens of Salisbury, and Mr. Bertram Mills's circus was moving in from another direction for the same purpose. The two circuses met in the centre of Salisbury. I can assure your Lordships that if the spire of Salisbury Cathedral had been taken from the Close and put down in the middle of the high road no one would have noticed it. I do not know whether or not an elephant represents an "abnormal indivisible load," but I sat for two and a half hours behind a baker's van, and I reflected that if the good citizens of Salisbury were getting an excellent allowance of circuses that day, they were unlikely to get bread.

Lord Derwent has, I think, dealt adequately with the pros and cons of the alternative forms of transport of rail and sea, and I do not think I need labour the technical difficulties of sending certain of these loads by sea. That does not alter the fact that some of the loads about which Lord Lucas of Chilworth has been talking might have gone by sea. One can only find out and investigate every case. I should not think of contradicting the noble Lord and saying that he has not produced a case for maintaining that certain loads could have gone by sea. Lord Derwent has pointed out the technical difficulties of sending loads by sea—the considerations of cost, speed, liability to damage and so on. There may also be difficulties at the terminal points, of extra handling which is involved. The real point, however, is that some of the loads which the noble Lord mentioned could have gone by sea, and this I would not dispute. But there is, as yet, no means of compelling them to go by sea.

Now may we look for a moment at the attitudes of the various people who are concerned. I should like to deal first with the Service and other Departments, because they have been accused of not helping. The Service Departments and the Ministry of Supply (who are responsible for the manufacture and supply of Service equipment) move a considerable amount of heavy and bulky traffic. Normally, wherever possible, Government Departments use rail transport. I should like to look at the cases which the noble Lord gave and see whether any other means of transport than road could have been used. I hope I shall find very good reason why in those cases rail could not be used. But, as I say, normally Government Departments use rail transport. For example, the Ministry of Supply, in this year's Estimates, provide 72 per cent. of expenditure for transportation by rail. Road transport is used only because of urgency or the unsuitability of equipment for carriage by rail. In these cases the Departments are in close touch with the Ministry of Transport about routing. I hope that Government Departments will continue to set a good example and will continue what I hope it will be agreed has been good work in the past.

Now a word about the attitude of the hauliers and manufacturers. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, has put his case very clearly, as, indeed, have other noble Lords who have spoken upon this point. It is also well set out in this pamphlet Round the Mulberry Bush, a copy of which, appropriately enough, arrived on my breakfast table only this morning. In that pamphlet the road hauliers have set out their case. The practice of hauliers and manufacturers is naturally dictated primarily by economic motives. They want the minimum of expense, consistent with safety of handling and the speed required to fulfil their contracts. The cost of transport governs success or failure in competitive tendering, both abroad and at home. Hauliers are also moved primarily by the economic factor. But they are constantly consulting the Ministry's routing experts on routes for loads, voluntarily and outside legal observations. I should like to emphasise that fact particularly, because one or two harsh words have been said about them this afternoon. I should also like to emphasise that many of them have done their best, so far as they can, to mitigate this nuisance which is caused to the public. So long as hauliers observe the provisions of the Construction and Use Regulations or the Motor Vehicles (Authorisation of Special Types) General Order, the Ministry have no opportunity of preventing movement, save where a special order is required because the gross weight is over 150 tons or the width exceeds 20 ft.

I would next say a word about the attitude of the police. The police can only enforce the statutory provisions and see that all road users cause as little obstruction as possible. Under Article 19 of the General Order, however, they can require vehicles to take a different route or alter the date or time of the journey. The existence of these powers, I hope, meets to some extent the point raised by the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt. The police, I know, take great care to try to time these journeys so as to cause the minimum of inconvenience, but they have to take into account the fact that it is not as easy as it might be to move these big loads at night. I appreciate the validity of the noble and learned Earl's argument, however, and I will bring his point to the attention of the experts once again.

On the question of charging for the services of the police, it is not the practice of the police to charge for services when police are used as escort for heavy loads. I do not like the idea of charging. For one thing it is a novel principle. Normally, charges are made by the police only when they help on private property, as, for instance, guarding wedding presents or directing cars at political parties and so on. It has never been the practice to charge for the use of police on a public highway or in public places. They do their best to keep the roads clear, and to charge for their services would, I think, open the door to charging for police attendance on public processions or public property.

I can see a danger of extra payment being offered for extra attention. The real answer, surely, is the one that Lord Derwent gave and Lord Lucas of Chilworth admitted. If the police were to charge for these duties, it would merely be an added irritation from the point of view of the hauliers; though perhaps it would be an added comfort to the noble Lord, Lord Webb-Johnson. I do not believe that it would divert or discourage any hauliers from using the roads; I think it would merely add extra cost to their charges. I also see difficulty in assessing how the charge should be made. Would you charge, for instance, for the traffic "cop," who was in any case going out, and who took on this duty as part of his normal work? Would you charge for the traffic policeman on duty at the cross-roads in the normal way? I see considerable difficulties in working this out. I also see difficulties in making the charge bear any relation to the length of the journey, or to the amount of interference. However, I will look at the noble Lord's arguments in this connection, and consult my advisers to see whether what the noble Lord has produced carries more weight than points which have been made previously. As I have said, I do not like this very novel idea of charging for the services of the police in these matters. As I have indicated, they may be merely performing their routine duties in helping citizens using the highways, and not devoting themselves only to helping hauliers. It may well be that they are helping unfortunate people like the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, who have to be on the highway at the same time.

The last point I wish to come to is the attitude of Her Majesty's Government. Let me say clearly that Her Majesty's Government are seriously concerned. We realise that these slow-moving loads impede other road-users, and lead to impatient driving and bad driving. They cause damage to roads and bridges which is cumulative and is not attributable, like the Ardrossan case, to one individual load. I should, however, like to make it clear that I think it would be very unfair to make any undue criticism of long-distance lorry drivers who, on the whole, are as courteous and competent a body of drivers as any on the road. Undoubtedly, the problem is extremely complicated. The traditional policy of Her Majesty's Government has always been that the roads of the country should be free to all travellers, subject to reasonable speed requirements, and that the choice and mode of transport should be open to the users, who should not be limited to one form of transport. The consequence of this policy is that no hindrance is put in the way of abnormal indivisible loads moving if suitable routes are available and if the necessary requirements of the General Order are observed.

The special provision for the movement of loads and transporters of over 150 tons weight, and with a width of over twenty feet, only with the sanction of the Ministry, was part of an Agreement made in 1951 with hauliers and manufacturers, and is considerably lighter than pre-war. I am given to understand that so far it has worked well. Nearly all these abnormal indivisible loads are of vital importance to industry, and particularly to the export trade. Very many of them must go by road. They do not go by road and cause obstruction for the fun of it, but because they have to go by road and (though I have no statistics to prove it) because they cannot go by any other way. That does not alter the fact that there are loads which could go by some other way. Any stricter control over abnormal indivisible loads would require legislation and would mean a considerable increase in work, but those are not insuperable difficulties.

Let me say to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, if it is any comfort to him, that the Government are now going to reconsider the whole field of this problem. They are going into the whole thing from the beginning. They will consult all the interests concerned to see whether any steps can be taken to meet the difficulties of everybody who has to deal with this undoubtedly serious menace on the roads. I cannot hold out any hope that much more than has been suggested on both sides of the House this afternoon will come out of it. The Government will consider the noble Lord's suggestion of extending the existing powers to cover loads of 120 tons or 130 tons. What I think we must first do is to consult all the interests concerned, to see whether we cannot get some tidier, speedier and more satisfactory plan for the whole question of abnormal loads. I should be holding out false hopes to the noble Lord if I held out more than that. I do not think I have left anything out. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Webb-Johnson who, as a surgeon, might be anxious about leaving anything in, in this case I am anxious not to leave anything out. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, with whose views I express my sympathy. I hope that my assurance that we shall do everything we can to meet his difficulties will be of some comfort to him. We shall consult him and those who think like him, and hope, in due course, to find some real solution to this problem.

5.5 p.m.


My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, left anything out. I must confess that I did not expect him to give me everything for which I asked, but I feel that we have made progress. I am rather disappointed that he did not say something more positive, but at least I am happy to know that the whole field will be now covered. I congratulate the noble Lord on his reply. It was frank, exceptionally courteous and charmingly made. But I should like to say one thing to the noble Lord, Lord Derwent. When he accused me of special pleading, I do not know on which side he thought I was specially pleading. I admit that I am a shareholder in the railways; so is he. I have no shipping interests.


My Lords, I am sorry that there seems to be some misunderstanding about the unfortunate remark of mine about "special pleading." What I meant was that the noble Lord specified one or two loads which did not, perhaps, represent the majority of that type of load.


I frankly confess that there will always be abnormal loads that will have to be carried by road. Even if we have roads like the German autobahnen, we shall still have abnormal loads to be carried by road. I instanced some loads which I was certain could have been carried by other means, either by rail or by ship. If these loads are for export, eventually they must go by sea; so if they can be loaded on ship at one port, I feel equally certain that they can be loaded at another port. All it needs is organisation and co-ordination.

I warn noble Lords very seriously that unless something is done, within twelve months' time we shall have in this country an agitation to limit the number of motor cars on the roads. We have already had a proposal from a somewhat authoritative voice to prohibit any motor cars from coming into the City of London. We cannot have it all ways. Any "special pleading" that I do is for the convenience of all road users, and not for the monopoly of one. With 750,000 motor cars coming on to the roads—because the production of motor cars during the next three years will quadruple itself—what is to be the end of it all? Do we want restriction? Do we want the Ministry of Transport to be forced, as they once were, to issue licences for motor cars and to measure the number of motor cars to be purchased by the condition of the roads? Surely the noble Lord would newer agree to that.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, for what he is going to do. If he wants some more information about the malpractices of the Ministry of Supply on the West Cumberland road, I would tell him that I received my information from a retired naval captain who is a member of Cumberland County Council. He told me, in language characteristic of a retired naval captain, that he had transported more and bigger guns by rail than those that are now blocking the main South-West Cumberland road. If the noble Lord would like me to give him privately this gentleman's address, I shall be only too happy to do so.

One last point: the noble Lord said that he did not like ray suggestion that the police should be able to charge for their services because it was novel. What a confession for an uprising young Minister of approximately forty! Surely this Government are not burking such a suggestion. They are very shortly to introduce a Bill to rent the highways for the use of motorists. That is novel. Surely they do not burke allowing the police to charge for their services—not that it will make a major contribution to this problem, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Webb-Johnson, pointed out, the present situation is unfair to the ratepayer and the taxpayer, and at least if the police were able to charge it would swell the police fund; and out of the police fund we might get some more police patrol cars. I thank the noble Lords who have joined in this debate, and I thank my noble friend Lord Calverley for his contribution. I feel that we are going to make progress, and I shall have pleasure in watching that progress. I warn the noble Lord who replied that I shall return to this matter in three or four months' time. Leaving that threat hanging over his head, I Low beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.