§ 4.21 p.m.
§ LORD TEYNHAMrose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied that there are adequate administrative arrangements, coupled with sufficient modern snow-clearing equipment, to ensure the free movement of essential transport in the conditions of snow and ice which might reasonably be expected during the winter. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I put down this Question because I felt that many of your Lordships must have been concerned during the last few days at the dislocation of transport, not only on the roads but also on the railways, due to the very severe weather which we have been experiencing. We have also seen headlines in the Press indicating delay in clearance work on the icy roads and that the authorities lack the necessary equipment. We have also seen whole lists of trains 764 that have been late or held up altogether. It is, of course, proverbial that this country as a whole is not geared to withstand cold weather: pipes freeze, electrical failures occur, and many other inconveniences arise which need not happen if proper precautions are taken. Visitors from the United States and Canada laugh at our deficiencies in this respect. They are accustomed to an efficient transport service in weather conditions far more severe than any that we experience here. Surely it is high time that we treated this matter with the seriousness it deserves.
§ I have no doubt that the loss to industry during the last week or so could be computed in many thousands, if not millions, of pounds. I would say that it is almost unbelievable that, a week after the first heavy fall of snow, no fewer than twenty main roads were blocked and twenty-eight restricted to single-line traffic. My Question has been put down on the Order Paper to-day in order to obtain from Her Majesty's Government as much information as possible as to the steps that have been taken to aid local authorities in snow clearance, to put forward one or two suggestions and also to call attention to certain deficiencies on the railways as regards ice clearance. Your Lordships will recall that in the year 1947 similar conditions arose as in this winter, and on that occasion also many main roads were impassable. I understand that discussions were then held between the motoring organisations and the Ministry of Transport in order to work out a co-ordinated plan for the more efficient clearance of snow-bound roads. Many excellent recommendations were put forward, and I believe that a memorandum was sent by the Ministry of Transport to the divisional road engineers. Apparently, however, all this has had very little effect. The motoring organisations were prepared to make available to the highway authorities up-to-date weather and road information, together with the use of their telephone boxes as part of the communication network in tackling this problem. I can assure your Lordships that the motoring organisations have kept their part of the agreement, and I would ask Her Majesty's Government whether the present difficulties are due either to lack of co-ordination on the part of the highway authorities or, perhaps, to inadequacy of equipment and material.765
§ I should like to make the following suggestions to Her Majesty's Government to prevent a recurrence of the serious interference with road communications which we have experienced during the last week or so. First, I would say that the highway authorities should De required to submit to the Ministry of Transport details of their organisation set up for the clearance of snow from the roads in their areas. I submit that this organisation should be required to satisfy the Minister that adequate means exist for the collection of up-to-the-minute information about road conditions; also that lines of communication to labour squads can be kept open at all times; that snow-clearing equipment is located at strategic points throughout the area—that is a very important point; and also that arrangements exist for reserve labour to be called up in cases of emergency. I cannot help feeling that, with a little foresight and direction from the Ministry of Transport on the lines I have suggested, we might see a great improvement in the conditions on the roads in winter.
§ There is no doubt whatever that there are far too few up-to-date snow ploughs of the rotary type; also, of course, mechanical brushes, and, last but not least, really efficient mechanical sanding lorries which use sand and not beach pebbles, which I have seen used on one occasion by a local authority in this country. It is no use tackling the job some days after the snow has fallen. It must be taken in hand at the earliest possible moment to prevent the appalling formation of ridge ice which has beer, found on so many of our roads during the last week or so. It is this ridge ice which makes the roads almost impassable and does so much damage to the vehicles themselves. I have made it my business, on a number of occasions in the past few days, to be on the roads in different parts of the country, and while some local authorities have obviously done their best, others have done little or nothing. Why are more energetic steps being taken by some local authorities than by others? I have little doubt that the real answer is cost.
§ Perhaps Her Majesty's Government can inform your Lordships to what extent financial assistance is given for the purchase of snow-clearing equipment. I 766 understand that the local authorities receive no separate grant for snow-clearing equipment, except in the case of trunk roads, and the cost, therefore, has to come out of the annual grant for maintenance. What is more serious is that the expenditure on snow clearance must mean a curtailment in the routine road maintenance programme, which is already at a dangerously low level. I understand that last winter the County of Glamorgan spent no less than £34,000 on snow clearance on classified roads, entirely at the expense of road maintenance work, and only recently Kent County Council is reported to have incurred an expenditure of some £20,000 on snow clearance. I suggest to Her Majesty's Government that they must consider a special snow clearance grant to local authorities, which I am sure would more than counterbalance the loss to industry which is incurred at the present time when, owing to the expense involved, local authorities are unable to keep their roads open.
§ I should like to deal for a few moments with the railways. Is it really necessary for trains to run so late every time a heavy frost occurs? Year after year we hear of frozen points and frozen signals, and yet little appears to be done about it—with, I would say, one exception. I think it is true to say that the Southern Region, by good organisation, have been able to keep their electric trains running fairly well all through this cold spell. That is not true, however, of other railway Regions. I should like to ask the Government whether, in the national interest, they would issue a direction to the Transport Commission that all the railway Regions must be provided with sufficient flame guns to ensure that the points and signals can be unfrozen as soon as possible. Then I think we may get back to really good rail efficiency. I apologise to your Lordships for keeping you so long on an unstarred Question, but I feel that this is a matter of great importance, and my only regret is that I did not put it down as a Motion for Papers.
§ 4.29 p.m.
§ LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH
My Lords, I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, need apologise for what he has had to say or for the time he has taken to say it, because this is a vitally important matter. The whole trouble is that we are such a peculiar people living 767 in a meteorologically peculiar country. We need have only two weeks' fine weather in the summer and we have a drought; two weeks' rain and we have floods, about six inches of snow and three days of ten degrees of frost and we are all frozen up. Then, of course, a week or two afterwards the sun shines and we forget all about it, and nothing is ever done until the next time, when we talk about it all over again. The reason why I view this matter as so important is that at the present time the economic state of the country is such that we cannot afford to have the main highways, and thousands of miles of main roads, impassable in practically a quarter of the country. It is not because we cannot get the equipment. I should think that if there is one piece of equipment that has shown great advance in design during this last three or four years, it is the bulldozer: and yet, to see some of the antiquated "Heath Robinson" machines that are being used to try to push the snow off the roads of this country is absolutely farcical. The equipment is there to hand, but we do not spend the money upon it.
As the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, has said, the whole question boils down to one of cost. Who is to be responsible for clearing the main highways of this country so that essential traffic can operate? All the money comes from the Road Fund; and the county councils or the local authorities, who act as agents for the Ministry of Transport who, in Parliament's wisdom, were given responsibility for the construction of trunk roads some years ago—one of the wisest decisions ever made—have the choice of either maintaining the roads or clearing the snow. They get no extra grant, for this is what you have to call an "Act of God." The noble Lord has rightly mentioned Kent and Glamorgan. Glamorgan, I believe, have mortgaged, on clearing snow, practically the whole of their Road Fund grant, whereas some lucky counties in the Midlands and other salubrious spots, who have not had any snow, do not have to spend any money at all. There should surely be a special grant from the central Government, and the cost of clearance should not fall upon the ratepayer.
Let us admit that local authorities have fallen down very badly during this last 768 spell of bad weather. The reason is that they will not spend money. I am not lacking in sympathy for them or for the local ratepayer who is paying rates of, perhaps, 22s. or 23s. in the £. Look at the rural dweller: he gets no street lamps, no drainage and now no roads, yet he still has to pay perhaps 22s. or 23s. in the £ rates. As things are, there are often ice ridges in the gutter outside shops, so that one cannot pull up one's car to let the passengers get out. Only the other day I saw an aged woman who was trying to get across a road and who had to negotiate two or three feet of frozen snow and ice. I have myself travelled many miles of Class A roads solid with ice, which have never had a scrap of grit on them all through this period. A Member of your Lordships' House apologised to me last week because he was unable to get here to a certain debate in which I was interested. He said, "I could not get to the main road, the ice was so bad; and when I rang up the county authority they said they were very sorry but the roadman was ill."
That, my Lords, is what has happened. I am submitting that this question should be treated seriously, and I hope the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, will try to persuade Her Majesty's Government to call a conference of county councils and the Ministry of Transport and make a special allocation available for snow clearance and de-icing of roads in cases of emergency. This should not come out of one county council's allocation from the Road Fund. Nature does not spread her disfavours equally. Therefore, if an allocation out of the Road Fund is made on a carefully prepared budget for road maintenance, that should not be upset because the climatic conditions in one county call for 50 per cent. of the whole year's maintenance allowance to be used in clearing snow.
I must say, I hope without fear of being misunderstood, that local authorities do not always play fair and square in these matters. Many of the investigations which I have made have satisfied me that the Ministry of Labour have offered the local authorities labour temporarily unemployed, which they have had on their books, but the local authorities would not accept it. Road hauliers 769 have offered their vehicles at reasonable rates and the local authorities would not accept them; they did not want to spend the money. What they had to do was to pay much higher prices when conditions were bad so that they were forced into action. Are your Lordships aware that practically every main road out of Southampton was impassable—Southampton being one of the great ports of this country? Surely, economically we cannot afford that; surely it is cheese-paring on someone's part.
What the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, should do, I submit, is to suggest to the Ministry of Transport—who have a heavy responsibility in this matter and who have clone a very good job—that they have a conference with the County Councils Association and the County Boroughs Association and all who are responsible for the maintenance of main highways, whether within the ambit of the county council or the borough council. That conference could inquire whether there could not he a better scheme of organisation built up, better equipment provided, and a better allocation of money. The equipment should be more easily available. They should also see that this whole question is studied properly; I do not believe that it is. The noble Lord, Lord Hawke, will be aware that one of the chief troubles is not the depth of the snow that falls—that is relatively trivial. What matters is the drifts. Not enough thought has been given to windbreaks in this country. It is ridiculous to reflect that we had six inches of snow on some of our main highways and that they are frozen up because of winds that have blown right across the fields, piling snow against the hedges. I have seen drifts of five feet in depth on main roads—and there has not been a scrap of snow on the adjacent fields.
Then again we have no real method of de-icing. Common salt is no good—it is the worst possible thing to put on roads on which highly mechanised transport travels. We must study that problem. I once had a motor car to which £75 worth of damage was done in trying to pass a machine—a lorry behind which a "flinger" was being trailed, sending shingle flying thirty yards either side and back and front, all over everybody and over traffic, and leaving only a dribble over the road. I suspect that machine was used in the days 770 of the horse-carriage. What we want is an up-to-date de-icing plant that can travel at reasonable speeds along the main roads of this country and can de-ice the roads with a chemical substance which has not a corrosive backwash upon all mechanical transport travelling that way. I support the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, in his call for better organisation. In many of these bad weather emergencies—and let us pay tribute to the organisation of which the noble Lord is the Chairman—both motoring organisalions have done a very good job. So also have some of the local authorities. But there is a lack of planning, common to this country—a lack of real planning and equipment. If this short discussion has done any good, I think the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, will be highly gratified. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, will give your Lordships the assurance that he will make serious representations to Her Majesty's Government upon the lines I have suggested.
§ 4.42 p.m.
My Lords, may I say how grateful I am to the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, for not making this a Starred Question, thus enabling the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, myself and others to express our views on this subject. To me it is a serious matter. It is a question not only of the main roads, which have been mainly alluded to, but also of the unclassified roads. At the present moment, they get even less attention than the main roads. There seems to be a complete lack of co-ordination between one road authority and the next one to it. One road authority will clear the road and sand it, and then suddenly one runs on to another section of the road which is just like a skating rink, so that the road is made practically impassable for the whole of its length because of the skating rink in the middle of it. A little co-ordination would ensure that that road was kept open and could be used by traffic, while other roads could be left so that traffic would have to avoid them.
There is another point that I would ask the Government to look into. The Minister of Transport ultimately controls roads and railways. In my part of the world, apart from man-made hills, such as railway bridges, the country is extraordinarily flat. I have one hill about three miles to the east of me. Where the 771 first hill to the west of me comes, I do not know. The first hill to the south of me is about seven or eight miles away, and I do not know where there is a hill to the north. The local dustman operates on the road—and "dust" is about what the authorities put on our roads. They call it sand, but it is so fine as not to be very valuable. The dustman goes round and sands his road, until he comes to the start of the hill. But as that is railway property, he stops, and you have to get up that hill as best you can. When you have got to the top you proceed to slide down that hill as carefully as you can on the other side.
Within a mile of my house there is a particularly dangerous road entry: a side road comes in almost at the top of the ramp leading up to the bridge, certainly within six feet of the parapet of the bridge. A fortnight ago, I was coming along that side road. I got to the top and saw a car coming along the road to meet me, so I had to stop. I then had to retire, gracefully and carefully, backwards down the hill until I had gone sufficiently far along the flat to get up enough momentum to climb the hill again. Surely it is not beyond the wit of the Ministry of Transport to say to the railways, "You shall arrange with the local authority that, when the roads are made impassable by snow or ice, you will clear and sand those roads for us." It is quite ridiculous that in the middle of a perfectly good sandy road that is absolutely level one should come suddenly to a hill which is just a sheet of ice. I am sure that that matter could be, and should be, dealt with. Another point I was going to make, but it has been made already by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, is the fatuity of trying to remove a three-or four-foot pile of snow in the middle of a road by a bulldozer. All it does is to cram up the snow until there is a wall that neither man nor beast can shift, except with an electric or hydraulic pick. What is required is a rotary snow-plough.
§ 4.48 p.m.
§ LORD DERWENT
My Lords, in wishing to support the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, may I draw the attention of Her Majesty's Government to the way in which they deal with these icy conditions in France at the present time, because it may produce some ideas when 772 they are considering the matter? About ten days ago, I was in Paris, and on the last night I was there it started snowing at about six o'clock. It went on snowing until after midnight. It froze quite hard throughout the night and was still freezing in the morning. Yet when I went to the station in the morning all the streets—not the pavements, but the actual roadways—were clear of snow and ice. So I asked what the authorities there do. Apparently, as soon as there is a forecast of immediate snow or ice they put down sand and salt (I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, does not like salt, but they mix it with sand) if possible before the snow comes, but certainly as soon as it starts to fall and before the ice forms. As a result, the snow does not be for some days on the roadways. As we left Paris, there was a considerable amount of frozen snow alongside the railway, but the road at the side of the railway track running to the port was quite clear. That, too, had been dealt with before the heavy snow of the night before.
Before I left Paris, I asked what the authorities did to their main trunk roads which, after all, extend for much longer distances than ours. As I understand it, they have now bought a certain number of extremely expensive, new, de-icing snow-ploughs, which carry a crew of six men. They also carry six tons of salt and sand mixed, and are all equipped with wireless. I am told that these machines cost about £12,000 each, but they are the property of the central Government and are directed by regions, not by the local authorities. As soon as snow starts to drift on the roads, or a particularly bad patch is found, one of these fast-moving vehicles is wirelessed for, is sent off to that district and deals with the block at once. As a result, until three days ago at any rate (I do not know what the position is now), the long and difficult road, N.6—not the high road, but the one that runs at normal level between Paris and the South of France—had not been closed in any portion for more than half an hour; and that was only for certain drifts.
If they can deal with the matter in that way in France, where there are longer roads than we have here, and where there is more severe weather, I should have thought that if the Ministry of Transport bought and operated half a dozen of 773 these special machines, which could be sent wherever the conditions were worst, then the roads would never get into the appalling state that they do now. Furthermore, the roads would be dealt with before they got into that very bad state. Now we get a bit of snow; a slight thaw; more snow; a hard frost; and then, somewhere about the third clay, the local authorities, who are very reluctant to move, decide that they will send their snow plough down. All that happens, of course, is that they pack the snow and make it solid ice. The effort is a complete waste of time, money and labour. In regard to main roads, I am quite certain that if snow conditions are to be dealt with at the earliest possible moment they must be dealt with by the Ministry itself, and not by local authorities. The local authorities' responsibility should be the non-trunk roads.
§ 4.52 p.m.
My Lords, the burden of the speeches this afternoon with regard to this problem has been the absolute necessity of consultation on a national scale, and not leaving it to the very patchy method which is adopted at present. Some local authorities do better than others, and we have heard that ridiculous remark quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, "Nothing can be done because the roadman is ill." That sort of thing is absolutely absurd. The noble Lord, Lord Derwent, has told us something of what is being done in France. It seems to me that Her Majesty's Government should get out plans for "Operation Snowplough" in order that operational plans and the means for carrying them out are ready for another such emergency. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, said, this is not an insoluble problem; it is mainly a matter of a few heavy drifts of snow in certain isolated places. The depth of snow throughout is rarely anything to worry anybody at all. Like so many other things, such as in medicine and in the prevention of fire, it is a question of having on the spot the first aid box or the fire extinguisher before conditions become impossible.
We know that there are limits to the amount that can be spent on specially adapted machinery which may be used not more than once in several years, but there is a need for a central reserve. I 774 would say that the key to this came from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, when he spoke of the bulldozer. The bulldozer can be used for many operations. In the yards of our great contractors there must be thousands of bulldozers at the present time. If they could be mobilised quickly in weather of this kind they would be invaluable. Obviously, in such weather big earth moving works cannot be carried on and the bulldozers are probably idle. Therefore, as I say, with proper mobilisation this problem can be tackled.
Having said that, I would pay tribute to the hulk of the county councils—particularly those in Surrey and Hampshire, where I recently drove many miles during the worst period. With limited facilities and limited money at their disposal they tackled the problem extremely well. I was driving an Australian who had been only 48 hours in this country, and he was tremendously impressed to find trucks going round at a late hour at night, spreading sand and gravel. Within limits they were doing well. But there were notable exceptions, when once one came to the boundary of a borough. In particular, I noticed Winchester, Alton, and other towns where there was a tremendous deterioration. In the streets of Winchester the ice was far worse than it was anywhere outside in the open country. It seems to me that some boroughs have done very little, either on their own or in consultation with the counties, to prevent their streets from becoming highly dangerous.
I would raise only two further points. First of all, I was astonished to see in the press the account of an old peoples' home which was isolated, and of police and others wading waist deep through the snow to get to these people. We have in this country the Ski Club of Great Britain. I am sure that an appeal to them for skiers and skis would have had an instant response, and many good skiers would have gone with their rucksacks to carry provisions through. They would have been glad to do that. The other thing I want to say is that during this period I have had experience only of the Southern Region of British Railways, about whom I should like to re-echo what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Teynham. With their new oil trains they kept the electric services running 775 throughout the cold period, as far as I know almost completely to time. I should like also to add my thanks to Lord Teynham for bringing up this important subject in such a timely manner.
§ LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH
My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, replies, would your Lordships allow me, in reply to Lord Derwent, to correct one thing that I said? If it is inhibited, salt is quite good; and also if it is mixed with a sodium composite. But to spread rock salt by itself is most injurious to mechanical appliances.
§ 4.57 p.m.
My Lords, I think I should first express the regret of my noble friend Lord Birkenhead that he was indisposed at the last moment and is unable to be here: he would certainly dearly have loved a skirmish with his old debating opponents who are now sitting behind me. I only hope that your Lordships will consider my reply adequate in the circumstances, and that it will not be another case of the "ill roadman." In this country, of course, nearly every winter we have in some part of the country a heavy snowfall, in which case some roads are invariably blocked. Fortunately, we rarely have a heavy snowfall over the whole of the country, with all the roads being blocked. The blocks are caused first of all by drifts from the wind, occasionally, but not very often, by the sheer depth of snow that falls, and the slipping on ice on hills. The visitation of these catastrophes is most fortuitous and unpredictable, as regards both time and place, and that is why it is extremely difficult to put into operation some of the remedies which noble Lords suggest.
Nobody could quarrel with using forethought, locating plant at strategic places and so on, if anybody could decide in advance what on earth the British weather is doing to do, and where on earth, in the circumstances, is a strategic place. However, that is the result of the British climate, which gives us these problems but which, at the same time, gives us certain advantages which are denied to the foreigner. Our weather is not like that of the Continent of Europe or the United States of America, where snowfall is much more regular in its incidence and measures can be devised 776 with greater certainty. The remedies we can use here are the clearing of the snow and the gritting and the salting of the ice. Lord Lucas of Chilworth does not like the salting of the ice. Naturally, the opinions of an ex-Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport must carry great weight on matters of this sort. I may say here, I think, that I am very happy that this debate has attracted such distinguished speakers as Lord Lucas himself, as well as the Chairman of the Automobile Association and the Chairman of the British Road Federation.
The types of roads in our country are the trunk roads, for which the local authorities act as agents, for the Ministry, in maintaining, and which amount altogether to about 8,000 miles; the classified roads, amounting to about 80,000 miles, which the local authorities maintain on their own account, with a grant from the Central Government, varying from 75 per cent. down to 50 per cent., depending on their class. Finally, there is an even longer mileage of unclassified roads, which are entirely the affairs of the local authorities. On the trunk roads, the Ministry pay 100 per cent. of all the maintenance, and the annual grants come to approximately £9 million. They work through their agents, the local authorities. On classified roads the grant is approximately £19 million, but on the unclassified roads, as I have indicated, there is no grant. The grants that are made definitely cover snow clearance.
My noble friend Lord Teynham has raised the question of the administrative arrangements. First of all, the agent authorities have responsibility for the trunk roads, and the highway authorities for the classified roads. They deploy their own machinery and borrow, if necessary, from the Ministry's pool. The Ministry's divisional road engineers can advise them, and they can co-ordinate the local authorities in a particular area by means of local authority conferences. The divisional engineers, further, can co-operate with the chief officers of police to minimise traffic dislocation. And every year the Ministry of Transport arrange with the other service Departments for assistance where required from them. The financial responsibility is clearly, in respect of the trunk roads, 100 per cent.
777 from the central allocation. On the classified roads, it is 75 per cent., 60 per cent, and 50 per cent. The whole of the unclassified roads fall entirely upon the local authority funds. But the maintenance allocation has for many years—I do not know how many, but certainly it is a great many—definitely covered the clearing of snow. Let me read a few lines from the Ministry of Transport Circular No. 646, of July, 1950. The circular says, with regard to maintenance, that the following works will be accepted:pitching, gritting, clearance of snow for traffic purposes,and so on. So it has long been the custom, at all events, that this maintenance grant has covered the removal of snow. Moreover, it is not unexpected or unusual, because snow does fall nearly every winter in this country, and over the years most local authorities get their share in their districts. One must admit that some local authorities might get an unusual share, and I was impressed by the point which Lord Lucas of Chilworth made, that they should get some relief in the event Of something of that sort occurring. I should have liked to give your Lordships a statement showing the proportion which the total amount spent on snow clearance bears to the total maintenance allocation in a normal year, bur. I found that to produce the figures would have entailed more labour and cost than would have been worth while.
Now as to the equipment. First of all, the Ministry of Transport have their central pool at Hendon. Then there are the separate pools of the local authorities. At Hendon there are (at least there were: they are all out working now) 121 heavy snowploughs, 414 small snowploughs, 6 rotary ploughs and 48 gritting lorries. And, of course, all the local authorities have their own pools of machinery as well.
§ LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH
Will the noble Lord forgive me for intervening for a moment? He has just given the figure of the number of snowploughs at Hendon. Does that figure cover just snowploughs, or does it cover ploughs and the method of propulsion as well?
The 121 heavy-duty ploughs that I have mentioned are "cum-lorry." The 414 small snowploughs are for attachment to the local authorities' 778 prime movers in due course. I have not the figures for the total number of snowploughs for the whole of the country, but I have them from the County Council of Kent—and Kent, as your Lordships know, has been one of the most heavily afflicted counties recently. They have 10 heavy-duty ploughs and 25 small snowploughs. There are some ploughs operating in that territory from the reserve pools. All those are on the trunk roads. But there are the other roads, and on these there are 45 heavy ploughs and 100 small ploughs. If any noble Lord wishes for the figures of some other area of England I can obtain them. But the figures I have given for Kent represent a not inconsiderable amount of equipment—35 snowploughs, of all sorts, for the trunk roads, and 145 for the other roads.
What is the type of equipment required? My right honourable friend the Minister believes that this is the type of equipment which they should have, but, of course, he is only too delighted to hear from any noble Lords with ingenious minds who can think of other mechanical devices. To-day, for instance, we have heard, in the sphere of mechanics, of deicing arrangements on our roads. That, of course, opens up interesting avenues of thought, but whether it is a practical method or not ant afraid that I cannot say. The question of windbreaks has also been raised. That matter has actually been under study, and is, in fact, being looked into at this particular moment. I can, however, imagine certain difficulties. It is by no means easy to predict from what quarter snow is likely to come, and it is just possible that windbreaks might also provide the focus for considerable drifts if the snow happened to come from the wrong direction.
All the suggestions which have been made will be carefully studied by my right honourable friend. I must confess that, not knowing shorthand, I was not able to keep pace with them: they were so multifarious and came so thick and fast. But, roughly, they can be divided into three sorts. First, there were the administrative suggestions. It struck me that the lines suggested were distinctly untraditional. Whereas in this country we like to devolve government to local authorities, my noble friends' suggestions seemed rather in the reverse direction. They suggested that tie Minister should order local authorities to do this and that 779 —which, of course, he cannot do and that snow clearance on trunk roads should be entirely a matter for the Minister. At the moment he has no organisation for doing that. Of course, if this problem becomes one of grave national importance, we may have to revise our devolution of local government. We should have to look into the matter; but the suggestion is definitely an innovation.
Secondly, there is the question of mechanical equipment, with which I have already dealt. Then there is the financial question. I have emphasised that the normal maintenance charge for roads is supposed to cover snow clearance. Suppose that there were a separate allocation, does any noble Lord believe that during this current year that separate allocation would have been over and above the other allocation? I do not think so; it would have been out of the other allocation. There would have been the same amount of money put into two separate pockets, and it would not have been possible to transfer money from one pocket to another. I submit that the past arrangement for a global allocation is much the better one from the point of view of local authorities. I have noted the point about giving assistance in buying snow-clearing equipment. It may well be that something of that sort may be necessary and my right honourable friend will certainly look into that matter.
As I have said, I have left many points unanswered, but they will all be attended to, and noble Lords will be answered in due course. The problem resolves itself into keeping the main traffic lines open and then dealing with minor communications, but I have taken it that my noble friend's Motion concerns only main traffic lines. My right honourable friend believes that arrangements at his disposal are reasonably satisfactory to maintain the main traffic lines. The figures I have concern the County of Kent, where I understand that several of the principal "A" roads were blocked for between four and five hours, and one road, the A251, for twelve hours. If that is so, and if that takes into account the full incidence of the blizzard, that is not too bad a record. I think we may pay some slight tribute to those men who are out, very often before daybreak, when most of us are tucked up in bed, gritting the roads 780 under the most appalling conditions of cold. I think that on the whole they have done their job very well.
By and large, I am not sure whether the noble Lord wants more equipment, and therefore more money for road-clearing works, or more money in the allocation, so that the same amount can be spent on snow-clearing while the maintenance part of the allocation would be relieved. If the former, my right honourable friend does not think it necessary to spend a great deal more money on equipment at the moment. If the latter, it would mean a net total addition to the national expenditure. While noble Lords are all protagonists of economy, when it comes to their own particular interests noble Lords seldom fail to advocate measures which would add to the national bill. We are all guilty of this and I have been at times.
My Lords, does the noble Lord not think that increased allocation to local authorities for snow clearance might well be counterbalanced by the loss to trade and industry during the last fortnight, which was colossal? That is one of my main points.
Enormous sums could be spent to avoid losses to industry and trade in one direction or another, and this is just one of the others. We admit that our spending on roads is inadequate at the moment, but we have had a grave financial stringency, and we have to be careful how we allocate the money which we have to spend. In future years, if more money can be allocated for the maintenance of roads the Minister would like to allocate it to global maintenance, including snow clearing, rather than use the side wind of a separate snow-clearing allocation to swell the maintenance allocation. If there are serious snowfalls resulting in abnormal expenditure, then the whole situation will have to be examined. This may well arise from the fact that snow clearance tends to fall at the end of the financial year. In fact, heavy expenditure on snow clearance might well result in overspending the allocation, and so it might have to come up for revision in any case.
To sum up, my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation is satisfied that the existing administrative arrangements and snow-clearing 781 equipment held by local authorities and in the Ministry's reserve depôt provide reasonably against undue delays to essential road transport through snow and ice during the winter. However, I am afraid that delays must inevitably occur sometimes in clearing snowfalls when they are heavy and concentrated, and it would be quite uneconomic, in the widely varying weather conditions of this country, to provide equipment and labour on a scale adequate to deal everywhere with the exceptional conditions.