HL Deb 03 March 1954 vol 186 cc60-70

3.0 p.m.

LORD BRABAZON of TARA rose to draw attention to the inadequacy of our road system; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have the privilege of moving the Motion which stands in my name. I know perfectly well that one only has to mention the word "road" when vistas of extended debates on many subjects rise to the minds of noble Lords. There are such things as accidents to be debated, parking, and speed limits. I know perfectly well that these matters are of extreme importance, but to-day I want to confine my remarks, and I hope the remarks of those who follow, to the road situation as a function of our economic life. I have not the power to regulate the debate, nor has anybody else in this House, but I think it will be to the advantage of all concerned if we stick to that rather narrow channel.

The first thing I want to tell your Lordships, if you do not know it already, is that this country has the densest traffic per mile of any in the world. There are no fewer than 18.1 vehicles per mile. Consequently, we have a problem here which is not the problem of other countries. I want to pay tribute to Mr. Christopher Brunner, who has made a most exhaustive survey of the economic side of road development, and I quote many of his figures. I have every reason to believe that they are correct—nobody has challenged them. The expenditure on road transport in 1950 was no less than £1,200 million—that is, about 11.5 per cent. of our national income. In 1951, the figure had risen to £1,400 million—about 12.5 per cent. of our national income. And it is a fact that road transportation accounts for almost 10 per cent. of the cost of all production and distribution in this country. That is a very important figure. To show how road transport and the costs thereof come into manufacture, in analysing the costs of a great motor factory in the Midlands, it was discovered that they had raw materials and goods from 750 sources averaging 100 miles distant from the factory, and that no fewer than 700 lorries delivered daily at the works. That, I think, gives us a picture of the importance of road transportation in our national economy. Therefore, it is obvious that roads are a capital equipment in industry to-day, and a very important one. I do not think that fact has been sufficiently appreciated by successive Governments. While they are quite prepared to spend money on capital equipment for making industry more efficient, they have all failed to realise the importance of roads.

Let me quote one activity of the Government to-day—namely, that of putting down London Airport. Sir Ben Lockspeiser, the Government scientist, said the other day that the amount of concrete in London Airport was enough to make a two-track road, thirty feet broad, from London to Edinburgh—a remarkable statement. But we can see that we pour money into one thing and forget something else which is even more important. Take electricity. Since 1945, we have spent £600 million on the development of electrical generation, yet since the beginning of the century we have spent only £400 million on our roads. It is interesting to note that the actual contribution of electricity in manufacture is only 3 per cent. of the total cost of production, whereas the cost of roads and transportation is 10 per cent. Supposing a Chancellor of the Exchequer had proposed to put a tax upon lathes, what a scream there would have been throughout the whole country! But while a tax upon lathes would have affected only some Manufacturers, a tax on transport affects all manufacturers.

May I draw attention to the situation relevant to taxation on road transport to-day? The Chancellor of the Exchequer derives £293 million a year from road taxation—£67 million from licences and £226 million from fuel taxation. I am not going to suggest for one moment that all money from motor transport taxation should be spent on roads. Your Lordships may remember that when the original Road Fund was formed, the idea was that the licence duty should be allocated to the Road Fund to be spent upon roads. I freely admit that there is a luxury element in all private motor cars, which is a perfectly legitimate thing to tax for Exchequer purposes. But when we come to the commercial side of road transport, whilst there is every reason to tax commercial vehicles so that they pay for the roads they use, we must realise that when they are taxed further than that such tax is nothing but a tax upon industry. To-day, we are deriving from motor taxation four and a quarter times the amount of money that we are spending upon the roads.

For a moment, I should like to analyse what is happening to our expenditure upon the roads, compared with what we did before the war. One cannot dispute the fact that to-day our roads are degenerating in quality. Maintenance is not comparable to what it was before the war. To-day, we are spending only 65 per cent. of the pre-war level. Before the war, we used to resurface a road after nineteen years; now, we resurface after forty-four years. Along this line deterioration takes place. On improvements to roads before the war, we spent £10½ million; to-day, we are spending only £4½ million, and £1½ million. of that is to remove "black spots." On new construction, before the war we spent £3½ million—a modest figure. Now, we are spending £1½ million; and that includes roads on new housing estates. Adjusting money values, those figures mean a reduction of about 90 per cent.

I will not go through a long catalogue of the new works which are required, and required urgently, but I should like to draw attention to one road which, in my view, is more pressing than any other. Successive Governments have, rightly, developed industry in South Wales. A fine effort it has been, and the people in that area have reacted in a wonderful way. But they are not joined to the Midlands in any way: from the point of view of communication by road, they might be in the Channel Islands. If we are to make that venture a success, and link it with the industrial Midlands, a big road is wanted urgently from Birmingham to South Wales. I should also like to draw attention to the main artery between England and Scotland, a road which is humorously called the Great North Road. There is nothing "great" about it in any way; it is practically a two-track road the whole distance. Finally I would draw attention to the London-Southampton road. That also is a two-track road, yet it joins our greatest passenger port with the greatest metropolis in the world. When we have all these great new projects, let us not forget that it is no use getting people easily into a town and then leaving them in a congested and too narrowly planned metropolis. I understand that the last major road improvement that we had in London was Kingsway, and that nothing has been done since. I understand that my noble friend Lord Latham, who has been, so to speak, muzzled for the last six years, in view of his important duties in London Transport, will tell us a little about the flow of traffic in London. We shall look forward with interest to hearing what he has to say, and we shall be glad to know how much the delay in traffic has cost us.

I know that it is difficult for anybody to be in a position of wanting reduced taxation and at the same time advocating increased expenditure. It has been proposed in another place, and in many outside quarters, that a road loan should be started by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I support such a proposal. I make the following suggestion, so that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should not have to earmark more money than is necessary. If he would anchor the taxation from road transport at a figure, and allow any increase in that taxation to flow towards paying the interest and sinking fund of a loan, then I do not think he would be embarrassed; and the money would be forthcoming. I have another proposition on which I am particularly keen but with which some of my friends do not agree. It is a revival of what is sometimes looked on as an archaic practice —namely, the toll road. I have been impressed in America at seeing the remarkable way in which bridges—notably over the East River—have been erected there, and, due to a small toll, have paid for themselves and now bring in a steady revenue for other purposes. I do not in any way advocate tolls for a long trunk road; I do not think the idea suits that kind of road, because it would require attendance to people coming in at the side all along the road, which is not desirable. But for local works, for a small by-pass, or something of that sort, I believe that it might well be indulged in. It would be no penalty to anybody. If, for instance, there were a by-pass to Staines, Maidstone or Chatham, if you had the time and were prepared to go through the town, you could do so; but if you went the short quick way you would pay your 2s. 6d. and make use of the by-pass. That would not be a hardship.

I hope that in these few words I have made clear the grave situation that faces us to-day on the question of roads. We are many years out of date in this respect I only hope that in this debate we shall not have any, so to speak, "Billy Graham" speeches of "how to be saved"—from death on the roads, important as is the subject, but that we shall confine ourselves strictly to the economic situation relative to the roads. It is, indeed, an important subject, and if we hammer at it—because one debate alone will not do; we must keep on hammering at it—one day we may obtain a better system of roads, which will have the most profound effect upon the commercial potentialities and the prosperity of our country. I beg to move for Papers.

3.16 p.m.


My Lords, when I saw on the Order Paper this Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, I wondered what he could possibly find fresh to say upon this subject, because if there is one question which your Lordships have been most assiduous in discussing during the last five or six years it is the problem of the roads of this country and the part they play in the industrial and economic life of the country. But the noble Lord has succeeded in bringing at least some new thoughts, and old ideas put in a different way, before your Lordships this afternoon. I shall try to follow him as closely as I can, and to confine the majority of my remarks to what he has termed the economic aspect of our national highways. The noble Lord referred to the cost of transport as a percentage of total production cost. If I heard him aright, he said that transport accounted for something in the region of 10 per cent. I should have put that percentage far higher. Some figures given in a survey some years before the war—if my memory serves me aright, it was in 1926—showed that of the cost of the price of an article to the ultimate purchaser the cost of movement was somewhere in the region of between 75 and 80 per cent.; that is to say, the cost of movement from the time of the mining of the raw material, and through fabrication, until the article reached the hands of the ultimate purchaser, was between 75 and 80 per cent

. I believe the noble Lord has rendered a service at this particular time in drawing our attention and that of the country to the cost of transportation, because, in my view, we are at present in grave danger of pricing ourselves out of the export market. I would beg your Lordships to look at this problem most seriously. We are at the moment engaged in a fight for our economic salvation. Exhortation to industry to export more is no good if the price is unattractive to our markets and is not, at least, comparable with that of our competitors. I made a speech in July, 1952, when I said very much the same thing as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, has said. In my studies of this problem I have come to the definite conclusion that traffic on our roads is getting slower and slower. What I have called the conveyor belts of industry, which is only another name for the roads of this country, are getting slower. That is due to the fact that our roads are over-trafficked, and the congestion is growing every day. There is nothing like congestion, whether it is on one of the roads of the country or in a production factory, to put up cost.

Here I will part from the wish of the noble Lord, because f know that your Lordships could never have a debate of this nature, with seventeen speakers, without somebody raising the question of roads and road accidents. Road accidents are due to exactly the same cause as the high cost of transportation, and that is congestion. An efficient highway system is a safe highway system, and we shall never cure the high cost of transport, as we shall never cure the road accident problem, until we do away with congestion; because do not forget that 80 per cent. of the road accidents in this country still occur in built-up areas. It is getting to such a state that no one is safe from accidents. Even the most careful drivers on the road to-day become involved in accidents because of that congestion. As I said in your Lordships' House not long ago, congestion breeds frustration, bad manners and all the atmosphere of road accidents; and I regret to say that, in my view, the manners of all classes of drivers on the roads to-day are steadily deteriorating. In my opinion it is not because they want to be bad mannered. To drive on some of our roads to-day is a. nightmare. You have only to test it by driving a motor-car and trying to get from a side road into the main stream of traffic. How many will halt and wait for you to come in? Generally speaking, the old, grey-haired lorry driver is about the last remaining gentleman of the road. This is not because we are inherently bad mannered; it is because of this terrible congestion.

I do not think there is one royal road to the cure of this problem of high trans-portal ion costs or road accidents. I have tried in your Lordships' House to illustrate one minor aspect of it, and I think it is only by removing some of these causes, little by little, that we shall make any great headway. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara —and it is forced upon us every day in the figures emerging from the Treasury —that it is difficult to advocate the lowering of taxation and an increase of expenditure. if I am honest with your Lordships this afternoon, and I am asked which I think would be for the betterment of this country as a whole, the lowering of income tax and the heightening of the incentive to produce more or a vast sum expended on the roads, I tell your Lordships frankly that I should choose the first, because I believe the second would then come automatically.

Because we must have a smaller expenditure upon the roads of this country than we should all like and the problem deserves, it behoves those who have the spending of this money to spend it to the best possible advantage. I question whether the amount that is being spent to-day on the roads is being spent to the best advantage. I believe that in this matter there arc too many cooks; there are too many people who have the spending of money. I could illustrate that by pointing to one or two stretches of road. I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, is sitting opposite, and I will mention one that he knows well. One of the growing main roads of this country is the road from Newbury—where the noble Lord lives—to Abingdon. It is now one of the main routes from the South Coast to the Midlands. I suppose there is not an "A" road in this country which has such bad alignment as the Abingdon—Newbury road. For the last six months they have been "messing about" with it—because that is the only expression I can use—putting kerbing on one side and then on the other, not increasing the width of the road and doing nothing for the alignment, when we all know that in any sensible road construction scheme that road will, in a measurable space of time, have to be realigned along its whole length from Harwell to Newbury. That is an illustration of the waste of money. One sees the same waste, which involves the National Exchequer and the Ministry of Transport, in the 75 per cent. grant made at the whim of the local authorities.

We hoped to save the trunk roads of this country from this kind of thing when, some years ago, we brought all the trunk roads under the Ministry of Transport. I believe that if we are going to spend the amount of money which is allocated to the maintenance and construction of roads to the best possible advantage, we cannot have all these people dipping their hands into the purse for their little pet schemes. I would ask the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, who is to wind up this debate on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, to see whether he can bring some pressure to bear, so that this money is not wasted on routine things such as widening a road by nine inches to a foot merely because it is laid down that a certain class of road must be a certain width. The Government should see that such schemes are not given first priority.

This is where I again part company with the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara. The noble Lord mentioned two things: first, that road expenditure should be financed by a loan. I am wholeheartedly opposed to that. If we in this country do not learn from experience it is about time we did. I remember the pledge on the Road Fund which was given by Mr. Lloyd George. That held no terrors later for an impecunious Chancellor of the Exchequer whose name, out of sympathy and feeling for noble Lords opposite, I will not mention. That is the wrong way. It is a bad principle. The roads of this country are a national charge, and that charge should be borne out of the Exchequer and paid for fairly by everybody. The next matter about which I quarrel with the noble Lord is the suggestion that we should go back to turnpikes or tolls in this country, The noble Lord said that it would be more attractive for the motor vehicle operator to pay half a crown to go on a by-pass than to travel on one of the ordinary traffic-congested roads. One of the problems facing us to-day is the fact that we spend millions of pounds on by-passes, and they are not used when they are free. The congestion in some of our towns, such as Winchester. Oxford and attractive and other historical places like those, all of which have by-passes, has not diminished very much.

Now, my Lords, I am not going to say that those by-passes were a waste of money, but I think that this is one of the questions which the Government ought to consider. I put this suggestion again to the noble Earl: that we shall soon have to find a way of enforcing the use of by-passes by the very heavy traffic that at the present time holds up the rest of the traffic in our cities. I am glad to see the noble and gallant Earl the Minister of Defence here, because I am going to tell him, quite plainly, that he is one of the worst offenders. I say to the noble and gallant Lord, the Secretary of State for Air also that he, with his Queen Mary trailers, is one of the worst offenders. Huge tanks are carted round this country on huge transporters, and some of the abnormal loads that go through our big cities cause the very congestion about which we are complaining. In the last debate we had in your Lordships' House on this subject, I cited cases of boats being transported from the north of England to the south by road. If that is not Gilbertian, in a country of this size, surrounded by the sea, I do not know what is. I have seen ships' lifeboats transported from the Tyne to Southampton by road, taking up the time of the police and congesting the roads.

If we cannot have new roads, surely common sense dictates that we should utilise to the best advantage the roads we have; but we are not doing it. We cannot, I realise, put some, perhaps many, of these loads on the railways, for the bridges are unsuitable: the loads cannot go underneath the bridges. I am trying to turn my thoughts and my approach to this problem in the direction of what we can do to make the best of the present situation. I do not want the noble Earl to wind up this debate from a Treasury brief saying that we cannot afford to spend any more money; and I am going to suggest how we can improve the position without spending any more money. Some of these big loads—these huge electrical apparatus, cranes and other abnormal loads which are a curse on the roads—could be fabricated in a different manner and could be taken in sections. The other day I saw a piece of equipment being transported which would only just go down a twenty-foot road. It was obvious on a cursory examination that the whole contraption could have beer dismantled and put in five-ton lorries. As I said before, some of our haulage contractors boast by advertising how they can congest the roads by taking these abnormal loads through traffic; they think it is good advertising.

I hope the noble Earl will not tell me of the difficulties in this matter. The noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, yesterday said that nobody (he particularly mentioned the Home Secretary) can instruct the police on these matters. I want to ask who can instruct the police. Do the police control Parliament or do Parliament control the police? I do not know who is authorised to see that the roads are not congested in this way; but surely Her Majesty's Government can find a way of seeing that these loads do not hold up all the essential traffic. If we cannot have these roads, then I beg the Government, first of all to see that the money we have is spent to the best advantage—that we are not just slavishly following a set plan, irrespective of more urgent requirements; and secondly, to see that the by-passes of this country—and they are excellent by-passes—are not so much money wasted. We have spent in the past a great deal of money on pedestrian tunnels. There are tunnels under some of the main roads going out of London which are never used; your Lordships could take your beds and go to sleep in them, and never be disturbed for weeks on end—and they cost millions of pounds. There are bridges over certain roads—the Kingston by-pass for instance—over which, I hazard a guess, nobody ever goes: any noble Lord who saw anybody going over them might think he was Being things, as a result of some conduct of his own which was conducive thereto

. All this money has been wasted, and we stand to-day in very great risk of spending a lot of money on some of the pet schemes of certain county surveyors and borough engineers which have no regard to the main plan which the noble Lord has brought before us this afternoon: that is, how we can make the roads suit the economic purposes of this country to the last degree of efficiency. I am not going to touch on a number of other points which I think are pertinent. The noble Lord, Lord Latham, who speaks With great authority, having been at one time Chairman of the London County Council and also Chairman of the London Transport Executive, will very likely have something to say on the congestion of London traffic, which will come almost to a standstill if we go on as at present, for no one will be able to stop the growth of traffic. At present 400,000 more vehicles a year are being put on the roads of this country. In ten years' time walking will be an express service. I have tried at least to give Her Majesty's Government some thoughts on this matter which do net involve extra expenditure of money.