HL Deb 03 March 1955 vol 191 cc754-68

5.7 p.m.

LORD CROOK rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the serious dislocation caused by snowfalls in this country, they will promote such action as is possible aimed at securing, so far as may be practicable, long-term planning to provide in due course (a) avoidance of loss of industrial production; (b) waste of effort and money; (c) discomfort and suffering to Her Majesty's, subjects; by the necessary co-ordination and establishment of means of dealing effectively with snowfall. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Question I desire to ask Her Majesty's Government concerns a subject which appeals to most of us as romantic when we see it depicted on Christmas cards, with pretty little robins, but which, when we face it as the real snow, causing difficulties of dislocation to our ordinary lives and to industry, strikes us as something less than romantic.

I want to make it clear that in the Question I ask I make complaints against nobody—on the contrary, I desire to express appreciation for what so many people have done. But what I want to suggest is that we who periodically get these bouts of snow, and who periodically try to convince ourselves that we are a country which has no snow, have reached the time when we should endeavour to embark on a long-term plan. I do not suggest that I have a plan, or that I know anybody who has. What I am suggesting is that Her Majesty's Government should embark on careful inquiry by an interdepartmental committee—because a number of Departments are involved—or whatever form of inquiry the Government may consider best, to seek to find out what are the best means to take and what long-term plans can be made to deploy machinery and to make money available for the right kind of equipment.

I want to say straight away that most of us who had to use the great main roads in the two episodes of snowfall which we have had this year will have had a good deal to say of the fine conditions that we have experienced in some places. I drove to Eastbourne on that day last Sunday week when I was told that things were going to be bad, but, with the exception of two or three points in the Ashdown Forest, I found the road astonishingly good. There was a week-end when saw, for instance, hard-working men, working late on the Sunday, moving lorries to put down grit, sand and salt. No one could have anything but praise for those who, in the cold weather, stuck to those difficult jobs. All your Lordships, too, will have felt a sense of satisfaction at the rescue work that has gone on throughout the country, both by paid labour and by volunteers, and we should all wish to pay a tribute to every body concerned.

All I want to suggest is that, as a nation, we are not as prepared to deal with snow as even a country like France, to say nothing of the snow countries such as Sweden, Finland and Denmark. On the whole, France has a warmer climate than ours, and has less snowfall; but she does know what she is doing when she handles snow. It seems that we spread sand or grit or salt, or all three, and not everybody seems to be agreed which is the best procedure. We pile snow, we move it, or we leave it; and, again, even local authorities are not always clear which is the correct procedure. One local authority will throw snow from the centre of the road on to the verges, while a bare hundred yards away, in the next borough, snow is being, shovelled off the path and dumped into the kerb, in a way that will stop even a drain when the thaw sets in. Both methods cannot be right. One thing at least I suggest we should know is which is the right procedure.

Similarly, under an old enactment there are some by-laws which require the removal of snow by householders. There are householders and shop owners who believe that that requirement is still imposed upon them. I think it is an out-of-date idea. I think it may well be that either the by-law or the enactment should be repealed. I hope the noble Earl who is to reply will be able to offer us some help in that connection. I am not at all sure that the police and local authorities everywhere are rigidly imposing the bylaws, but if we are to believe some organs of the Press, attempts were made in that connection the other week. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, with his great experience of the Automobile Association, may follow me and say something about motoring. Therefore I will say very little on that aspect.

When the traveller starts to get off the main roads for which the Ministry of Transport are responsible, he has not the slightest idea of what he has to face. One local authority will do what it can to see that every single piece of its roads is clear, and then suddenly, when the motorist is driving over the boundary, new conditions are found. The next authority has let traffic make ridges in the snow; and the ridges have, in turn, frozen, with the result that the journey is one of discomfort and danger to the driver and to all other users of the road, and is also a danger to the springs of the car for which that driver has paid good money. After he has gone through that kind of difficulty, he will come to the next borough, which may have determined to open up half of its road, running single-line traffic and queueing the traffic to get it through. Having met all these conditions, a driver may find that single-line traffic lasts for many miles thereafter. And, what is more, it may mean that drivers whose feelings have been exacerbated when trying to get past other drivers, will do something they would not try to do were things as they should be. Your Lordships have been discussing common road safety measures in another connection, and it seems to me that in this matter of snow something is needed to get some uniformity on the part of local authorities.

I know that local authorities have what can only be regarded as a "headache." They have to think of their rating; they have to think of keeping their own rate-produced equipment to themselves; they have to think of the manpower shortage which they suffer, in common with the rest of the community. What I am asking Her Majesty's Government is whether there should not be a national strategic placing of modern equipment, and if so, what that equipment should be. I know that there are no special funds for snow clearance, and that local authorities are reluctant to spend their rates. I know, too, that those at authorities which have gone to the expense of acquiring machinery by way of rating are naturally reluctant to lend their machinery to next borough when it is in difficulties, because they never know when the trouble will be theirs, or when they may want their own machinery back. So they keep the machinery standing by unused, although it could do valuable work in the next borough. Some national strategic plan might be able to solve that problem.

If it did, I think that at least we ought to know that we can have the right type of equipment and machinery. Some of the alleged snow ploughs engaged in our recent experiences, were completely ridiculous. To look at ancient lorries running on tyres that were "no better than they should be," pushing pieces of wood put down on the slope to try to force their way into snow and to push it to the side of the road, is to look at something that might have been all right in the first year or two of the motor industry at the beginning of the century, but does not seem to be in accordance with the tradition of a nation that can produce tractors and bulldozers and tanks for war.

Should we have bulldozers for the roads? If so, what sort? Should we have rotary ploughs? Should we have for use on the road (as I believe Kent did, and it may be that the Ministry of Transport did) snow blowers, such as those some of us have seen used so effectively at London airport, sucking up the snow and blowing it on to one side? Ought we not to have tracked vehicles—not lorries with tyres which slip; not, by the way, lorries which still require men to stand dangerously on a mound of grit and sand, shovelling it an to the dangerous roads? Surely these are days when we can expect that we shall have some automatic machinery. It exists elsewhere in the world. Ought we not to have it to put down grit and sand? Can we afford to waste the manpower? Indeed, is the manpower now in existence? Fifty years ago, one could deal with snow in the City of London and in Westminster. Hordes of unemployed people were only too willing to earn an odd shilling by doing snow shovelling and putting the snow into bins.

I have already referred to France. They do this kind of thing much better there. They have fleets of ploughs, fleets of salt and sand-spreaders, radio-controlled inside regionalised areas. I am told that one machine can clear six miles of road an hour. One knows that in Canada they have better equipment. I would not for one moment compare this country with Canada, which has a much greater problem, but I would compare it with France. I know that any suggestion that is made embraces the question of capital equipment. There is the question of deploying our capital equipment in the best interests of the country. I assure the noble Earl who is to reply that at this stage I am not suggesting that we ought to embark, willy-nilly, on the purchase of this or that piece of equipment. What I am suggesting is that, with the ability to plan that I am sure we possess, some committee should be set up to look into the needs, to look into the arrangement of regional machinery, the purchase of the appropriate types of equipment, planning by regionalisation and the setting up of what amounts to a centralised snow authority, probably under the Ministry of Transport.

I am sorry to have kept your Lordships so long in asking a Question of this kind. I think the experiences we have had in the last week or two, and since this New Year began, warrant our looking for a few moments at this problem. I am sure that the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, who has already had so busy a time during recent days, will not feel that he has wasted his time when, in due course, he comes to reply. I beg to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

5.19 p.m.


My Lords, I have listened with great interest to the views put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Crook. I agree with him that a long-term plan should be seriously considered by Her Majesty's Government and arrangements made for the strategic placing of modern equipment. Surely the main crux of the matter is the absence of any emergency grant to local highway authorities. This lack of emergency grant must have a profound effect on the local authorities' attitude to snow clearance. We all know how unpredictable is the weather in this country, and if the highway authorities make provision under their ordinary round grant it may happen that such provision is unspent at the end of the year. On the other hand, if no provision is made for snow clearance and the worst happens and snowdrifts pile up, then normal maintenance work on the roads, already arranged, must be shelved at the last moment, towards the end of the financial year.

It should be said, in all fairness to the highway authorities, as the noble Lord has observed, that, when faced with a snow emergency, they have done their best to cope with the situation. It is, of course, true that there is considerable difference in the manner in which the roads are treated by various local authorities. But I would again point out that they are severely handicapped by the shortage of money and consequent lack of labour and equipment. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will consider the provision of an emergency grant to meet the cost of snow clearance; otherwise I fear comparatively little will be done in future to keep the roads open in the winter, and trade and industry in the country will continue to suffer in future as in the past and at present.

5.22 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Earl who is to reply whether Her Majesty's Government, when considering means of rescue for people isolated by heavy snowfalls, will bear in mind that there is a body (to which I know we both belong) called the Ski Club of Great Britain, with 14,000 members. I know that the Ski Club would be glad to assist in providing rescue teams; but that cannot be done on the spur of the moment. I have to-day taken the opportunity of speaking to the Secretary of the Club, who told me that they had not, on this occasion, been asked for assistance. I feel it would be most helpful if the Ski Club could be consulted when any plans were being drawn up. The police in the different areas would then have the address of the district secretary or some official who could produce a team of skiers for rescue work and to assist the police when necessary.


I would ask the noble Earl to give consideration to the plea of my noble friend. We should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Crook, for he has done more for snow clearance in recent weeks than anybody else, because he put this Motion on the Order Paper about a month ago and on that day the thaw set in and the sun began to shine. The noble Lord took it off the Order Paper through circumstances outside his control, and back came the snow. He has put it on the Order Paper again and now the temperature rises and the sun shines again. We cannot always be lucky enough to have my noble friend at our beck and call. We are now embarking upon a huge capital expenditure on the roads of this country. The more roads we build, the more roads we shall have snowbound unless something is done. More serious thought must be given to this problem. There must be better organisation, for, as my noble friend has said, there can be no uniformity of action by local authorities, because their task is not uniform. The jurisdiction of some highway authorities extends over far more roads than that of other authorities, and, therefore, their expenditure is higher and the necessity for equipment is greater.

I beg the noble Earl to look at this as a long-term problem, because we cannot continue as at present. As soon as we have four inches of snow and ten degrees of frost we lose millions of pounds by the immobility of our essential traffic. That is not sensible. When we debated this subject some twelve months ago noble Lords were told of a strategic reserve, yet I understand from Press reports that some huge piece of equipment had to be moved all the way from London to the North of Scotland because the nearest "strategic reserve" for use in the North of Scotland was in London. I saw pneumatic drills clearing away from gutters frozen snow which had been left for three weeks and which could not be dispersed until it was cut away with these drills. I am sure the noble Earl is sympathetic; but we must do something more. Perhaps the noble Earl with his new-found—I might say newly-imposed—interest in highway matters will be able to promise a real review such as noble Lords have sought, so that next winter we shall not have to rely on my noble friend to clear away the snow by putting Motions on the Order Paper.

5.26 p.m.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Crook, for bringing forward this Motion. There are few things more difficult to put in proportion in this country than snow, and it is essential in a discussion of this character to try to get the subject in perspective. We should remember that it is not only in this country that matters get out of step. Other countries are affected. Noble Lords may recall an occasion in New York, not many years ago, when the whole traffic of the city came to an absolute standstill and some danger was caused. I have here a paper with a headline, "Swiss snow havoc": so difficulties occur even in countries accustomed to severe weather. If I may draw upon my personal experience, I would say that some of the worst roads I have ever met were in Winnipeg, where a severe frost followed a thaw and the whole town resembled a skating rink. I have no doubt the emergency was quickly dealt with, but for a time the situation was exceedingly difficult.

There is the small, banal point that the weather in this country is utterly un-predictable, not only in time but in quality. That is sometimes forgotten. In some parts of this country in recent weeks there have been thirty-six hours of blizzard and snow, and nothing will keep roads open in such circumstances. I do not say these conditions hold everywhere, but we must face that possibility. We should not entirely forget the element of self-help. We have gone a long way. We have come to expect the retail trade, with its great efficiency, to produce cur supplies every day. I sometimes wonder whether the development of mechanisation has driven the sledge and the horse into obscurity when there might still be a use for them. Whatever form of centralisation we have, we must never forget that self-help, starting from the householder and going to the district and to the local authority, must form part and parcel of it. It is right that we should have regard to the really heroic work done by individual men in the front line this winter. The exacting circumstances in which men have worked can hardly be exaggerated. I have here, a letter which I could read to noble Lords; but I will say only that it describes conditions in which men have actually been frozen to their seats and have been working throughout the blizzard in exposed parts of the country for sixteen and eighteen hours at a stretch. Whatever the circumstances, the personal quotient is inevitably found to be very high.

In answer to noble Lords, may I first examine the present position and then deal with the points raised. Let me make it clear that responsibility for co-ordinating transport services rests with the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation. In this regard he accepts full responsibility. Under him are ten divisions with a divisional road engineer in charge of each, in touch, in each area, with the local authority. The Minister should, therefore, have a fairly wide picture of what is happening all over the country. Responsibility for this work rests with the highway authorities. There are quite a number of them, chiefly county councils and county boroughs, and in Scotland large burghs. Trunk roads are, of course, the responsibility of the Minister, but he does help with grants, which the noble Lord mentioned, and also by the distribution and loan of certain equipment. Moreover he keeps mobile reserves. Lord Lucas of Chilworth asked whether snow-clearing machinery is sent up to the North of Scotland. It is. For instance, I think a blower was sent from Staffordshire to Sutherland. Again, when a gritter was wanted in She land one was sent from London to Fife, and in the meantime one from the Fife area was moved to Shetland. That is the sort of move that has to be made; an interchange of this kind must inevitably take place to obtain quick results.

The noble Lord, Lord Crook, has represented that to some extent we should have more centralisation. I think this is a matter in which we must go cautiously, because responsibility at present rests with the local authorities. I think they would resent it if, in this sphere, any effort were made to interfere with their responsibilities. On the whole, I think they carry them out fairly well. We have not regionalisation to-day, but we have the divisional road engineer who, shall I say, watches and helps in an area, whilst the initiative and operation rests entirely in that area with the local authority. I think it is right that it should so rest. I think it is wrong to give the impression that our arrangements have entirely broken down. I believe that that is entirely contrary to the fact. A number of testimonies have been received in this connection. Here is one from the general manager of the Birmingham and Midland Motor Omnibus Company, Limited. He writes: I have had reported to me the very efficient and excellent service rendered by your people in the gritting and salting of the roads during the recent troublesome weather.… That is only one testimony. Others have been received from people actually using the roads. I think it is false to give the impression, as one newspaper sought to do, that when these things happen they are "but exposure of our own inefficiencies." That is a gross travesty of anything that has happened.

The noble Lord asked about the bylaw relating to the clearance of snow. He is quite right. There is a by-law which dates back to 1875. I can only say that it has not been the policy of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to confirm such a by-law for the last twenty years in view of the difficulty of enforcement. But such a by-law still exists in some parts. I would strongly advise local authorities who have such a by-law dealing with snow to consider repealing it at once. It is not in line with modern ideas—if, indeed, it ever was in line with current ideas. It should be reconsidered, and any reference to snow clearance should be taken off the book of by-laws.

Perhaps I may mention one matter which has not been brought up in this debate, and that is the question of information. A conference, at which the Press and the B.B.C. were represented, was held in September to examine this matter. I think it is important to remember that the national Press and the B.B.C. are really concerned with news, and not with information. Moreover, it is difficult for them to give any detailed information, in regard to time and place, on which anyone can rely for making cross-country journeys. Every effort is being made by the national Press and the B.B.C., but I think that anyone who wants to do a cross-country journey would be well advised to ring up the A.A. or the R.A.C. before going on main trunk roads. If detailed information is required in regard to some area which may be off the trunk roads, then it is probably better to ring up the local police and ask for information. The noble Earl asked some questions about the use of salt. I agree that the application of salt is a very tricky procedure. In different temperatures the way in which it should be used varies. On the whole, in moderate temperatures it is a very useful addition when mixed with sand and applied to the road. It then has the effect of helping to make the snow disappear.

Now a word on the question of special grants in relation to snow clearance. This is a matter to which the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, referred. This, if I may say so, might cut both ways. I think it is proper that the noble Lord should realise that under our present arrangement the local authority agree with the Minister about the money which can be spent on maintenance work in the coming year. The Department do not ask for excessive details of how everything is to be spent. A lump sum is paid for each road, and details are asked for only of minor improvements. As the work is completed, attracting Government grant at varying rates, according to classification of the road, so payment is made by the Department to each local authority. The lump sum includes what they think may be necessary, taking one year with another, for snow clearance. If what the noble Lord suggests is required, then clearly a more detailed accounting system would be called for from the local authority; and they might not like it.

What happens at present is that at the end of the year some local authorities will have spent a little less, and some will have spent a little more, than was allotted to them. But in most years, I understand, it all works out fairly well, so far as the Ministry of Transport is concerned. One cancels out the other. I am authorised to say that the expenditure of highway authorities on snow clearance on classified roads is eligible for grants at the normal rates, and any inevitable excess over their approved expenditure for the year will be similarly eligible. I think that meets the point which the noble Lord has in mind. We do not know exactly the position this year, but that is what we anticipate may happen. I do not think that local authorities would welcome a more rigid system of financial control in this matter. That is worth remembering. It should be borne in mind that we are today spending some £60 million a year on road maintenance alone—which is a great deal more than we spent on the Navy before the war. It is a substantial sum of money and should not be regarded as entirely negligible.

Now to go one step further, the noble Lord asked about the supply of equipment. It is very difficult to say what the expenditure of public money should properly be on this matter. We have, on the average, about ten snowy days a year in one place or another. We clearly cannot go very far. We have 10,000 ploughs and bulldozers of one sort and another available to move snow in the country. We also have 5,000 gritters. The Government are increasing their equipment this year, and they intend purchasing some eight additional heavy snow ploughs and about 100 additional gritter units of various kinds. It would be wrong to think that we could ever have enough to deal immediately with conditions such as we have in mind. It would clearly be absurd to attempt any general scale of equipment such as that, for example, of the city of Montreal.


Could the noble Earl say how many of these excellent rotary snow ploughs are available—he knows the ones I mean?


I take it that the noble Lord is referring to blowers. I am informed that a round dozen of blowers are available. They are not all owned by the Government: some belong to local authorities. But there is a limit to their use: they are a specialised instrument which cannot be used anywhere. They cannot be used for any other purpose than to blow snow, and they can blow only certain types of snow. It would not be very satisfactory to have them blowing snow in towns, as there is difficulty in disposing of it in built-up areas. So there is a limit to the use of these blowers. But agree that there are circumstances in which they can be extremely valuable. The noble Lord, Lord Crook, made the point that local authorities are reluctant to lend material. One can understand that. They may want it themselves next year. But a certain amount of, shall I say, persuasive pressure is being exercised by divisional road engineers in regard to this matter.

The noble Lord thinks that this whole question is one which ought to be studied. We agree. We think that it should have further and careful study. There are a number of things that should be examined. For instance, there is the operation of heavy snow ploughs on narrow roads: roads which are too narrow for a big plough, and where the snow may be too heavy for a small plough. Then there is the problem of broken-down vehicles and ditched vehicles, which prevent ploughs getting along. There is also the problem of directing vehicles by routes where they will not be held up. There is the matter of radio sets which we have tried this year in Scotland and have found rather useful. Then there is the question of the use of snow fences, which have preyed quite useful in certain parts of the country, and the placing of equipment.

In 1947, a departmental committee examined the whole matter and, as a result, equipment was substantially increased. What we propose now is that the Department should call a meeting this spring, inviting representatives of the local authorities, the motoring associations and the divisional road engineers. This meeting would have as its task the examination of the existing organisation and equipment available to deal with snow clearance and the best methods of securing co-operation between those responsible for clearing the roads and road users. This, of course, would include the many and varied aspects of the problem, some of which I have mentioned. We should be very glad to examine this fully, as the noble Lord suggested, but we are not yet convinced that a radical reorganisation in outlook is necessary. However, this may arise in the course of the Committee's discussions, and I would rather leave further steps to be decided in the light of that examination.


Would the noble Earl answer the point about the Ski Club?


I am afraid that I cannot add anything about the Ski Club. I do not know whether the Ski Club is willing to answer immediate requests. These things have to be done very quickly. But I shall certainly look into it.


I only talked with the secretary, but I gather that there is no doubt that they would be glad to help if they were told beforehand what was wanted.


The trouble is that no-one knows beforehand what is wanted-that is the difficulty.


In any case, the Ski Club is quite willing to help.


I shall be glad to look into that.


My Lords, I hope the House will forgive me if I rise to thank the noble Earl for the benefit of his reply.

House adjourned at eighteen minutes before six o'clock.