HL Deb 19 December 1956 vol 200 cc1242-53

2.47 p.m.

LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH rose to draw attention to the inadequacy of the road system of the country, and in particular to the urgency of completing the road construction programme already announced by the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, there is an old doggerel rhyme which, if my memory serves me correctly, runs like this: Twice armed is he who hath his quarrel just: Thrice armed is he who gets his blow in fust". I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that my quarrel with Her Majesty's Government this afternoon is just. I am hoping— it is a faint hope, because in talking about roads and road programmes hope is about the only thing we ever have on which to cling— that I may extract from the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, who is, as usual, to reply for Her Majesty's Government, that in spite of all the cuts which inevitably will have to be made in Government expenditure, in view of our serious economic position, the cuts in road expenditure will be the last. I hope that at least the cuts will not mortgage the efficiency of our industries, if we have not mortgaged all of them, by having in future a more inefficient road system.

I have separated the Motion that I am moving this afternoon into two parts. The first draws attention to the inadequacy of the road system of this country. I do that because I feel that a number of noble Lords are far from satisfied that the road programme as set forth by the Government is, first, adequate, and secondly, what it is supposed to be. Whereas in 1939, immediately before the war, there were 3 million motor vehicles on the roads, the number in 1956 had risen to close on 7 million; and, upon the Government's own admission, 80 per cent. of the private motor cars in that 7 million are used for business and industrial purposes. Not only that: three-quarters of the total merchandise of our industries, by weight, in this country is carried by road. In spite of this, when the present road programme reaches its peak, expenditure on new construction and major improvement will be little more, in terms of work done, than was undertaken immediately prewar. The total expenditure on roads— new construction, major improvements, minor improvements, maintenance and administration— when the programmme is at its peak will not be as much, in terms of money, as was spent in the middle of the 1920's, thirty years ago.

If we conjure up all those figures in our minds and review the road programme since the post-war period of the First World War— as many noble Lords can review it—I suppose that those of us who have any cynicism in our make-up will be tempted to say that the only time we had a road programme was when we had an unemployment problem to solve. Taking all those facts and figures, I suppose one cannot be surprised that Mr. Boyd-Carpenter, when he was Minister of Transport, should say that between 1939 and 1955 no major road improvements or road construction were undertaken in this country. The present Minister of Transport said, not long ago— I suppose it is a statement that has been quoted against him with such monotonous regularity that he wishes the day had never dawned when he said it— that we have completely underestimated road traffic in this country.

I come now to deal with what this road programme is. What are we talking about? I think the Government have grossly misled the people of this country. Figures are quoted and requoted, and to the uninitiated, the ordinary citizens of this country, they are fixed in their minds. As a result, there is not one ordinary citizen of this country who takes an interest in road construction who is not of the fixed idea that the Government have stated, without equivocation, that they are to spend £380 million on new roads. Indeed, the evidence that I shall offer to your Lordships is what was stated by the Minister of Transport at the Conservative Party Conference in October. Ordinarily I should not hold against any Minister of the Crown, whether present or past, statements made at Party Conferences; but this is a serious matter.


I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord. I follow his argument, and I agree with it: but did he not, in fact, say that £350 to £370 million had been spent in the last three years?


No. What I say is that the popular supposition is that the Government intend to spend, on the present announced road programme, £ 380 million. The right honourable gentleman, Mr. Watkinson, at the Conservative Party Conference in October last, said: In the three years since this new road programme was first announced by Mr. Lennox-Boyd and reinforced by Mr. Boyd-Carpenter, let us add up and see the sum of money we are already committed to, much of which has been spent and much more of which will have been spent in the next twelve months. The sum of our capital assets is £ 350 million and that is the capital assets we have now committed to the roads programme since 1954. The least I would put to you is that it is not a bad beginning towards what everyone must recognise as a large and difficult problem. Mr. Watkinson having said that, it was repeated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and by the Prime Minister as emphasising to the country what importance the present Government put upon an expanding road programme; and the years to which Mr. Watkinson was referring were 1954–55, 1955–56 and 1956–57. That statement is quite untrue and totally misleading, because the £350 million is made up in this way. It includes £ 270 million on maintenance and minor improvements, and of this sum £ 90 million was contributed by the Exchequer and £180 million by the local authorities. That leaves a balance, from the £350 million, of £80 million. But that £80 million is not expenditure; it is money authorised to be spent. The actual money spent on major improvements and new construction during the three years 1954-55 to the end of the financial year 1957 is £29 million. That is a vastly different sum from £350 million.

I admit—I want to be fair to the Government that I always seek to do, although sometimes I may be critical— that there is a projected expenditure over and above this in 1957-58 of £ 30 million, arid in 1958–59 of £42 million. But the amount of money actually spent in those three years, 1954 to 1957, on major construction and major improvements of roads in this country is £29 million, and not £350 million. That, I would suggest to your Lordships, is a totally inadequate sum. When we have weathered this present crisis— which the people of this country will weather, in spite of Her Majesty's Government—we shall once again have to turn our attention to how the industries of this country are going to earn for us our daily bread. There are many of your Lordships who are knowledgeable about this subject. Here are we, in a time of crisis, doing everything we can to conserve, bolster, underpin, or whatever the Chancellor of the Exchequer's expression for it is, a precious liquid, and because of an antiquated road system we are pouring it down the drains of this country.

Can we learn one lesson? If we had a road system to complete the conveyor lines of our industry, as, with any foresight in the past, we could have had now, the petrol consumption of this country at a time like this would be nearly 50 percent less than it is. That is my indictment, set out in the first part of my Motion as to the adequacy of our road system. I could quote every authority from the employers and trade unions pointing this out, but I have a shrewd suspicion that the noble Earl who is to reply on behalf of Her Majesty's Government knows all those quotations as well as I do.

I now come to the second part of my Motion, and if I am rather critical in my approach to this matter, may I say that I bear no ill will against a Ministry in which I served for two years— two of the most troublesome, but, at the same time, the most enjoyable years of my life. In the prosecution of the programme that has already been set, there does not appear to be a sense of urgency. I believe that we have reached a time when we must consider whether we can afford the expensive, cumbrous machinery that we have set up. I am fully aware that this conflict between local authority and central Government is not peculiar to matters of roads. But, in my view, the time has come when Her Majesty's Government have to make up their minds whether we, as a country, can afford the excessive time lag, the duplication, the waste of brains and the waste of money that arises through having highly competent highway authorities and a central Government Department sitting above them. In my view, that is one of the greatest drawbacks to any prosecution of a sensible road programme, because the delay goes on and on— procrastination, circumlocution, check upon check of one expert on top of another. In the days in which we live, our road schemes can be delayed so long that the cost mounts up. The cost of a road pan be increased 50 per cent from the time it takes for the Minister to issue an order for a new road project until the first sod has been turned by the contractor who is to carry out the work.

I will give your Lordships one or two examples, merely to illustrate my point. I have here a file full of examples that have come to me from all over the country. I will quote two of them because they happen to be within my certain knowledge. The first is the Oxford ring road. I am not going to venture into the Motion which still stands in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Beveridge, upon whether or not there should be a road through Christ Church Meadow. I do not know whether the noble Lord is going to bring this Motion forward in the near future, or whether he is going to wait and see whether the Minister of Housing and Local Government is hauled off to one of Her Majesty's Prisons. I would venture this opinion, and it is only a tentative venture at most: I should think that, taking all the circumstances into consideration, and the national economy as it is at the present time, the Christ Church Meadow Road will have to be relegated to those lost causes for which the City of Oxford is legitimately famous.

My point is this. If Her Majesty's Government think that that project is going to add one tithe to the solution of the problem with which I am dealing today—that is, the transport of the essential goods and services of this country upon the country's main highways— then I am going to tell them that they are completely wrong. On February 15, 1955, I asked Her Majesty's Government a Question in this House as to when the order was to be published for the completion of the Western bypass round Oxford— that is what is commonly called the Botley-Wolvercote section of the ring road. The noble Lord, Lord Hawke, who then spoke for Her Majesty's Government, said that the order was to be published in the early summer. As the early summer had gone, and midsummer had gone, and your Lordships were going away for your summer holidays, on July 26 I put down a Question to ask Her Majesty's Government when the order was going to be signed. The noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, had forestalled me by three days, and his answer was that the order was published on July 22. I would not call July 22 early summer, but that gives an illustration of some delay.

Now there had to be a statutory three months to preserve the rights of democracy—of which I have no complaint— so that objections could be taken. But, in point of fact, the local inquiry which had naturally to follow any objections was not held until May 27. 1956— ten months after the publication of the original order. The report of the inspector who held the public inquiry was received by the Minister on June 7, and since then silence has reigned supreme. Now, my Lords, why? When the Minister does make the order, there will be the laborious and time-wasting process of land acquisition— and this is a typical example of how a major road project of this country laboriously goes through the official machine. There are, of course, good reasons for some delay, but they are long enough, in all conscience.

I would beg the Government to overhaul this machine to see that delays that can be avoided are rigorously avoided.

The original project for this road was in 1948. This is interesting, because the Government or the Ministry, or successive Ministers, do not appear to have any policy. In 1948, plans were submitted for a road 120 ft. wide with dual carriageways. By 1953, all that was thrown overboard and plans were requested for a road 51 ft. wide, with a single 30 ft. carriageway. The present proposal is for a road 88 ft. wide with 24 ft. dual carriageways. Surely, my Lords, there is some policy, and surely the engineers of this country should have come to some conclusion as to what is the correct width for a trunk road, and whether it should have three carriageways or two carriageways, or what it should have.

The other case I am going to cite is the Maidenhead by-pass, one of the principal road projects for the transport of our traffic from the metropolis to the West of England. The proposals under the Special Roads Act, 1945, were sent to the Ministry on October 31, 1955. The proposals were published six months later. This is an intricate job; it involved a large number of side road proposals and plans. These proposals were sent to the Minister on January 3, 1956. On October 1, 1956, nine months afterwards, the Ministry wrote to the county surveyor to say "We do not like the way you have drawn these plans. Will you submit some more" That was nine months later. The plans were submitted nineteen days afterwards. Since then, there has been complete and utter silence, in spite of the fact that the Ministry are understood to have given an undertaking to the Berkshire County Council that the proposals would be published for the whole of this project within three months of the original proposals going in. How can we expect to get the highway system of this country in proper shape when this kind of thing goes on?

I am going to give your Lordships another case, just as an example of what is happening throughout the length and breadth of the land. Here you get dual carriageways put in on main trunk routes, yet by their very site, and because there is overlapping between one highway authority and another, they cause more danger on the roads than they cure. Let me give an example. On the A.40, which is just outside Oxford, the highway authority, the Oxfordshire County Council, made a dual carriageway, The Oxfordshire county boundary is 700 yards from the Headington roundabout, where that very fine road, the North Oxford by-pass, starts. The Oxfordshire County Council begged and prayed the Ministry that, while they were doing that dual carriageway, they should continue it a further 700 yards, otherwise they would be creating a worse bottleneck than they were eliminating by the two miles of dual carriageway. But that 700 yards came into another scheme, under another highway authority. What has happened? The dual carriageway is completed, and the 700 yards from the dual carriageway to the Headington roundabout is the worst danger-spot that has ever been created in that district.

Surely that is not good planning. Surely we must come to the conclusion that something must be done, in the interests of getting this road project completed in a sensible time, at a sensible cost. We cannot go on dilly-dallying with professional jealousy here and professional jealousy there. I do not for one moment admit that the expert technical personnel of a highway authority like a county council in this country are in any way second to any of the personnel at the Ministry. But surely we have arrived at a stage where the manpower problem and the financial problem are such that we should at least be able to say that either the highway authority or the Central Government authority is the right authority. You get this by-passing of each other, and there are plenty of cases — I could cite them; I have them all here, but I am not going to bore your Lordships by repeating them— where time goes on and a project which was originally going to cost half a million pounds is now going to cost a million pounds; it slips out of that category, and is lost, I expect, for all time.

That is the burden of the Motion I submit to your Lordships. I thought it right to put this Motion down on those two grounds. I do not expect the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, to be able to answer the questions or the problems I have posed to him this afternoon, but if he will undertake to see that there is some investigation, so that we can streamline the procedure and save this country many thousands of pounds, and also save industry millions of pounds in efficiency, then I think the debate this afternoon will have been worth while. I bog to move for Papers.

3.20 p.m.


My Lords, I want to associate myself with the general contention that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has made in introducing this Motion. I do not intend to speak in a general way on the Motion but propose to restrict myself to a limited part of the second section, in which he proclaims that there is great urgency in the completion of the road programme as announced by the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation. I am not going to speak at length about the problem as a whole, but will confine myself, if I may, to a particular part of the country, the district in which I live and which I know well— I refer to Cumberland, part of North Lancashire and Westmorland.

I am speaking about it, first of all because I know it so well, having motored at least 12,000 miles a year over the roads for the past ten years, and, secondly, because I believe that the future welfare of part of the district and the well-being of the people in it depend to a great extent upon the provision of an adequate road transport system. The third reason why I want to speak about it is that the district is very far away from London, perhaps farther from London than any other county or counties in England. It is believed in Cumberland, at any rate, that the farther away you are from London the more often must you speak and the more loudly must you proclaim your needs; and there is a widespread opinion that, even when you do proclaim your needs concerning roads, no matter how clearly you speak, it will not be heard in the office of the Minister of Transport unless someone provides a very effective and sensitive artificial hearing aid.

I will direct attention, first of all, to trunk road A.6, on which I here is a continuous stream of traffic pretty well day and night, and on which I think there are more heavy lorries passing to and fro than on any other road in England. For it is the one main road, indeed almost the only road, between the great industrial Midlands and the whole of Scotland. Consequently, day and night, over that mountainous road over Shap, there is this continuous stream of private and commercial vehicles; and along that road there are two particularly bad bottlenecks, one at Penrith and one at Carlisle. Both are recognised as bad spots, and in the Minister's plan there is a by-pass to be made at Penrith, and also one at Carlisle. But, although they are in the plan, there was no mention of them when the Minister made his announcement in February, 1955, and there was great local disappointment. Again, in July, 1955, when the Minister made a further statement, there was no mention of these two new by-pass roads; nor in 1956, 1957, 1958 or 1959.

Considerable work has been done on the road, widening it and improving it, but still these bottlenecks remain. I should have thought it was only ordinary sense to get rid of the bottlenecks before the great highways were extended or widened. I cannot help wondering why we go in for widening intervening roads between two bottlenecks, for all it does is to create fast motoring in between the two bottlenecks, as there is always the temptation to try to get to the head of the queue. This is particularly noticeable and dangerous between these two places. We have an eighteen-mile road between Penrith and Carlisle, a very good road with three lanes, but it is one of the most dangerous roads in the country: it has a very bad record for accidents. I cannot help thinking that these bottlenecks I have named have a bearing upon the number of accidents, because they are a continuous temptation, as I say, to anyone to try to get ahead so that he will not be held up. Also in the Minister's plan there is provision for a double carriageway north of Carlisle, the whole way to Glasgow, yet there does not seem to be any provision for a double carriageway south of Carlisle, where the traffic is greater than it is north of the city. I should hope that that is something to which attention might be given.

I turn from that main trunk road to West Cumberland. West Cumberland, as many of your Lordships well know and rejoice to hear, from being a depressed area before the war, has now become one of the most prosperous parts of this country. It is indeed a most encouraging sight for anyone who has seen it during the past ten years to note how villages that were beaten and baffled have taken on a new look and are now painted and fresh. There is a new look, too, on people's faces, just because industry has been established there and is flourishing. It has been established, to a great extent, through one mighty vigorous personality, a Member of your Lordships' House, Lord Adams, a man who never takes "No" for an answer except when he wants "No". There is the atomic energy plant below Seascale, and there are the anhydrite works at Kells, as well as dozens of light industries established all over that countryside; so that West Cumberland is a hive of industry. The roads, however, are quite inadequate, and there is a danger that they may threaten the success of some of these industries.

In so far as I am concerned, I want to raise in your Lordships' House a plea that consideration should be given to this particular part of the country which is so far away from the centre but which needs and deserves attention. I know that a conference between the local authorities of Cumberland, Westmorland and North Lancashire was held some months ago, and that representations were sent to the Minister concerning road development in the southern part of Cumberland through to Lancashire. I do not know any of the details, and therefore I am not going to speak of them, but there is some disappointment that there has been nothing more heard from the Minister than a formal acknowledgement of these representations. Some of the people in that area are becoming greatly concerned and would like to have at least a letter indicating that the matter was receiving immediate attention. If I concentrate purely on roads for utility purposes, and those in a particular locality, I should not like your Lordships to assume that I am merely interested in this problem parochially; I am interested in it as a whole. But I think there should be in this House opportunity for a speaker to express local concern and also local loyalty within a given rule.

Before I sit down I should also like to say that there is an aspect of this problem which I do not want to intrude to-day but which I cannot separate in my mind from the provision of adequate roads— that is, road safety. I am not going to enlarge upon that aspect, but I cannot separate the provision of an adequate road system from the problem of road safety. I am also a little concerned about another aspect, upon which I shall not enlarge but shall just voice—namely, how far is it justifiable to go on increasing the number of vehicles on the roads, knowing that to some extent we are thereby endangering the lives of men and women on the Queen's Highway. How far are we morally justified in increasing the number of licences, and taking revenue from them, without putting enough of it back to ensure that the improvement in the roads is commensurate with the increase in the amount of traffic they have to carry?