HL Deb 10 November 1959 vol 219 cc487-96

3.53 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, I did not intend to take part in the debate on the Motion which is down on the Paper. I want only to make a comment on the interesting speeches that we have had from the noble Lord opposite and from the noble Earl behind me. Both of them greatly widened the scope of the Motion on the Paper, though I think that none of your Lordships would complain of that, especially as they made excellent speeches. That is one of the advantages of our proceedings here: that one has that right, that admitted right, rather to widen a discussion. What I was going to say—and I will detain your Lordships only for a moment or so—is that both noble Lords have raised matters of very great importance which I would suggest, with respect, should form the basis of a full debate in your Lordships' House. I think that it would require almost a two-day debate; because most of the debates which we have on road questions, if I may say so without offence, are almost entirely conducted by Members of your Lordships' House who have a perfectly legitimate interest in motoring and who put the point of view of the motorists. But, as the noble Lord opposite so truly pointed out, there are other considerations to be taken into account.

May I give one example? One gets constant complaints—my noble friend Lord Hives, if he were present, would agree with me that he, among others, has often complained—about the congestion in the London streets. That congestion is largely caused by the unnecessary action of motorists themselves. A great number of people who park their cars in the West End of London could perfectly well use public transport from the suburbs, and elsewhere. When the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, speaks of certain things which ought to be done in the counties, may I respectfully remind him that several of the matters that he mentioned are nothing to do with the Ministry of Transport; they are within the purview of the London road authority. If in Norfolk they do not provide proper appliances to deal with snow—I agree with him that in the country generally we are very behindhand in these matters—it is not a matter for the Ministry of Transport; it is a matter for the local authority to deal with.

There is only one other thing I want to say. I am sorry that there is no advocate of motoring present in your Lordships' House to challenge me—I am sorry: I had forgotten that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, was present, but I do not think he will disagree with what I am about to say. When we get these constant demands for more and more public money to be spent on roads, let us remember that even in this prosperous country there is a limit to what we can spend; and I should have thought that there were other things which needed money spent on them far more than roads. One is hospitals; another is new gaols. Many of our gaols are completely out of date. Another is barracks. Ask any member of any of Her Majesty's Forces one of the reasons why recruiting is not better, and he will tell you that it is because of the inadequacy of barracks, and especially of married quarters. There are dozens of such things which need money spent on them.

I am very much obliged to your Lordships for listening to my few rather desultory remarks, but I hope that one day we shall have a full debate on this very big issue. The sort of question we ought to discuss is: what is going to be the effect of what I think is known as the "hover-craft", which in a few years' time may take the place of the motor car? It cannot be considered in isolation. It has to be considered, as the noble Lord opposite has so properly and appositely brought out, in connection with other matters. I think that we all sympathise with the noble Lord who moved the Motion on the Paper and with the noble Lords who have supported him; but, as I say, the problem goes much further than local matters.

3.58 p.m.


My Lords, when I first saw the terms of the Motion set down by the noble Lord, Lord Wise, I am bound to admit that the first thing that flew into my mind was that it was a case of Thrice armed is he who hath his quarrel just; Four times is he who gets his blow in fust! Then I was struck by the horrible thought that this might be the first of no fewer than 97 debates which might take a similar course in your Lordships' House in the near future, although possibly my noble friends Lord Brecon and Lord Craigton might be responsible for answering some. But I do hope, my Lords, that some other way can be found.

My Lords, it so happens that I myself know Norfolk fairly well, through having an uncle who lives there, and I have always thought that in fact the road system of the county was a reasonably good one. I do not, by that statement, attempt to deny that the noble Lord "bath his quarrel just", and I am quite sure that it must be true that there are a number of places—quite a large number—where work is highly desirable; and I am sure that he has done right in directing our attention to it. He quoted in his aid a paragraph from the gracious Speech, and I do not attempt to deny that that paragraph means what it says. The only qualification I do make is that the whole thing cannot be done at once.

My Lords, I know that the noble Lord realises that the country's road problem generally has to be concentrated on where it will give the quickest returns to the country as a whole for the money that is spent. I do not think it can be disputed that at present the first priority is to free the main routes used by industrial traffic, and a comprehensive picture of the rôle of the present trunk road system and the nature of the traffic using it has been built up. The needs of the whole country have to be looked at in considering the allotment of money to specific schemes or areas. With the policy of tackling first things first, inevitably there must be many areas in the country in which less road work is going on in the present circumstances which fall just a little short of Utopia.

I do not want the noble Lord, Lord Wise, to take that as too discouraging a statement. I want to assure him that we are aware of the need for the King's Lynn by-pass and of the fact that it is the only real solution to King's Lynn's problems. I do not think that the noble Lord will wish me to attempt to discuss the detailed points he made. I will only emphasise that it has to be fitted into the complexity of the necessary work that has to be done all over the country. The present situation with regard to the by-pass—which, as the noble Lord rightly said, is a joint affair between my right honourable friend and the county authority—is that the traffic count he mentioned as having been taken by the County Council was to provide data for the review of the priority of the by-pass. The results of the survey have not yet been sent to my right honourable friend, and until they are received and have been considered I am sure the noble Lord will not expect me to be able to say anything about the priority of the by-pass.

May I go on to deal with the county in general? At the present time works which I think will be of benefit to all classes of road user are going on as fast as they can. I do not think that the noble Lord will wish me to go into a lengthy list of detailed schemes, with which he is just as familiar as I am, probably more so; but I should like to say that since 1946 some 76 miles of trunk roads, out of a total of 120 miles for which my right honourable friend is responsible have been reconstructed. There are major improvement works taking place now on trunk roads to the value of some £140,000 and on classified roads to the tune of about £190,000.


In Norfolk?


Yes, my Lords, in Norfolk. It is also hoped that in the next year or two at least eleven major schemes, both on trunk and classified roads, will be put in hand.

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, mentioned a proposed scheme of which he did not approve. I am caught with my own boast about knowing Norfolk well because I do not know that bit, but I will do my best to look into the matter and let the noble Earl know something, if I can. I was a little surprised about his desire for the Government to assume an all-powerful rôle in his life. Of course, the matter of the location of bus stops was one that was raised last week, among many others, and I assure him that it is one that will not be overlooked in the general consideration. The noble Earl, Lord Winterton, pointed out to the noble Earl that snow clearing and signposts were matters for the county councils, and I hope that he will promptly take action where appropriate.

I was interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Amwell, and the noble Earl, Lord Winterton, said, but my remarks must stop at interest, because I think that the proper thing is to consider the noble Lord's Motion in the terms in which he put it down. I do not think that it would really be proper to make this Part II of last week's debate or a preamble to a debate which may come in the future.


My Lords may I say that I did ask for the indulgence of the House? I always think as the noble Earl, Lord Winterton, said, that one of the good features of debates in this Chamber is that, within reason, one can widen the nature of the debate. I hope that I have not done anything wrong.


Nothing whatever, my Lords. I am perfectly certain that the noble Lord and the noble Earl received every indulgence from the House. Personally I thought that what they said was of considerable interest, and, whether I agree with it or not, I shall certainly see that their words come to the notice of my right honourable friend. I think that everything should be considered—all grist should go into the mill.

On the question of bus services, on which the noble Lord, Lord Wise, made a point—and at this stage I would thank him for giving me notice of it, as he did about the by-pass—I would say that my right honourable friend has no power to provide or to compel anyone else to provide bus services. I am sure that the noble Lord knows that the provision of services is a matter for the bus operators and the Traffic Commissioners who license the services, and who are an independent statutory body. My right honourable friend has no power to intervene unless a case comes to him on appeal. I would make it clear that he is not in the position of being a kind of referee between two opposing sides and that any appeal which would come to him would be one primarily of a judicial character.


My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves that point—


My Lords, could I just finish this point and then I will willingly give way? What I was going to say is that we should like to be as helpful as we can, and if the noble Lord, or any other noble Lord, has any particular case of difficulty in mind and would let me know, I would ask the Traffic Commissioners to consider it.


My Lords, the noble Lord says that his right honourable friend has no power. I think I am right in saying that in this case the British Transport Commission closed down a length of railway line, and the bus service, which was the only alternative, is also run by the Commission. Surely there is not only a moral obligation for the British Transport Commission to provide an alternative service for this rural area which has had its railway service taken away, but also the Transport Act (if my memory serves me) lays down that the Commission must provide a reasonable countrywide transport service.


Yes, my Lords. Before giving way to the noble Lord, perhaps it would have been fairer if I had pointed out that after the railway was closed down the British Transport Commission provided extended bus services of a further 116 miles, a weekly mileage of about 11,000.


My Lords, I understand that it is the basis of my noble friend's complaint that the existing bus services are going to be curtailed and that will deny the rural population of that part of Norfolk a proper and adequate transport system.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will bear with me a moment or two longer, I think that that will come out. I have explained my right honourable friend's position. For all I know, the noble Lord is perfectly right, and possibly there has been an application to curtail these services. If that is so, I think that both noble Lords will agree that it is impossible for me to offer any comment on that, in view of my right honourable friend's position, in that an appeal can be made to him. I cannot say more than that.


Perhaps I may put one point arising out of the question of the noble Lord opposite. Is it not the real fact that all over England—the same thing is happening in Sussex—bus services are closing down because they are no longer profitable? And is not the reason why they are no longer profitable the increase in the number of people with motor cars? In most villages nowadays there are a number of people, including wage-earners, who own motor cars, and they will not go on the buses.


If I may have the indulgence of your Lordships, I should like to challenge that statement.


It is so.


It is not so. The reason why bus companies are curtailing their rural services is because the fares have to be augmented from the profits of the thickly populated areas, and the people in the thickly populated areas grumble about having their fares raised.


If I, in my turn, may have the indulgence of noble Lords, may I say that the noble Earl, Lord Winterton, has made the next part of my speech for me, and, in a sense, it has been completed by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth. Perhaps noble Lords will now be indulgent for a minute while I do the next bit, and it may not be necessary for them to continue. What I was going to say, and particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Wise, is that if his feelings were not on specific points but on the broader issues based on North Norfolk, there is something else I should have liked to bring to his attention. He knows—we have just been told—that the present position of the bus services is a worry. I think, whatever the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, may feel, that the great increase in the ownership of cars and motor-cycles has taken trade away, although of course I do not say that what the noble Lord has said is not a factor as well. Some of their routes are unquestionably becoming even more unremunerative than ever they were. We know that they have to take the rough with the smooth, but the rough is getting rougher and the smooth not so smooth. This is bound to happen most in the rural areas, and I agree with the noble Lord that this may well have social effects in the areas. My right honourable friend has set up a Committee on rural bus services, with Professor Jack as Chairman, to look into the whole problem. That Committee is working now and I am sure that they will welcome any representations which the noble Lord cares to make, if he has any.

I hope that I have now said enough to satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Wise, that we are well aware of the traffic problems in North Norfolk and have no desire other than that they should be tackled as quickly as they can be, taking into account the needs of the country as a whole. I am bound to say to him that the roads of Norfolk are likely to be of a rather less priority than those in many other parts of the country simply because the main flow of industrial traffic is elsewhere. I know that there are considerable problems arising from what in the past has been called the tidal nature of Norfolk's holiday traffic, but I think—and I hope the noble Lord will agree with me—that the road system of the county is in fact taking its fair share.

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, for the reply he has given. I am sure that all that has passed in this debate will be read with the greatest possible interest by the people concerned in the area. There is some encouragement, although not a lot, from what the noble Lord said in regard to the proposed curtailment of the bus services. I am anxious that the people in rural areas should not suffer in any way, because they are entitled to the same privileges and services as those who live in the cities and towns. It is important for the life of the countryside that we should encourage bus companies to provide these services, and if the Minister can use his good influences with the Traffic Commissioners when they hear of the suggestion, which I believe is being made by the bus company, to curtail its services, then I think this debate will have been worth while, and this will give great satisfaction to those people who may benefit by his intervention.

With regard to the by-pass, I hope that it will not be long delayed. I know that a good deal of money has been spent on the roads of Norfolk and many improvements stand out as having been carried out, but there are many more improvements still to be made in the narrow roads in order to make traffic safe. It is not a question of speed in this county, but of safety. Some of our roads will not admit of two large vehicles passing each other at certain points, but I know that steps are being taken to improve those points. My object this afternoon was to call attention particularly to the need for the by-pass and also to the needs of those who dwell in the country for an adequate bus service. With those few remarks, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at eighteen minutes past four o'clock.