HL Deb 01 May 1973 vol 342 cc8-21

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The main provisions of the Bill seek to amend certain sections of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1967, and the purpose of the Bill in general is to place greater emphasis on provisions for amenity by providing regulations and restrictions, and in some cases prohibitions, on the entry of heavy commercial vehicles into certain areas. If I could briefly draw your Lordships' attention to the Bill, your Lordships will see that the first clause is lengthy and, if I may say so, a little difficult to understand without frequent and complicated reference to the parent Act, the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1967. Subsection (1) of this clause contains two major provisions. The first, in paragraph (a), provides for the specification of through routes for heavy commercial vehicles. It is recognised that at this stage it may be a little difficult to enforce the provision of through routes around certain areas which it is thought wrong for heavy commercial vehicles to pass through, but this will be a very useful provision for the future if certain through routes around areas of beauty or areas which are particularly important from an amenity point of view can be established and defined, and if lorry drivers and drivers of other heavy vehicles can get into the habit of making use of these routes. Paragraph (b) of this subsection is important in that it gives local authorities power to specify certain zones which can be restricted or prohibited as regards the entry of heavy vehicles. Under the original Act, which now applies, only single roads may have this prohibition or restriction placed on them.

My Lords, the real crux of this Bill is contained in subsection (2), which provides for restrictions to be placed on certain areas for the purpose of amenity to a much greater extent than has up to now been the case. Up to now it has not been possible for a local authority to impose a prohibition of more than 8 hours in 24 on a road in a town except because of danger to buildings, to the road or to persons. But under this provision it will be possible to impose any restriction, up to total prohibition, on a road which it is thought right to protect from the amenity point of view, or even on an area or zone which is of particular importance from that point of view. This does not give unfettered power to any local authority, because every order under this provision will still need the approval of the Secretary of State.

My Lords, subsection (3) of this clause lays on every local authority the duty to carry out a survey of its particular area, and to formulate written proposals which will be submitted to the Secretary of State for his approval. These proposals will be considered from the amenity point of view in particular, but provision is also made for consultation with other groups, including the balancing body, which is comprised of persons concerned in the operation of heavy commercial vehicles and of persons, the trade unions, representing the drivers of such vehicles. It will be the duty of local authorities to conduct this survey and to submit proposals to the Secretary of State by January 1, 1977, in the case of England and Wales and by January 1, 1978, in the case of Scotland. The later date in the case of Scotland takes into account the later date of local government reorganisation in Scotland. Subsection (4) of this clause is, again, an insertion of a request to local authorities to consider the amenity point of view where previously this criterion was not thought to be taken sufficiently into account. It provides a balance to the existing provision under the relevant section in the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1967 requiring local authorities to maintain access to premises. Under that section they will also have to take account of the amenity point of view.

Subsection (6) of this clause makes it possible for the Secretary of State to consider whether proposals submitted to him under subsection (3) are satisfactory and whether they have been submitted to him with sufficient despatch. Under paragraph (a)(i) your Lordships will observe that any draft order which is unsatisfactory can be rejected by the Secretary of State. Under subparagraph (ii) if the Secretary of State believes that any unreasonable delay has taken place, making it unlikely that proposals will be submitted to him within the stipulated period, he can take such steps as he thinks fit to improve the amenity of the area and to satisfy any of the other provisions for the use of heavy commercial vehicles which in the final analysis rest in his power and which it is his duty to preserve.

Subsection (7) of this long clause concerns the definition of a "heavy commercial vehicle". Your Lordships will observe that under the proposed subsection (1A) this definition will be a vehicle which "has an unladen weight exceeding three tons". Some of your Lordships may be aware that there was a certain amount of discussion during the Committee stage of this Bill in another place when certain representations were made to the effect that a lorry of 3 tons unladen weight may not be sufficiently large to provide the centre of certain towns with the provisions and supplies necessary for the town's commercial needs. It was also pointed out during that Committee stage that certain refrigerated vehicles and vehicles that supplied supermarkets are as much as 5 tons unladen weight and that there might be difficulty in maintaining normal commercial supplies to certain areas if these vehicles were not allowed into towns where there might be restrictions under this Bill. This is why the proposed subsection (1B) of this clause gives the Secretary of State power to order particular regulations in particular cases. It will be possible under the Bill to make it incumbent upon certain owners of heavy commercial vehicles to restrict their vehicles' entry into certain parts of towns but not other parts. Where representations are made by owners of heavy commercial vehicles, I understand that their requests and demands will be taken into consideration and that every case will be considered on its merits.

The reason why those who support this Bill have thought it necessary to stick by the original 3 tons limit is that up to now the unladen weight limit of 3 tons has been a standard limit defined by many criteria. There are, for instance, a large number of traffic signs which define heavy commercial vehicles as those with an unladen weight of 3 tons. There is already a legal obligation on vehicles above this unladen weight to carry red and yellow striped markings. This being the case it will be much easier to enforce compliance with this provision on vehicles which can be identified easily as exceeding the specified 3 tons unladen weight limit. Any other provision will be harder to enforce, although it is recognised under this Bill and provided for that in certain cases it may be necessary to specify a higher limit. This is the end of Clause 1. It is the only clause that deals specifically with restrictions or prohibitions on the use of heavy commercial vehicles on the grounds of amenity.

Clause 2 aims to prohibit the parking of heavy commercial vehicles, as defined under the Bill, on pavements or verges. Up to now it has not been in itself an offence to park a heavy commercial vehicle on a pavement or a verge. It has been an offence to drive on a pavement or a verge or to cause an obstruction. One might imagine that if a heavy commercial vehicle is found on a pavement or a verge it might be concluded logically that the lorry had at some stage been driven on to the pavement or the verge. That is not how the law has been interpreted up to now. The police have been unwilling to prosecute in such cases because it did not follow apparently that a heavy vehicle found on a pavement or a verge had been driven on to it. Therefore under this clause the loophole will be blocked and anyone who parks his vehicle on a pavement or a verge will have committed an offence. The fine, as indicated in subsection (2) of this clause, has been approved by the Home Office and is thought to be appropriate to this offence. Subsection (2) specifies a maximum penalty of £50.

Clause 3 of the Bill covers a small point which, again, plugs a loophole in the law and allows an enforcement officer who suspects that a vehicle may be overloaded to permit the driver of this vehicle to move his vehicle to a specified place where he may unload and bring his vehicle down to the required weight limit. Up to now it could be said that, according to the strict letter of the law, any enforcement officer who gave such an order to the driver of an overloaded vehicle was conniving at the commission of an offence, and that the driver, by driving his vehicle away even for a few yards to have it unloaded, was committing an offence. If the driver had an accident en route to his unloading point he would be liable for any damage caused, and so might be the enforcement officer. The provisions in this clause will remove that anomaly and make it possible for the enforcement officer to act in the way in which he would be employed to act.

Some noble Lords will say that the Bill is not strict enough and does not go far enough to provide for the needs of our amenities in the face of an ever-growing volume of transport and an ever-increasing number of heavy commercial vehicles, particularly those which travel through towns of historic interest where buildings are old and are liable to be damaged by the vibration caused by passing traffic. On the other hand, one must bear in mind that heavy commercial vehicles play a very important part in the supply of essential products to our towns and it is vital that this work should not be restricted too much. They must still be enabled to obtain access to premises in order to be unloaded and to make it possible for shops and warehouses to carry on their commercial activities in a proper way. The problem facing those compiling the Bill was to find an effective balance between these two most important considerations. It is their view that up till now that balance has been tilted a little too far in favour of freedom of access and the movement of heavy commercial vehicles, and not sufficiently in favour of preserving the amenities in certain areas, particularly in towns. It is the belief of those introducing the Bill that its provisions will set a balance which is more or less right, or at least as right as it can be, and I hope that your Lordships will agree to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Bethell.)

3.30 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, for the way in which he has introduced his Bill. He has given us a clear explanation of its clauses. Also we are grateful to him for undertaking the task of piloting it through your Lordships' House. There is, and has been, increasing anxiety and concern about the growing menace to our environment of the heavy lorry. During the past year we have discussed juggernauts when considering the foreign vehicles regulations; in the debate on road safety initiated by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester; in the debate on transport initiated by my noble friend Lord Popplewell; in the debate on the quality of life and urban planning and in the recent outstanding discussion on historic towns and villages. In all those debates there was a clearly expressed recognition that while appreciating the evils of vibration, noise, smell and danger resulting from these vehicles we have still to live with them, despite the fact that we are hoping—I think we shall manage to do so—to transfer some of the traffic from the roads to the railways. We shall have to learn to live with the presence of the heavy lorry which delivers goods to the towns and conveys much of our road traffic.

That does not mean that there is not an urgent need for action to control the heavy commercial vehicle. When I first looked at the Bill I wondered whether there was any need at all for its provisions, having regard to the fact that already we have the Road Traffic Act of 1967, the 1968 Transport Act and the Local Government Act of 1972. However, after reading the debates in the other place and listening to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, to-day, I can see that this small but important Bill will add something to the existing powers for controlling these vehicles in the interests of the environment. I regard the stress laid in the Bill on "preserving or improving the amenities" of our country as very worth while. These words appear in a different context from that used in the 1968 Transport Act. In Section 130 of that Act appear the words: … having due regard to…the effect on the amenities of any locality affected … They are tied to the duty placed on local authorities to secure the expeditious, convenient and safe movement of vehicular and other traffic. In this Bill the word, "amenities" is part of a clause providing for specifying through routes for heavy vehicles and prohibiting or restricting their use in zones or on the roads which may be specified. It appears to me that although the words in the 1968 Act and in this Bill are similar, the emphasis has been changed and those in the Bill fit in with the purpose behind it. In my opinion that is what makes the Bill worth while—the change of emphasis, the fitting of the words into a different context.

My Lords, I think it is right to make local authorities the initiating bodies and I welcome the imposition of a duty on local authorities to formulate proposals by a given date. It sharpens and concentrates the mind wonderfully to have a deadline to which one has to work, and although the authorities come into being only on April 1, 1974, I do not think that the date in the Bill of January 1, 1977, is an impossible target date. I believe that the authorities will be able to meet that date. The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, told us that the definition of a heavy vehicle which appears in the Bill is a vehicle of over three tons unladen weight. To me that appears about right, but I wonder why it seemed desirable to give to the Secretary of State power to amend the weight of over three tons, whether unladen or laden. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, knows the answer; I do not. I cannot see why the Secretary of State should be given power in the Bill to make this change if he feels it is desirable to do so.

In connection with Clause 2, which deals with the prohibition of parking on verges and footways, I wonder whether the existing law also needs strengthening regarding the parking of lorries in residential areas. I know of some streets which are solely residential in character where huge lorries are parked overnight, thus spoiling the character of the street entirely. So far as I can see, this happens mostly to enable drivers—I can understand this—to drive to their homes in the evening and to make an early start in the morning, going straight off with their vehicles immediately after breakfast, but it spoils the character of a street and I find that people living in the street very much resent this happening. I wonder whether the existing law is adequate on this point and, if it is, why it is not enforced. I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, could tell me anything about this aspect of it. I believe it is important, at least to quite a number of people.

The rest of the Bill seems fairly straightforward and worthy of our support, but I must nevertheless complain of the fact that the Bill has all the faults of legislation by reference. An example of this and of the difficulty of reading the Bill occurs in Clause 1(1), where find the words: a local authority as defined in subsection (2) (a) above". Turning to that definition in the 1967 Act, we find that subsection (2)(a) has some 78 words to define a local authority, but remembering that since 1967 we have had the 1972 Local Government Act we look at that Act, as we have to, to see whether the 1967 definition was amended. We find that it was, and that 43 of the 78 words go out, leaving 35 words applicable. So in order to read this Bill we have to go to the 1967 Act and then to the 1972 Local Government Act. My Lords, in less than the 35 words that would be left if we cut out all the words cut out by the 1972 Local Government Act we could have imported the definition into this Bill; but I suppose that would have been too easy, although it is something that ought to be done in Bills of this character to avoid as far as possible this legislation by reference. My Lords, with that small complaint about the Bill—and perhaps we may be able to do something about that on the Committee stage—I wish the Bill an easy and early passage in this House.

3.23 p.m.


My Lords, on this beautiful May afternoon, following my noble friend Lord Bethell's sweet and dulcet tones in introducing the Bill and Lord Champion's almost unqualified acceptance of the Bill, I apologise at the outset that I am going to strike a somewhat discordant note. I think I ought also to apologise, my Lords, that I hope to engage your Lordships' attention for rather longer than the two noble Lords who have already spoken. I do not dispute the fact that what my noble friend Lord Bethel said in introducing the Bill was quite right, but of course he did not tell your Lordships any of the disadvantages—and I refer primarily to Clause 1.

My Lords, to put this matter in a right perspective one has to remember how this Bill came about. It arrived in your Lordships' House having virtually been rewritten from its original form. It had to be rewritten because when the other place looked at the Bill it was found to be thoroughly impracticable—marvellous in theory, absolutely delightful to appease the growing and more vociferous environmental and amenity lobby. Of course, my Lords, large heavy goods vehicles are a nuisance. They irritate people; they cause damage to buildings; they frighten children; and they keep old people, young people, middle-aged, all people, awake at night if the vehicles go in places where it is not desirable that they should go. So all of a sudden it is proposed to rewrite the Bill. The other place turned the whole thing down and produced the Bill now before your Lordships.

Consider the construction, use and control of heavy goods vehicle. There are very many people, including, I suspect, some of your Lordships, who are not fully understanding of a heavy goods vehicle—and I hope to illustrate this point. The environmental lobby has grown enormously, and so also has the responsibility of the local authorities towards the dangers and incursions that road transport makes into the quality of life. We have talked about this subject five times in the last fourteen months; and five times these emotive references come out. This Bill is yet another emotive force, almost sledge-hammerlike in the effect it is likely to have on a number of aspects of the quality of life. The Bill is not necessary. Having said that, I am quite prepared to go along with it if we can alter it and make it a little more useful than it appears to be at the moment. Principally, in Clause 1 two facts are involved: one is a denial of access, the other is a definition of a heavy goods vehicle. No commercial undertaking using lorries sends vehicles to any place in which they are not wanted—that is just commercial suicide. That is the first point. That roads and roadways are not available to take a heavy goods vehicle from a port to another place is another and different problem and this Bill is not going to cure that.

Secondly, the entire distribution network of our suppliers of everyday goods is geared to a certain type of vehicle, a certain type of road system and a certain type of driver and roadway. This Bill will destroy that and will mean an enormous increase in cost. God alone knows that this is about the last thing we want to inflict upon the distribution of goods, because the increase will hit every single pocket. Let me illustrate what I mean by that. Nobody, no haulier, myself, your Lordships, wants a 30-ton gross, 32-ton gross or 40-ton gross vehicle to come anywhere near a city centre. It has to go direct to a distribution centre or direct to an off-loading point. If a vehicle is directed to a distribution centre the land has to be found, and I think of Portsmouth and Southampton, two towns who tried to prepare for this contingency and found no land available.

Where do you find 130 acres for a transshipment depot? It may be necessary for some large vehicles to go by certain routes. The local authorities already have ample powers to prohibit, by weight and width restrictions, the passage of vehicles along certain roadways, and they are increasingly exercising those powers. The advised routing system which local authorities are introducing, albeit without statutory power, is increasingly being used, because it is being proved to the operator that this is an easier and more economical route. By and large, drivers do not disobey their routing officers' instructions; they do not want to get snarled up in traffic. So we can dispense with that end of the argument. That is being taken care of, albeit slowly. And certainly by 1978–80, with the completion of the Government's present road-building programme, a number of these problems will disappear.

My Lords, I have spoken about transshipment. Your Lordships will appreciate that if a load has to be broken down, labour has to be used, and labour costs money. That cost will be represented on the goods being trans-shipped. If you put them into smaller vehicles, then more small vehicles are needed. There is, on the one hand, the problem of weight, noise, pollution and so on, and, on the other hand, in the urban areas there is a congestion problem. If the load is halved into two vehicles, that congestion problem is increased. The duty of a transport authority is not denial, prohibition and restriction, which are negative things; the duty of a transport authority and of the Government is to adopt positive, not negative attitudes. It must be made easier to move traffic through cities and to its destination with the least possible inconvenience to the people, to the environment and to amenity. This Bill does not do that.

A further point is that because it is easier to enforce, as the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, said, and because it may cost a lot of money to change the signs, as the noble Lord, Lord Champion, said, somewhere along the line we are to stick to the definition of "3 tons, unladen" as the criterion for a heavy goods vehicle. "Three tons, unladen" is really rather meaningless. Given three or four days' notice, I could show your Lordships an enormous vehicle, some 22 feet long and right up to the limit of width, but weighing only 3 tons, this lightness being achieved by the use of certain materials, the way in which it is manufactured and the way it is offered at the weighbridge. As I say, "3 tons, unladen" is quite meaningless, and already the sale of vehicles which go 3 tons unladen at licensing is on the increase, to get around the existing legislation in regard to heavy goods vehicle drivers' licences. I will not weary your Lordships by explaining that, as I am sure you will call it to mind. It is far more sensible to face facts as they are. A bigger and heavier vehicle is necessary. Already, because of the Regulations to be introduced in 1976, when the 3 tons unladen weight criterion must disappear in favour of one of 7.3/8 tons gross, manufacturers are redesigning their vehicles to get round that limitation.

Take B.R.S. Parcels. Tesco, Sainsbury, William Cory, and there must be twenty others, who provide the bulk of the products that are bought in the High Street shops day by day: the distribution of their goods from warehouse to retail outlet is based on a 5 tons unladen weight, 12½/14 tons gross vehicle. May I use Sainsbury's as an example? The refrigerated wagons which your Lordships see moving from their central depots—and I think of the central depot at Basingstoke, serving the South-West of England—are vehicles of an unladen weight of about 4.4 tons. Cut out the refrigeration plant and one of these vehicles will go well under 3 tons. But Sainsbury's want the goods in the shop fresh. Split the goods, and instead of 4 wagons going down the M.3 to one retail outlet there will be 8. That is the kind of thing this Bill will promote.

One does not want to be unreasonable about these matters, but one has to face facts as they are. There must be a balance between environment and amenity and the commercial life and wellbeing of cities. In Southampton about eight months ago a boy was stabbed and killed. Nobody saw it and nobody heard it, because nobody was in the city centre. And nobody was in the city centre because the city centre is dying owing to traffic being unable to get in and out: nobody wants to live there; it is dead. Under this Bill we bring in these denial limits and say: "That is all right: a heavy vehicle can go down this road; it can go to an out-of-town shopping centre, to a hyper-market, or somewhere else." But, my Lords, that system does not work in this country because we have not enough room. If we force all that traffic into out-of-town shopping centres we will congest the countryside even more, because to make it viable as an out-of-town shopping centre at least eight acres of parking space is needed for around 12 hours per working day. So we are really talking rather nonsensically about keeping all traffic out. We have to find ways of bringing it in to sustain the investment in a shopping centre, to sustain life within a city; not commercial life alone, but ordinary life, as well.

My Lords, in the 15 minutes I have been speaking I have indicated to your Lordships that I cannot join with my noble friend Lord Bethell and the noble Lord, Lord Champion, in giving this Bill the unqualified support that I think they hope for. I hope I have drawn to the attention of your Lordships some of the real dangers to the people, and not just to the truck operator. It is not a pounds, shillings and pence profit exercise that I have been engaged on this afternoon. I hope that I shall hear from the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, when he winds up, some real answers; not the kind of answers that I have read in the Reports of Standing Committee in the other place or of debates on Third Reading. I hope I may receive some reassurance from my noble friend on the Front Bench, who is also going to speak. Unless I do, I cannot guarantee that the passage of this Bill will be quite so easy as some of your Lordships may hope.

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, I should not have been tempted to intervene in this debate but for the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, who appeared to be advocating in your Lordships' House the policy of almost complete laissez-faire in a sphere where at the present moment we are all thinking very hard about what is the right thing to do. I would think that few except motor manufacturers and road hauliers would agree with the bulk of what the noble Lord has just told us. If we were to agree with this and accept his argument, we might just as well abandon all idea of planning which we have slowly been building up in the light of experience during the last fifty years. But, having said that, surely what we have to consider is the search for the right balance, which the noble Lord in fact mentioned. If he is really prepared to accept that the problem here is that of achieving the right balance, then I find it hard to see why he should also say that the Bill is not necessary, because what this Bill is attempting is to find the right balance.

I have not read the debates in another place, either in the House or in Committee, but I cannot see why, when a Bill is amended either in this House or in another place, it should necessarily be wrong—because that is surely what Parliament is for. It is a place where Bills, including Private Members' Bills, can in fact be discussed and where, as a result of the discussion of new ideas and the intervention of common sense, Amendments—often very substantial ones—can be introduced with advantage. So part of the noble Lord's argument is wrong, I feel. He then spoke about putting this matter in its right perspective, but the fact that the Bill has been amended in another place ought to strengthen the case for the Bill rather than the reverse.

The noble Lord also spoke about the growing and ever more vociferous amenity and environment lobby and used the adjective "emotive" a number of times, suggesting that when those of us who are concerned with these things, although not to the exclusion of everything else, talk about the environment we are emotive but when the financial interest is discussed then the word "emotive" is not used and other adjectives are substituted.

My Lords, as to the need for some form of control, I can only commend to your Lordships the lesson that can be learned by standing at the corner of Parliament Square and Bridge Street at a busy time of day. This is, of course, near a city centre where we have been told no sensible road haulier would ever dream of bringing a large vehicle. So there must be rather more foolish road hauliers than we supposed who keep putting themselves, and perhaps also their shareholders, to unnecessary expense. But if any of us were to stand on that corner with our feet on the pavement edge, I do not think it would be very long before they were crushed by the rear wheels of some vast trailer coming up from Westminster Bridge and swinging left. I happened to be standing there the other day and saw a vehicle hit the railings and knock a section of it down. I mentioned this to a policeman nearby, but he appeared to think that it was something which happens so often that it was hardly worth taking notice of. I have spoken enough for an intervention at this stage, and I apologise to your Lordships for not having put my name down to speak. But I do make an earnest plea that this Bill should be given a Second Reading. It may well be necessary to amend it in Committee but we should accept the principle as being very necessary at this particular time.