HL Deb 01 May 1973 vol 342 cc39-43

4.27 p.m.

Second Reading debate resumed.


My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Champion, I would express gratitude to my noble friend Lord Bethell for the way he so lucidly explained this Bill. Despite the very powerful words of my noble friend Lord Lucas, this Bill is essentially a modest and, I think, a useful measure, designed to balance the conflicting requirements of catering for the essential needs of commerce and industry, indeed society as a whole, for the transport of goods, and the legitimate desires of all of us for a cleaner, safer and better environment to live in. There can be no doubt that people generally feel that heavy lorries do intrude too much on their private lives and that this intrusion is increasing. We can all cite horrifying examples of what happens when things go wrong, when lorry operators or drivers do not have adequate regard to the feelings and convenience of other people. I believe that such examples represent only a very small minority, that most vehicles are courteously and sensibly driven, and that the safety record of heavy lorries is extremely good. Nevertheless, because of their size, lorries are intrusive, and it is quite uncivilised to operate on the basis that vehicles should be allowed to go wherever they can physically force a passage through.

The other side of the coin is our dependence on lorries for our daily wellbeing. Eighty five per cent, of all our goods travel by road, and this is really inevitable, because of the short distances in this country, the relative dispersal of collection and delivery points, the extreme flexibility of direct door-to-door service, and the relative speed and reliability of delivery that road alone can at this moment provide and which commerce and industry increasingly require. It is, as the noble Lord, Lord Champion, said, simply unrealistic to believe that by far the greater part of this traffic could travel other than by road. Your Lordships have heard before that a doubling of rail freight, for example, would only reduce the road traffic by considerably less than 5 per cent. What we therefore have to do is to learn to live with the lorry, by civilising the lorry itself and by providing it with the necessary facilities, notably the roads, to take it where it needs to go, without intruding into the areas where it need not be and where it does not desire to be.

The Government are doing much to tackle these problems. We are working to produce safer and less noisy lorries and we are continually tightening constructional requirements. We are also tightening enforcements on those who offend against safe loading and maintenance requirements. At the same time, we are pressing ahead with building the national road network needed to cater for road traffic, with a comprehensive motorway and primary road network of some 3,500 miles of high quality roads, to be completed by the early 1980s with direct links to all major ports and progressively by-passing towns and villages, especially those of historic interest. We are planning to associate with these roads a national lorry park network to cater for lorries on through journeys at night. As we provide facilities for heavy vehicles, it will become necessary to protect the areas through which lorries now travel because they have no alternative.

But we cannot afford to be complacent and, clearly, we cannot do nothing until all these roads are completed. These are pressing problems already in urban areas which need to be tackled and that is why I welcome this Bill. I also welcome it because, while it attempts to do something to improve conditions for people suffering unnecessarily from the intrusion of heavy lorries, it does not overlook the continuing need for lorries or the disasters that would happen if we simply tried savagely to ban all lorries over a certain size from wide areas of the country or from towns. What this Bill does, in essence, is simply to extend the powers of local authorities in making traffic management orders, so that they can take account of amenity requirements, without, however, disregarding the requirement to pay regard to the reasonable needs of access. It lays on the new local authorities a duty to draw up by 1977 comprehensive freight plans within their transportation programmes. In addition, it tackles the problem of parking by heavy lorries on pavements and, as the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, pointed out, it plugs a small gap in the law dealing with overloaded vehicles. The powers have been drawn very flexibly, so that individual schemes can take full account of local needs.

I am aware that great anxiety has been expressed by operators of lorries, that the power to deny access on grounds of amenity could have dramatic and calamitous effects on goods delivery if orders are made banning all lorries over 3 tons unladen weight. I do not doubt that the effects would be damaging and costly if such blanket requirements were imposed, but I do not believe that this is a realistic possibility. I am sure that local authorities will have full regard to everything that has been said about the need to cater for delivery and collection by lorries larger than 3 tons unladen weight. The Bill's flexibility will enable a higher weight limit to be specified in orders denying access, to take account of local circumstances while retaining the lower limit for preventing parking on pavements. Similar powers to those which the Bill would give to all local authorities are also possessed by the G.L.C., and there has been no sign of their leading to the dire consequences prognosticated by the prophets of doom. In the last analysis, moreover, the Secretary of State will have ample reserve powers, though I do not believe that he will have to use them. The regulation of local traffic is essentially a local matter, which should be left to local authorities able to take account of local circumstances, and this is what the Bill recognises.

In short, the Government believe that this measure will be a useful addition to, and an extension of, the traffic management powers of local authorities and that it strikes a fair and reasonable balance between environmental needs and those of the transport of goods. There have been particular reservations expressed and questions asked by noble Lords, such as the noble Lord, Lord Champion, and my noble friend Lord Lucas, on various aspects of this Bill, which I think can be more fully and profitably discussed in Committee. They do not detract from the essential merits of the Bill, and I would advise your Lordships to give it a Second Reading.

4.35 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank all those noble Lords who have spoken and who have given approval, qualified or otherwise, to this Bill, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Champion, and my noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton. The noble Lord, Lord Champion, referred to the definition of a heavy vehicle and the proposal to include in that definition a vehicle with an unladen weight of 3 tons, and he asked why the Secretary of State should have power to vary this limit in any particular case. The sponsors of this Bill and their advisers have taken into consideration the fact that there may be certain towns where there are no proper facilities for the unloading of heavy vehicles nearby, and it may be that in certain specified cases it will be necessary to allow vehicles of a rather heavier unladen weight than 3 tons to go in and unload. My noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth mentioned, in particular, the problem in the area of Southampton and Portsmouth where there is, apparently, a shortage of land and of unloading facilities. I do not know the details of that case, but it could be that the Bill will cater for problems such as that and I suggest to your Lordships that it is on points like that that the Bill shows itself to be flexible and good.

In a robust and interesting speech, my noble friend Lord Lucas raised a large number of points, some of which were answered by my noble friend Lord Inglewood. But there is one point on which, with the very greatest respect, I should like to take issue with him. He suggested that local authorities already have ample powers to deal with matters of amenity. This Bill gives the Government and local authorities greatly increased powers and I would mention two of them. The first is the power to restrict the access of heavy goods vehicles for more than eight hours in 24 hours. Under present legislation, a restriction can be placed on grounds of amenity only for up to eight hours. The second power which is given by this Bill is that to restrict or prohibit the access of heavy commercial vehicles to zones, as opposed to single streets. I hope that almost everyone in this House, even my noble friend Lord Lucas, will agree with me that there are certain areas where heavy commercial vehicles should not be allowed to penetrate, such as cathedral areas and areas where buildings are old and frail, where there is a severe danger of vibration.

My noble friend might say that there are very few of these areas and that such prohibition orders should be issued very sparingly. This brings us down to a matter of degree and not to a matter of principle, but I think that even my noble friend will agree with the principle involved. I should like to thank him for saying that he did not want to be unreasonable, and for agreeing that it is essential to try to strike the right balance between amenity or environmental considerations and commercial considerations. I am sure that the other points which my noble friend made will arise again in Committee, if your Lordships see fit to give this Bill a Second Reading. I am also sure that, with his great knowledge of the subject, he will be able to make a most valuable contribution and certainly those who support this Bill will be willing to consider Amendments.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.