HL Deb 17 May 1976 vol 370 cc1170-9

3.1 p.m.

Lord POPPLEWELL rose to call attention to the Consultation Document on Transport Policy; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, noble Lords will recall that some weeks ago I had a Motion on the Order Paper calling attention to transport needs with special reference to the railways. Since that Motion appeared on the Order Paper events have overtaken us and the Consultation Document has been published. I have therefore altered my Motion, thus: To call attention to the Consultation Document on Transport Policy; and to move for Papers". It is that Motion that I seek now to move.

I am grateful to those noble Lords who have indicated their interest and intention to speak on this Motion. The Consultation Document has not long been published and, to say the least, it is most complicated and complex. However, I hope sincerely that those who are taking part in the debate will look at the broad picture of transport, and that the observations we make here this afternoon will have an important influence in shaping the ultimate result and policy that emerge from this Document. Noble Lords will know that the Consultation Document is open for discussion by any organisation and by members of the public, and that they are requested to submit their observations to the Government at the address stated in the Consultation Document by 15th June. Noble Lords will also know that this date has been put back to the end of July and I hope that notice will be taken of that change.

We are told that this is a Consultation Document, yet it appears that decisions have been taken on most important principles without any consultation with those who will eventually have to carry out the policy. I suggest that this is regrettable because one of the important principles that has been decided is the question of the future structure of transport and the establishment of a National Transport Council, which is to be an advisory body with no power. Already there is in existence the Central Transport Consultative Committee which may perform the same task as that suggested in this Document, which indicates quite clearly that there is no intention to return to the basic principles of a nationalised transport undertaking, with the old British Transport Commission acting as a holding company and the various executives being allowed to perform, free from interference, the task to which they are appointed. In addition to others, these are two most important decisions which have been taken.

May I urge the Government not to be obdurate where they have indicated this line of policy, but to be resilient and to listen to the arguments which are advanced. It is absolutely necessary that there should he the fullest possible exploration of how the various forms of transport can best be harmonised to provide a service that is efficient and adequate for all our national needs. For far too long there have been transport lobbies. There is the road lobby and there is what is termed the rail lobby. But I do not like either development. In this small, densely populated island of ours we should look at transport as a whole. If restrictions have to be imposed, they must be imposed when looking at the best form of transport to meet the various national needs. I do not like the fragmentary approach that is embodied in this Document. What should be a long-term strategy for dealing with transport has been a little befogged because of the difficult economic circumstances in which the nation finds itself.

Your Lordships may remember that it is three years—that is, on 6th March 1973 —since we had a debate in this Chamber on the same lines as the Motion to which I referred earlier and which I had the privilege of moving. On that occasion I spoke very strongly in favour of a fully integrated transport policy, and this view was shared by most noble Lords who took part in that debate. I ant sure that there is a growing opinion throughout the country that this should be the policy for a long-term transport strategy. We all know of the congestion that exists, that many parts of the country are literally being cut off from any form of public transport and of the consequent hardships which are involved. It appears that this Consultation Document is the Government's answer to the points previously made by many bodies. The Government having put it forward as a Consultation Document, I hope sincerely that it will be dealt with like that and that the decisions which appear to be embodied in the Document will be subjected to argument and discussion without a closed mind. In my opinion the document, like the curate's egg, is good in parts, but there are parts that we want to seek to perfect.

It is evidently—and this is something that many people will feel—a document that has been prepared by the Department of the Environment Transport Section, which has a staff of 1,700 dealing with roads, against 70 dealing with rail. With that background one remembers that this matter has been raised previously. I raised it at one time when there were 38 people dealing with railways. With such a background, and without consultation with outside bodies, it is not surprising that some appear to look upon roads as the basic method of transport in this country. Of course we all know—and I have referred to it earlier—that there has been a very powerful road lobby and in the documents which that road lobby have submitted, and which we have seen, they warmly welcome this Document. The basis of its objectives is in accordance with what the road lobby submitted as early as January this year to the Department of the Environment; if we analyse the two we find there is a great similarity. I rather deplore it and, as I have said. I should welcome a further look at the whole question.

Arbitrarily to decide the financial limits of public expenditure, to impose cuts in development, to restrict investment, to appraise the special strengths of different modes of transport before carrying out a detailed investigation into transport needs of the future, indicates in my opinion many of the past mistakes that have been made in dealing with transport and allows a short-term approach to detract from the long-term strategic requirements.

All nations have found it necessary to impose some control or limitations on traffic movements. All the leading nations of the world are faced with financial difficulties, so far as railways and other forms of transport are concerned. It is not just a phenomenon that is applicable only to this country. Wherever we turn we find various nations are seriously perturbed about that problem and huge sums of public money are allocated towards these transport needs.

That is understandable. Transport is a service and not a commercial or industrial undertaking in the accepted sense. It is not a productive unit, using its own judgment to find markets in the competitive field. Its role is to devise the most efficient unit of transport of goods and people from production to distribution point. It carries many social obligations and implications in its movement and, therefore, if we look upon transport as just a commercial undertaking with profitability, or otherwise, it is a totally wrong line of approach. I would ask the Government to have another look at this problem.

In my opinion the criterion of efficiency ought not to be just profitability. The nation demands that consideration shall be given to social needs, environmental requirements, safety and health standards, plus availability of access to our more sparsely populated areas. I hope that the discussion on those factors that will flow from this Document will be taken fully into account, and that the social and economic objectives will be assessed with the competing claims of housing, education, health and other services in so far as public expenditure is concerned.

Transport enters into the life of every person. It has a very low priority, and quite understandably so, because, in the minds of most people, housing, education and health needs must stand above the transport requirements. I do not altogether object to that, but I suggest that in what is now taking place, with the vast sums of public money that are being invested in all forms of transport, some formula ought to be found for transport to take a higher priority than it does at present. There appears to be a ready acceptance that the growth of the motor car should continue unchecked. We all accept that the ownership of a car is very convenient. We like it ourselves. We use it for work or for pleasure; but we are getting very near saturation point in the use of the motor car. In nine years up to 1973 we spent over £3.000 million in providing new roads and major road improvements, all for the movement of the internal combustion engine. Traffic forecasts suggest that there are now nearly 20 million vehicles licensed for the roads. It is anticipated that by the turn of the century, if the present rate of growth continues, there will be about 30 million vehicles on the roads. Those of us who travel in our towns and cities, and travel up and down our motorways, know exactly what is involved at the moment. Can we visualise the growth of another 50 per cent, in the next 25 years and what conditions will then be like?

We must of necessity face up to this increase in motor traffic, which would necessitate additional astronomical expenditure on new roads. We must remember that each new road or motorway is costing anything from £1 million to £3 million a mile. In the rural areas of Scotland it can be £1 million. In the densely populated areas, such as the Ayr Valley scheme, 35 miles is costing well over £90 million—from £93 million to £95 million. This expenditure is astronomical. Each new road generates additional traffic; each mile of new construction takes away land from food production, and often means the destruction of houses and other environmental amenities. I suggest that a halt must be called to this vandalism which is taking place. A solution must be found somewhere, and I hope that in such suggestions as I have to make there might be a solution.

My Lords, we hear a lot about road subsidies to rail; we hear a lot about the costs involved. I think that if we break down these figures it may be helpful. We do not hear much about subsidies to buses. We spend £200 million a year in subsidies to buses. By way of subsidy local authorities spend about another £40 million under this new set-up where local authorities can contribute to buses with a view to providing a service. In addition, local authorities are now paying £60 million a year to the buses for the concessionary fares which are in operation in most parts of the country. Something like £300 million in subsidies is being spent on buses against £490 million, roughly speaking, given to the railways. The public road costs for the three years' average at 1975–76 prices are made up as follows: new construction and improvements, £1,120 million, and highway maintenance and police, £665 million. We are spending over £2,000 million on our roads in addition to the subsidies I have mentioned. This has always been an arguable point.

Rail track maintenance costs £178 million, signalling costs £104 million, police, excluding docks, £9 million. Out of their own resources the railways have to meet £291 million compared with the £665 million that is given to road interests. When we talk so much about subsidies to rail we must get things in their correct relationships. It is argued by the road lobby that the tax they have to pay outweighs quite a lot of road expenditure. The figures are there, and can be broken down. We find that the Excise duty paid on motor vehicles amounts to £768 million; fuel tax £1,425 million; VAT £310 million; car tax £170 million—total receipts from road vehicles by tax or licence amount to £2,630,000, and it costs £1,705,000 to collect that. If we analyse these figures we find there is a surplus of £968 million which we can assess in relation to the cost I have mentioned so far as road maintenance is concerned.

There is a considerable surplus of car production throughout the world. This makes it more difficult for us in the export market. This is one of the reasons why there are so many foreign cars on our home market. With such a labour intensive industry, no one can blame the Government for the Leyland or the Chrysler effort. This cannot be a long-term measure but only of sufficient duration to bring these firms into a more world competitive position. A good home market is necessary, but is not a prerequisite to greater efficiency. With this greater efficiency better relations must be established. If one looks at the repetitive work in our motor-car factories, at the atmosphere created there—people just doing the same job day in, day out, week in, week out—one sees that it is conducive to unrest and makes a breeding ground for grievances, imaginary or real, which lead to many of the unofficial disputes to which the industry is subjected.

A new form of industrial democracy must be devised. No one desires to restrict the individual in the use of his own car, but the saturation point that I have already mentioned must be taken note of. The local authorities and the passenger transport bodies are very concerned about this at the moment, about periphery parking, short-term central parking and underground metro systems—I commend very much the action of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in their venture with the metro, and in other ventures in this direction.

Looking at the clock, I realise that already I have spoken for far too lone, but there is such a lot more that I should like to say. I will try to condense my speech. The long distance road lorry, in my opinion, is one of the greatest evils and menaces on the road. We ought to bring about greater control of this type of road traffic. Juggernauts thundering along our dual carriageways and other roads, with their exhaust fumes and noise, are offensive; they are a danger to pedestrians and other road users; they have an insatiable appetite for more road space, totalling ignoring other requirements of land use, with their "king of the road" attitude. All these things are matters which we should show more energy in controlling.

Always being used is the argument that if we diverted much of this long-distance heavy lorry traffic to rail in fact it would amount to only about 2 per cent. of the tonnage on the roads. What a fallacy this really is! No one is suggesting for one moment, and never has done, with regard to the delivery van and the person meeting our immediate needs by delivering goods or collecting goods within short-term ranges of 50 or 60 miles, that we should interfere with such vehicles at all. They will continue. To include them in the gross tonnage and suggest that if the long-distance lorry load was put on to rail it would affect only 2 per cent. of the total road tonnage is an entirely wrong line of approach. If we decided that within a 70-mile or 100-mile radius heavy road traffic be diverted to rail we should find that the position changes quite considerably. At that stage, if we diverted heavy long-distance road traffic we should be dealing with approximately 40 per cent. of the heavy long-distance road traffic, and this is where the difficulty and easement of our traffic problems really arises.

There are so many features of this question. On the rail system, every effort is being made to increase efficiency. There is the new TOPS system, or the operating processing system, the computerising control of every railway wagon. That means a considerable reduction, over 20,000, in the number of railway wagons, and it means that it is known exactly where every railway wagon is on any day. This is calculated to save £3 million, which represents a capital saving on replacements of at least £50 million.

A more energetic approach must be made to providing private sidings to industry. As we all know, £9 million is allocated for this purpose. Only £500,000 of that sum has been taken up, and another £500,000 is being talked about. It is along these lines, I suggest, that we should talk, with a view to restoring to many industries the private rail sidings which have been taken out, and also providing them for the newer industries. The very fact of taking out those private sidings has compelled traffic to go on to our roads and to clutter them up. When we do this, there must also be this new line of container traffic, and probably even Government assistance to factories to establish loading bays, in order that goods should be loaded into the containers and never touched again until they reach the distribution point. It is essential that that line of policy should prevail, and it is up to the railway to provide a speedy, safe service, free from vandalism and free from pilfering.

My thoughts centre very much on what happens in my own village of Sherburnin-Elmet in Yorkshire, a country village where we have the largest gypsum working mine in this country, probably in the world. It is sited some little distance away from the rail. When this mine was talked about authority was given for a private rail siding to go into the gypsum works. The gypsum works is in full production, but nothing is happening in that direction; so these huge juggernauts laden with plasterboards clatter along our narrow country roads and through our narrow village streets and are a danger and a menace to everyone concerned. Naturally, the gypsum people are asking the local authority to widen the country roads. I sincerely hope that will never be done. Where there is a good rail service, as there is there, a private line should be put into operation; this plasterboard traffic, coming down to South Wales, to the docks, for export, to the Midlands and elsewhere, should go to where it rightly belongs.

My Lords, I would refer to something that I think is rather disgraceful on the part of the Government. To the fear of railwaymen of a reduction from 11,400 miles of rail track to 8,000 or 4,000, the observation "codswallop" by the former Minister of the Environment has created a lot of damage to the morale of railwaymen and public alike. He said he did not state mileage, and I accept what he said. But what he actually stated, the effect of his directive in cutting investment and subsidies, would have the effect of reducing the rail track to such figures as were talked about even in the Beeching days, down even to 4,000, isolating Scotland altogether, vast tracts of Wales altogether, and other vast tracts of the country. If we work on the basis of maintaining investment at a little below its present level, having in mind real values, 1975–76 values, that is the effect of these cut-backs; that is the effect of the reduction of investment; that is the effect of stopping further electrification; that is the effect if you stop developing the signalling arrangements that are so successful.

One remembers that in the last debate we had in this House there was pointed out the tremendous increase of traffic on the Western route consequent on electrification, the tremendous increase that is visualised to deal with the London commuter traffic, with the North London electrification. One remembers that the old 13ritish Transport Commission, under Lord Robertson, suggested electrification throughout the whole country. That was turned down by the Government and Dr. Beeching. We remember that instead of going to electrification, where we could produce our own power from our own coal produced here, we went on to oil, which we imported. We handed the economy of the railways, we handed even the economy of the nation, across to the sheikhs inasmuch as they have exploited us in the price of oil. If we look today at our balance of payments, we find that if it were not for the astronomical price of oil we should be in balance. It is this that is responsible for much of our difficulties.

With those observations, which I hope may bear some fruit in the future discussion on this Document, I hope, when finality is reached, we shall not make any pragmatic, piecemeal short-term approach, but will look to the long-term strategic position of transport as a whole, and at each method of transport, road, rail, waterways, rivers, inland coast, and even air, in a real effort to ensure that this nation gets the transport service it really desires and requires. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.