HL Deb 17 November 1983 vol 444 cc1382-5

3.51 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 12th May be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order was made by the then Secretary of State for Transport on 10th May, and was laid before this House on 12th May. It received the necessary affirmative resolution in another place on 28th July. Subject to the approval of your Lordships' House, it will reduce the number of traffic areas serving Great Britain from 11 to nine, and establish a new pattern of traffic area boundaries set out in the schedule to the order, both with effect from 1st April 1984.

I hope not to detain your Lordships for too long. But it is 50 years this week since your Lordships' House last had the opportunity of debating the boundaries of traffic areas. It may, therefore, help the House if I remind your Lordships of what traffic areas are and what they do before explaining why, after so long an interval, the Government now wish to reorganise them.

Traffic commissioners, and the traffic area offices for which they are responsible, have five main functions, all to do with regulation of the transport industry and, above all, the preservation of road safety. As traffic commissioners they issue licences to bus operators and bus drivers, and for stage carriage bus services. In another guise, as licensing authorities under the Transport Acts, the chairmen of traffic commissioners also licence the operators and drivers of heavy goods vehicles. The commissioners are appointed by the Secretary of State. The chairmen serve from that appointment until they retire. The other commissioners serve for five years at a time and are selected from panels nominated by local councils. They are not accountable to the Secretary of State, except, on a few occasions, on matters of appeal. But their clerks and staff, who are civil servants, also carry out some of the Secretary of State's executive tasks.

The traffic areas were set up, and traffic commissioners first appointed, under the Road Traffic Act 1930, which radically reorganised the previously chaotic system of bus service licensing. They rapidly acquired the confidence both of the industry and of the public. They now employ about 800 staff in support of the commissioners' licensing functions, and have a yearly turnover of some £50 million, almost all of it self-financing through the receipt of fees paid by the users. It is right that I should take this opportunity of paying tribute to the quality of the commissioners' work, for it rarely attracts public attention.

Over the years, the balance of the traffic areas' work has changed. It is no longer so necessary, as it was in 1930, to put some check on cut-throat competition between rival bus operators. This was recognised particularly in the Transport Act 1980, which freed long-distance bus services from quantity licensing and established a presumption in favour of granting licences for local services. This reduced the burden of work on the commissioners and their staff. Meanwhile, the public interest in their responsibilities for licensing lorry operators has increased. Most recently, the Transport Act 1982 empowered them—the commissioners—for the first time to take environmental factors into account in considering proposals for goods vehicle operating centres.

The system of independent licensing authorities has served us well for over 50years. The boundaries of the traffic areas, too, have stood almost unchanged since that pattern in 1930. One area, the Southern, was disbanded only three years later. The two areas in Scotland were combined into one in 1940, with the need for economy in wartime being quoted in support. Some very minor changes were effected by a consolidating Act in 1960. But the boundaries still largely reflect the boundaries of the major bus companies of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The Government were naturally reluctant to change a system that works. The Government know only too well that any reorganisation imposes certain costs. It is also upsetting to staff. There have to be clear and positive benefits for so doing. As I have said, the work on the bus licensing side had declined, and, for the chairmen at least, it had not been offset by increasing work elsewhere. It was becoming increasingly apparent that we were not making the fullest use of the talents of these able and dedicated men.

Also, when the area boundaries were drawn they did not everywhere follow local government boundaries. Our predecessors regarded it as more important to keep to a minimum the number of bus routes which crossed from one area to another. But bus routes have changed and continue to change. Meanwhile, it has become an inconvenience for many local authorities to have to deal with more than one traffic area.

The Government therefore decided that the time had come to look at the traffic area map afresh. We did not want, though, to pull the organisations up by the roots and start again, risking, as it would have done, serious disruption to the customers, the bus and lorry operators who have to deal with the traffic area offices from day to day, and to the commissioners and their staff. We examined a large number of proposals for reducing the number of areas from 11 to seven, which was the minimum we thought the workload would justify. We looked at eight. We looked at nine. We consulted bodies representing the bus and freight industries, the local authorities, the chairmen of traffic commissioners, and indeed, the staff, modifying our proposals at each stage in the consultation. Finally, we developed the pattern set out in the schedule to the order, which provides for nine areas. This will keep disturbance for users and for staff to an absolute minimum.

It might be useful if I state here that we have no plans to close any of the present traffic area offices. With 11 existing main offices, and only nine new areas, two of the areas each will inherit two offices. The North-Eastern area will have offices in Newcastle and Leeds, and the Eastern area will have offices in Nottingham and Cambridge. It may be suggested that one of the offices in each of these areas should be closed. But closing offices would be very expensive; some staff would have to move at public expense, and others might be made redundant. So even if there were some really quite small gains in efficiency, the closing of offices would only save money in the very long run. Also it is a fact that operators like to deal with their local office, even though the great mass of business is handled by post or telephone. I should like the House to be aware that the Government have made it clear that no offices will close for a minimum of three years, and probably not for much longer than that.

At this stage I should perhaps offer your Lordships a brief guide to the order, which, as so often, looks rather bulky for what I have described as a very simple measure. The meat of it is Article 4 and the schedule, which actually describe the new traffic areas by reference to local authority boundaries. Articles 1 and 3 are the usual preliminaries. Article 5 consigns to the archives the signed maps defining the present boundaries, which are no longer needed now that we are following local government boundaries. Articles 6 to 9 are transitional matters of internal organisation; and Articles 10 to 17, which make up most of the bulk, are the crucial transitional provisions designed to keep to an absolute minimum any inconvenience to users of traffic area services.

As regards the schedule, the main changes, designed to reduce the number of areas from 11 to 9, are that we propose to combine most of the northern area with most of the Yorkshire area, and most of the East Midlands area with most of the eastern area. Other changes are designed to reduce the combined areas to a manageable size; and, in the rest of the country, to follow county boundaries wherever practicable.

As I said, we consulted very thoroughly. I do not think your Lordships would wish me to enumerate this afternoon all the options that were considered and rejected. We are confident that the pattern proposed here is the one which best meets the conflicting requirements, including the wishes of the bus and goods operators who have to deal with traffic areas. I would most certainly not wish to suggest that your Lordships should not debate the proposition that there should be 5, 15 or 25 areas, or propose shifting this or that parish from one area to another, though I note with some satisfaction that when your Lordships approved the establishment of the original 13 areas in 1930—and the functions laid upon the traffic commissioners then were very much more controversial than they are today—the only amendments tabled represented (as so often they do) second thoughts by the Government. It is a very modest administrative reform, and I commend the order to your Lordships. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 12th May be approved.—(Lord Lucas of Chilworth.)