HL Deb 03 June 1992 vol 537 cc891-3

2.51 p.m.

Lord Tordoff asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are aware of any EC proposals to raise the harmonised weight of lorries from 40 to 44 tonnes, and what their response to such a proposal would be.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the EC directive on lorry weights, from which the UK has a derogation until 1999, prescribed a 40-tonne weight limit for articulated vehicles in international haulage or 44 tonnes for vehicles in combined transport. We are not aware of any proposal to raise these limits. EC officials are known to be considering the possibility of harmonising weight limits for lorries on domestic journeys.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that almost totally incomprehensible Answer. Is he aware that I am aware that he does not understand it either? Is the noble Viscount further aware that there is considerable concern in this country that very heavy lorries coming onto our minor roads can cause an enormous amount of damage? What steps would the Government take were weights to be pushed up again to ensure that such lorries were kept to main roads and to motorways?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am sorry if my Answer was not clear to the noble Lord. I thought it was absolutely clear. I should say to him that local highway authorities have wide powers under the Road Traffic Regulation Act to make orders to restrict or prohibit certain classes of vehicle from using certain stretches of road. For instance, the Act gives authorities power to specify through-routes for lorries or to prohibit or restrict their use in particular zones or roads. These lorries do by and large stick to motorways and trunk roads and we are building by-passes so that they can keep to trunk roads.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for the pellucidly clear Answer which he originally gave, may I ask him whether Her Majesty's Government are opposed to any increase in the weight of vehicles admitted to this country and operating on British roads? Is he aware that many of us feel that the present limit is already too high?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his support. As he will no doubt know, road wear is determined by axle rather than gross weight. Road wear is proportional to the weight of an axle raised to its fourth power and it is that which is important. We have no proposals from the EC and we do not know what they are. Therefore I cannot make any comment.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, will the Minister ask his right honourable friend the Prime Minister to send a request to the Commission that it takes a rest from these harmonising efforts it is making from time to time, to mind its own business and to get on with something intellectually constructive and of benefit to the members of the Community?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is having quite a busy day today anyway. But if there is a moment that I can bring this matter to his attention I am sure that I shall try to do so.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his Answer to my noble friend was not as clear as it ought to have been? Are the Government satisfied that we have now reached the maximum of weight that should be allowed bearing in mind the condition of our roads? I sat on the Transport Committee of the European Parliament and this was always a contentious issue. It wants it to be higher. We have satisfied it until recently that our roads did not justify any increase. Is that the view of the Government or not?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, under the agreement that we have for a derogation until January 1999 our weight limits will not rise. As I said, what is important is axle weight. The Transport and Road Research Laboratory has found that compared with a four-axle 32-tonne vehicle, the heaviest allowed until 1984, a 44-tonne vehicle allowed for combined transport with six axles could be expected to cause 11 per cent. less road wear per vehicle and 37 per cent. less road wear per tonne of goods carried. That is what is important —axle weight.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does the noble Viscount accept that these are not the only criteria? Although it is perfectly well understood that axle weight has a relationship to the wear on roads, the actual bulk of the vehicle itself injures the environment of the people through whose area these lorries proceed. Is not that what people are worried about —the environmental damage that is being done to people, not necessarily only to roads?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I cannot really accept what the noble Lord says. Most lorries are already a certain size; it is just a matter of what they can carry. I should tell noble Lords that it has been estimated that but for the increase in maximum permitted gross weights from 32 tonnes to 38 tonnes in 1983, some 12,000 extra lorries would now be needed on our roads, covering about 640 million miles annually. These vehicles would consume approximately an extra 100 million gallons of diesel, with all that that implies for CO2 and global warming.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the noble Viscount happen to know whether the individual states of the United States, the individual provinces of Canada and the individual states of Australia have the power to fix their own maximum axle weights? If any of them do, why should not the same freedoms be granted to the nation states of Europe?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we do have the power to fix our own domestic axle weights.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, following on from what was said by the noble Lords, Lord Monson and Lord Harmar-Nicholls, can it not always become a fact when governments give these figures that axle weights are put in as something of just as much importance, if not more, than the total weight?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I absolutely agree with my noble friend. The rules concern axle weights as well as the total amount of weight. They both go together.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, do not the questions that have been posed indicate that what the Government really ought to be doing is to pay urgent attention to shifting more freight from road to rail? What has the Minister to say about supporting the concept that dedicated lorry routes avoiding residential areas should be planned as rapidly as possible so that it would be possible to have local distribution points at railway terminals brought within easy access?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we are committed to increasing the role of the railways. In particular, we have plans to open up the railway network to private freight operators. We also will enhance the terms of the Section 8 grant scheme for rail freight facilities. In addition, the Channel Tunnel will provide tremendous opportunity for rail freight in international traffic.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, can the noble Viscount explain to the House what is the difference between a harmonised weight and the various other kinds of weight that we have been flinging around during the course of Question Time?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, that is an interesting question. It should not be for me to tell someone like the noble Earl with such a distinguished academic career what it is. I have to leave it to him.