HL Deb 18 May 1995 vol 564 cc708-28

6.15 p.m.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, before the regulations governing road signs are relaxed, they will carry out assessments and research with regard to the potential environmental impact and confusion to road users as a result of the proliferation of road signs.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, today's convention demands scrupulous declarations of interest by Members of both Houses, and since the Question involves tourist signposting perhaps I may begin by confessing that I am involved in one of the largest tourist attractions in Great Britain. It is set in an area of outstanding natural beauty, the New Forest. I am President of the Southern Tourist Board and a member of the Heritage Committee of the British Tourist Authority.

The Question is deliberately designed to draw the attention of Parliament for the first time to proposed amendments to the traffic sign regulations which, if introduced as proposed, will, I believe, have a very detrimental long-term effect on our environment, being unmanageable and potentially confusing to touring motorists.

Britain is justly famous all over the world for its green and pleasant land and its historic towns and villages, largely uncluttered by a profusion of signs. For many decades, governments of all persuasions have made it their policy to keep our roads and particularly our countryside clear of a proliferation of signs. With the growth of tourism and leisure, this policy had to be altered, so in the 1980s the brown and white tourist signs were introduced, denoting a tourist attraction with symbols indicating their type because bona fide tourist attractions are visited by a large number of people who are unfamiliar with the area. The numerical criteria relating to the number of visitors to each site and other conditions have been generally accepted by the tourist industry as a valid limitation, as the stated purpose of signs is to provide directions to ease traffic flow not for advertising.

This system has worked very well with the tourist boards supervising compliance with criteria. The current policy already allows a large range of tourist establishments to be signed. They include theme parks, Zoos, historic properties, museums and leisure complexes. Consequently the brown and white sign has a defined and recognised meaning. There have been some justifiable requests for a limited extension of the criteria to other types of destination which attract large numbers of tourists.

Now, as suggested by a circular from the Department of Transport, this successful scheme, which has won widespread public acceptance and confidence, is to be replaced by a virtually unregulated free-for-all. The new definition of an eligible establishment is proposed as any, permanently established destination or facility which attracts or is used by visitors to an area, and which is open to the public without prior booking during its normal opening hours". That description is so wide that it would cover not only all guesthouses and bed-and-breakfast establishments, but also every pub and restaurant—even shops if they chose to apply—and the department proposes a presumption in favour of approval. There are approximately 5,000 visitor attractions in England, many of which are not currently signed, but the number of premises that could potentially be signed under the new suggested definition could be well over 200,000.

So how would the physical requirements of locating and installing so many signs be met? Stranger still, it is suggested that establishments be permitted to supply and put up their own signs. That raises the question of who will maintain them and keep them up to date in future years.

Another problem is that the new widened definition of eligibility without any qualifying criteria will allow establishments to have a sign, even if their opening times are such that they may often be closed when visitors who follow the signs arrive. Surely it is wrong that signs should be a source of misinformation. Under existing criteria, attractions that have limited or seasonal opening periods below established levels must indicate that on their signs.

The total lack of nationally accepted criteria for the signposting of tourist attractions based on numerical justification, or quality and operational standards is surely unacceptable. Significantly it is a step which Scotland has refused to take; it will wisely continue to administer its signage through the Scottish Tourist Board. Wales will do likewise. It surely must be right, in line with the recent tourism policy statement of the Department of National Heritage, Competing with the Best, that tourism sign eligibility in England should comply with prevailing tourist board standards which are accepted by the industry, such as the "Visitors Charter" code of practice for attractions and the national grading and classification schemes for accommodation which the Heritage Secretary only recently pledged to strengthen.

There is no doubt that an appropriate broadening and flexibility of eligibility criteria would be welcomed, to permit signs for other types of permanent destination which attract large numbers of tourists and visitors from outside the area. If hotels, pubs, fast food establishments, supermarkets and picnic sites need and deserve further signs, could they not be known as tourist facility signs, and be in a different colour so as not to downgrade the credibility of the brown and white signs to proper tourist attractions?

Unfortunately there is nothing in the proposals to reflect the special requirements of areas such as national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty or the New Forest, in whose recently designated heritage area there are 38 hotels and 88 bed-and-breakfast establishments. In the county of Hampshire alone there an; 2,000, all of which, it is suggested, should have a presumption in favour of a sign.

It is further proposed that local roads authorities may establish their own criteria. Yet surely signs must also be continuous and not differ between adjacent local authority areas. Most importantly, signs must be clear and reliable sources of information. The application of consistent conditions is needed. Signage policies must be comprehensive, and be devised in full collaboration with environmental and regional and national tourist interests.

There is no evidence that the issue of sign proliferation has been evaluated, either in terms of physical requirements, information need, or, in my view most importantly, environmental impact. As the proposals stand there is a real risk that large numbers of signs could damage the very environment that tourists want to see, and that they could confuse rather than assist.

The proposed proliferation of signage will undoubtedly bring about a devaluation of the existing brown and white signs, and will have a detrimental effect on visitor attractions that serve high volume need, through their signs becoming visually insignificant. If so many establishments are to be signed, either in a cluster or all on one post, the result will surely be self-defeating.

The House may wonder why this radical new policy has not received wider publicity. For reasons that are unclear—I refrain from saying "sinister"—the consultative paper and the draft orders were issued just before Easter with little over a month allowed for representations. Very few local authorities or amenity bodies have had time to consider the paper. Indeed, one local authority told me that it did not even have time to put it to the relevant committee.

Surely eligibility for signage must continue to depend on establishments adopting nationally agreed codes of practice and minimum standards—and minimum numbers should continue to be accepted by the Department of Transport as preconditions for signage, especially on motorways.

I am sure that everybody will agree that the object of signs is to inform and direct. They must be accurate, clear and reliable. If there are no standards, there will be chaos. So what is the rush? I plead with the Government tonight to carry out further consultation to achieve nationally agreed criteria, to come to a sensible agreement with regard to the definition of tourist attractions relevant to tourist facilities, and to delay implementation of any proposals until such time as a proper assessment is made of the undoubted damage to our countryside, towns and villages. It seems inconceivable that the Government would choose to ignore the strong representations by such bodies as the Association of County Councils, the tourist boards, motoring organisations, RoSPA and the CPRE, which have a long history of fighting against the proliferation of signs.

I have considerable sympathy with my noble friend who will answer this Question this evening. He will be valiantly representing the Department of Transport, which over the years has traditionally been in the forefront of preventing unnecessary signs on Britain's roads. To defend such a complete capitulation to the proposed free-for-all must be very painful for many in his Ministry. It must be especially cruel, since the idea for these far-reaching changes comes not from the Department of Transport but, ironically, from the Department of National Heritage—set up, as it presumably was, to protect our heritage. It should have known better.

This Government's general record will be judged by history, and there will inevitably be a difference of opinion as to their successes and failures. The proposed deregulation will, if enacted, be virtually impossible to reverse. One thing that I would have thought no government would wish to hand down is a bitter legacy of polluting this country with tens of thousands of brown and white signs, hence ruining our green and pleasant land.

I shall leave the last word to Ogden Nash, who said: I think that I shall never see

A billboard lovely as a tree.

Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,

I'll never see a tree at all"!

6.26 p.m.

Lord Chorley

My Lords, we are all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, for tabling this Question. We all know the considerable expertise and experience that he brings to the subject. Like him, I must begin by declaring an interest as chairman of the National Trust. The National Trust could also be considered a tourist organisation. We have over 270,000 hectares—or in plain English 600,000 acres—of land, and associated with it, relevant to tonight's discussion, 190 houses of historic interest, 114 gardens, 62 landscape parks, and so on, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Therefore the "white on brown" signs are certainly useful to us and to our 10 million plus visitors.

Along with English Heritage, the National Trust currently enjoys the special dispensation of not having to consult the local tourist board for approval that our properties should be regarded as tourist attractions in order to qualify for "white on brown" tourism signs. The trust has for many years used its own oak leaf logo on these signs; it has become widely recognised across the country. We have been involved in the Department of Transport's consultation process on this difficult subject for over four years.

With regard to the present proposals, the National Trust, as an organisation responsible under Act of Parliament for landscape conservation, is deeply concerned about the proposed dramatic expansion in the eligibility criteria. The noble Lord, Lord Montagu, listed them: cinemas; hotels; B? restaurants; retail establishments, and so on. We, too, have no doubt that the ensuing proliferation of signs will have a dramatic and detrimental effect on the appearance of our countryside.

For example, the Department of Transport's circular of 3rd April states: Local authorities now have"— I assume this means that it "would have"— much more flexibility to consider applications. In response to last year's consultation national qualifying criteria (such as minimum visitor numbers) have been abolished. Other qualifying criteria imposed by Circular Roads 1/91, such as only allowing signs from the nearest A or B road, and requiring attractions to be open for one year, have also been abolished. The Department expects that under the proposed new arrangements all reasonable requests for signs will normally be met".

This proliferation will be especially serious in designated areas such as national parks and AONBs, as the noble Lord mentioned, but it would also be deplorable in the open landscape as a whole. The chief planning officer of the Lake District Planning Board has commented that, visitors to the area both from this country and abroad frequently remark on how attractive the Lake District is because of the absence of unnecessary signs. Inevitably that will change if the proposed amendments go ahead and it is not inconceivable, for example, to envisage twenty or more signs on the Crook Road to Bowness advertising the presence of hotels, pubs, caravan parks, camp sites and bed and breakfast establishments. The cumulative effect over the whole of the Park would be devastating". As someone who has his home in the Lake District, all I can say is "Hear, hear". He knows what he is talking about. I think that it would be quite appalling.

It should be a matter of pride that, thanks to sensible controls, our countryside has hitherto not been disfigured by the plethora of notices and signs which confront the visitor in many overseas countries.

If we are to enter a world of visual free-for-all, to use the noble Lord's phrase—because that is what it seems to amount to—the only controlling bodies will be individual highway authorities. Surely it would be wise to make the erection of those signs subject to the normal planning process as well.

We consider that the proposed liberalisation of signing is a passport to declining standards of design and taste. The removal of proper vetting standards and restrictions is in our view certain to lead to inconsistency and, in many cases, shoddy and inappropriate signs. Moreover, the prospect of plans for the grouping of establishments on a single sign is not encouraging. Already many places bear a multiplicity of signs of different shapes, sizes, colours and significance, to the confusion of the motorist or visitor, rather than to clarification. To make an already cluttered situation worse is a short-sighted and unwise policy.

We particularly regret the removal of tourist boards from the approval process. The tourist boards have accepted some responsibility for promoting environmental objectives as well as those of tourism—a principle also supported by the Government. They are better placed than the highway authorities to insist on some degree of quality and consistency—and this surely is a case where national consistency is important.

The trust is further concerned about the proposed definition of a "tourist attraction" as one which is, open to the public without prior booking during its normal opening hours. The trust maintains a number of properties where such visiting patterns are not practicable but where it is still important to ensure that adequate signing is provided.

One of the worst aspects of our urban environment as we approach the millennium is visual clutter in our streets. The proliferation of signs, of instructions, or mandatory injunctions is particularly intrusive and offensive. Perhaps they may be necessary in our towns but, for heaven's sake, let us not compound the situation by allowing this awful contagion to spread unnecessarily to our wonderful countryside.

What the department is proposing seems to me to cut right across, for example, the good work it is increasingly doing to harmonise and design our roads into the landscape. I refer, for example, to its excellent publication The Good Roads Guide published in 1992. Incidentally, it has a whole section on road signs, which I would not have thought was consistent with the proposed policy. What I ask myself is: what does the Department of the Environment think of all this? What is the point of trying to protect our fine countryside from unsightly development if, at a stroke, the essential regulations which control signs in the countryside are so diluted as to make them ineffectual. I submit that that is what the proposals will lead to. I beg the Minister to think again.

6.33 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, I should declare an interest in that I am a vice-president of RoSPA. I am also on the public policy committee of the Royal Automobile Club.

At the outset, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Montagu and, like the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, remind your Lordships of the immense amount of work that over many years my noble friend has put into the business of tourism, in the promotion of stately homes, and the heritage generally. I doubt whether many Members of your Lordships' House know more about the subject than he does.

I appreciate the detailed points that have already been made and share those sentiments—but I think that I share them probably to a lesser degree than my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, made clear in their contributions. I give a qualified welcome to the measure because I am basically one who supports deregulation, and this is part of that process.

I share with my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu a sense of misgiving in that the letter from the Department of Transport, starting off the consultation process, is dated 3rd April when the closing date for submissions was 5th May. As has been said, that is a very short response time for the 126 consultees named in the annex to that letter. I have seen a number of the submissions—I shall quote from one or two later. As I said, I am a little worried about that aspect.

I was also a little alarmed when I saw that the draft regulations are dated 29th March. My noble friend the Minister shakes his head, but I have a copy of the draft regulations dated 29th March. I shall be happy afterwards to let my noble friend see it. One might assume that the decision had already been made. But enough about that because the statutory instrument—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, perhaps I can help my noble friend. When I reply to the debate I shall be happy to go into this in a little more detail, but we must be clear that the statutory instrument has not been laid. The draft statutory instrument has been consulted upon.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, [did not suggest that it had been laid. What I said was that there is a draft statutory instrument—I have a copy of it—which is dated 29th March. That is some few days before the invitation to consult went out. One could draw a sinister conclusion, if one so wished.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend and apologise for intervening again at this stage, but perhaps it might clarify the situation. The point is that that is is what is consulted upon. I should not like the House to get the impression that the consultation is in any way pre-empted.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am not going to argue the pitch and toss of that one. Of course, I accept what my noble friend says. In fact, I thought that we were going to consult on the draft circular on tourist signing. All that I am suggesting is that a draft instrument dated 29th March was available whereas the invitation to consult is dated 3rd April, and with that invitation comes the draft circular on tourist signing, which is the matter about which the consultation was to take place. I have spent far too much time on that aspect, but I thought that it was right to make that small point. Perhaps my noble friend can tell us, out of those 126 consultees, how many submissions have been made to date. Most of the submissions that I have seen express a number of serious reservations. All of them express the fear about the proliferation of signing and the relaxed criteria which have been mentioned.

If the decision to grant a sign is to lay with the local highway authority, I have no quarrel with that. They are eminently suitable people. But they will have a delicate balancing act to perform between the genuine tourist need; the understandable desire of those providing tourist facilities to make tourists aware of them, and the third aspect, to which my noble friend Lord Montagu referred, that of the commercial, the hard-nosed greed element.

In paragraph 3, relating to the removal of restrictions, the submission states: However, the statement 'The Department expects that reasonable requests for signs will normally be met' does not go on to clarify 'reasonable'. Many requests may be 'reasonable' but, if erected on the highway, contribute to"— then follow a number of disadvantages. The submission goes on to say:

"The Society strongly disagrees with the Department's recommendation to group establishments on a single sign. Bolting new signs to existing sign arrays is rarely good practice without considerable modification".

It goes on to talk of wind forces, the footings, and so forth.

The Freight Transport Association, the RAC and the Automobile Association all emphasise the danger that more signs and more directions will bring to road users. There are good reasons for that. We must make sure that, if we are to add new signs, they do what they are meant to do. At the same time, we must look at existing signs and see whether or not we can get rid of some of them. The proliferation of signing will be a real hazard.

I should like the Government to expand on the draft circular and issue guidelines so that there can be a consistency of approach across the country. Above all, as the RAC said in its submission, road safety must be the paramount consideration in the erection of any new signings.

6.43 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, in adding my tribute to my noble friend Lord Montagu for raising this matter, I wish to underline his immense experience and the contribution he has made to the whole of the world about which we are talking today. I am sure that it will be recognised by everyone.

As chairman of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, I must declare my interest. But if those on the opposite Benches will excuse me, I should like to put this matter into a political context and talk primarily to the Members of my own party, particularly my noble friend who is to reply, and remind them of what the Conservative Party stands for. It is totally relevant to this proposal.

The central role of the state is to protect the citizen; to protect the employee; to protect householders; to protect consumers; to protect investors; and, more recently, it has been increasingly recognised, to protect the environment. That is one of the main roles of the state in the context of Tory philosophy. Having said that—and on this point I may not wholly receive the agreement of all Members of the party opposite—I am an enthusiastic deregulator. I do not believe that there should be any unnecessary regulation. I am well aware that regulations can grow into pernicious little empires which hassle other people.

But this proposal is peculiarly ill-founded. I hope that the Government recognise that the countryside is an important part of our environment. In this country we can be extremely proud of our success, particularly in comparison with other countries, in the way in which we protect our countryside. England is still extremely beautiful. Its protection is rooted firmly in the planning system.

I have no difficulty or hesitation in paying tribute to the Labour Party and the Labour Government—I hope my noble friend is not looking too astonished and surprised—of 1945 to 1951, which laid the foundation of the planning system which has enabled our countryside to survive in the way it has. It is a system which has since been refined. But we must be extremely careful before we interfere in a way that leads us to take a backwards step. I particularly regret that the noble Lord, Lord Barber, is not present this evening. He authorised me to say that he very much agrees with my opposition to this proposal.

I want to make another slightly political point. I am aware, because my noble friend Lord Astor wrote it in a letter, that my honourable friend the Member for Harwich, Mr. Sproat, is the person responsible for the proposal. But may I remind the Government of the considerable difficulty my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding had, as Secretary of State for the Environment in the early 1980s, when he put forward some tentative proposals—I do not blame his integrity in putting them forward, though I may question his judgment—to mess about with the green belt? He had to withdraw them in confusion. That is a lesson the Government should have learnt.

These proposals will be thoroughly provocative to many people on whom the Government should depend. What particularly worries me, though it is supposed to be a consultative document and, like other noble Lords, I deplore the unnecessarily short period of consultation that has been given, is that in writing to Mr. Ian Bruce, MP, on this subject, my noble friend Lord Astor concluded, I am convinced that the new proposals will benefit tourism and leisure establishments, whose contribution to the rural economy should not be underestimated".

I hope that the Government are not prejudging this issue. I hope that the consultation is genuine. I have a lot of time for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport and have had the opportunity of raising this matter with him at a meeting in this building. He made it clear that if the reaction against the proposal was as I said I felt it would be, then the Government would take action accordingly. I hope that that will be the case.

The idea behind the proposal appears to be to put policy in the hands of local authorities and allow them to decide what signs there should be. We know that local authorities themselves do not want that. Their reaction is in general against the change put forward by the Government. I do not believe that it is fair to trust local authorities to withstand local planning pressures; that is, applications for signs that may be thoroughly undesirable. Nor do I believe that what the Government put forward is consistent with what they have said in other areas. For example, in Planning Policy Guidance Note 21 the Government supported their tourism task force's document Maintaining the Balance published in 1991.

They said that they supported the development of industry in a way that could contribute to, rather than detract from, the quality of the environment. I believe that to be a very important statement. I am amazed that the Government should have brought forward this matter in that context.

My right honourable friend and my MP, Mr. Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment—for whom I have the highest regard—in a paper published last year spoke of the need to improve our surroundings and to conserve and enhance the environment of town and country. The document to which he provided the introduction said that the design and use of roads and the impact of parking signs and roadside furniture all affected the quality of an area. He even went on to say that local people could identify surplus signs that might usefully be removed.

I believe that there is much to be done in the opposite direction to that set out in these proposals. I mentioned to my noble friend yesterday that I wished to raise two points. He may say that they are not wholly relevant to these regulations, but they are certainly relevant to the spirit of them. I take the example of a road I know well: the A. 12 Witham bypass. In that rather attractive part of Essex there is a plethora of large hoardings along the side of the A.12 road, the hedge having been cut down to reveal them. I am told that they result from a dispute between Braintree District Council and Essex County Council. That may not matter very much, but it is illustrative of the kind of thing which we do not want and which can happen, even under the present regulations, when the matter of signing and advertising is left wholly to local authorities.

I suggest that much needs to be done in the way of improving the facias of petrol stations with all their flags and unnecessary advertisements. They often disfigure our countryside.

Those who have already heard of these regulations—they are relatively few in number—have almost universally reacted angrily to them. But I suggest that that anger is as nothing to what will happen if the countryside begins to be despoiled in the way we know has occurred in other countries. One of the painful rules of politics is that you may not intend to give the wrong impression or to do something, but perception is reality. I believe that it is extremely unfortunate that the Government have even brought forward these proposals.

6.53 p.m.

Lord Broadbridge

My Lords, I too would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, for bringing forward this important matter this evening. I suppose that most of us, together with members of our families and friends, spend a lot of time driving through unfamiliar territory. I have no sense of direction and no bump of locality and so I am permanently bewildered and rely a great deal on signs.

In principle, I am in favour of some liberalisation, but very much provided that certain elephant traps along the road to this desirable result are avoided. Road signs have been with us in Britain since the Roman occupation, but they have become crucial because of the increasing speed and particularly the exponential increase in the volume of traffic over the past 20 or 30 years. One might paraphrase the words of Lewis Carroll in "The Walrus and the Carpenter" to summarise road traffic growth: And thick and fast they came at last,

And more and more and more".

I believe that the crucial factor in road signing is that schemes should first be devised comprehensively for an area on paper, or perhaps on computer, before anything is erected. While I suppose a highway authority has to devise its own plan, I rather wish that this was done by an outside highway authority for a particular area. How used we are to the situation where our destination is clearly marked at a roundabout, for example, but after a mile or so one comes to a T-junction where there is no indication at all. "But everyone knows you turn right for the city centre", the locals will say. But everyone knows that except the person for whom the sign is; intended, the stranger to the scene.

The first area in which the current proposals may be thought to be deficient is that of eligibility for signing. The definition of a visitor attraction is imprecise and will cause considerable confusion as regards the type of attraction that may be eligible for signs. The presently proposed definition is likely to lead to signs for anything and everything, as several noble Lords have said already. I believe that that is called information overload.

In March my wife and I were driven extensively around Dublin. We saw for ourselves the results of too much information. Having to read a long list at some speed in heavy traffic puts the driver in an extremely dangerous situation of inattention to other vehicles, particularly cyclists. Surely, after listing essentials such as city centres, railway stations, hospitals and the like, the criterion in most areas should be a relationship to the popularity of the attraction or facility. It is hard cheese on less visited attractions, but I believe that they should in their advertisements, literature and related material make plain to visitors how they can be reached. In this way, forests of signs, as can be seen in the Republic of Ireland, will be avoided, satisfying both aesthetic and safety considerations.

But the essential step in all this is first to make a plan and to decide such questions at that stage as to whether an attraction is signed at all, with the onus on the attraction to make representations, how early on it is to be signed, if that is the case, and so on. An exception perhaps in lightly trafficked areas may be remote or awkward destinations, such as hotels, inns, camping sites and the like, where no danger of proliferation, and hence confusion, prevails.

Common sense seems to be the best aid, perhaps guided by traffic statistics. People and organisations should be given some idea of how soon they may expect a sign or signs to be erected, on which the circular is silent, with a suitable explanation if their application is refused. The consultation circular is notably silent on the environmental impact of signs. I have a strong personal preference for placing signs high up and making them of durable materials. Why high up? Perhaps my preference springs from living in the republic of Islington. We live in the age of the graffiti artist. While it is a matter of balance, from an environmental point of view I prefer to see a pristine sign well raised up than a shabby, overwritten one lower down, which may also have been rendered unreadable. I give a small example. My wife and I regularly travel on the M.1 to Sheffield. At a certain point the road crosses the River Erewash. This is marked with a low road sign. Inevitably, it has been scruffily altered to read "River Eyewash". I hope that I am sensitive to environmental considerations, but for the purposes of legibility and other reasons I adapt the wild western film expression (albeit for a different scenario) "Hang 'em high".

The use of symbols is self-evidently useful in space saving and legibility to those who hurry past, provided that the department authorises all symbols and they are nationally coherent. There are already many such examples: British Rail and Underground station logos, H for hospitals, the outline of a building for an historic house and so on. Others may usefully be introduced after research. The general road traffic signage that we have been familiar with for years relies almost entirely on symbols alone, alas often much too close together. There is an argument for the spacing out of roadside information, especially with the night driver in mind.

There must be exceptions for perhaps less common signs, such as the words "side winds" which appear under a windsock on motorways. The most intriguing one that I have come across on this theme is a sign beside the Suez Canal, where words really are necessary. It reads "Please dip your headlights to oncoming shipping". Colour also has its part to play. I believe that the habit, or policy, that has grown up of signing subsidiary destinations in brown and white is a good one. It is an easy visual separation to make from the more important road traffic management signs, which are mainly coloured black and/or red on a white background.

In conclusion, I believe in some liberalisation provided a first step is the construction of a comprehensive signing plan. In this way we shall, it is to be hoped, avoid confusion, a reduction in the quality of information, and forests of signs leading to environmental degradation and traffic hazard. Relying on the chaotic alternative might lead to the action summarised by the last words of a short story by the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock: He jumped on his horse and rode off madly in all directions". That, I think, is what we must strive to avoid.

7 p.m.

Lord Mountevans

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu for the opportunity to discuss deregulation of tourism signposting. I find it slightly saddening that, while strongly supporting deregulation, as many of us do, and indeed as much of the tourism industry does, that tourism industry, in which I declare an interest, shares many of the concerns expressed all round the House this evening.

I welcome the fact that the range of tourism businesses allowed to apply for white on brown signs is being widened. Of course tourism attractions and facilities should be given every opportunity to promote their products. But the present criteria, requiring a specified volume of visitors, tourist board vetting and local highway authority administration, have, as my noble friend Lord Montagu reminded us, proved a little restrictive. That is no excuse for going right over the top in the opposite direction. But total deregulation would be an over-reaction—a view which I feel is shared by many who have spoken tonight.

On the one hand, tourists, British and foreign, regard these signs as a seal of approval, a good housekeeping endorsement, an indication that the product or facility fulfils certain quality criteria. But if we go for blanket deregulation as presently proposed, it seems that ability to pay for signposting would become the only criterion for any business applying for a sign in England. Suitability or relevance to visitors would go by the board. The number of signs we could—even would—come across would become limitless and, far from being helpful, would detract from the environment which tourists want to experience, could certainly be confusing and could, very importantly to me, be detrimental to road safety.

We should, of course, be going for some measure of deregulation in this field. But may I suggest a number of criteria which I hope will be taken into account before an order eventually comes before Parliament.

First, with regard to minimum quality criteria, facilities granted signs should in future, as now, meet visitor rather than purely local needs, as well as meeting statutory tourist board standards and codes of practice. Secondly, I would very much hope that there would be a Britain-wide and consistent approach to signage, even though we are discussing only England and perhaps Wales tonight. Although tonight's Question deals only with those two countries, may I pay tribute to the Scottish concept of grouping relevant signs together. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, touched on that point. I also pay tribute to a modest fingerpost which is at the bottom of Bridge Street as one goes into Parliament Square—so modest that many noble Lords may not have noticed it. But it draws attention to all the major attractions—they are national attractions—in this neighbourhood which the tourist may wish to visit. In their ways both the Scottish and the Westminster fingerposts are examples of best practice and should not be overlooked in our future consultation. They are appropriate to visitor needs as well as to environmental ones in the areas in which they are sited.

Thirdly, I should like to see authorities guided at a national level. I appreciate that we are discussing a DoT subject tonight, but I feel that we need something akin to a PPG as to the planning issues. Beyond that I would like to see consultation with both facility providers and the tourist boards.

Fourthly, I would remind the Department of Transport that there is already a compendium of tourism symbols published by the British Tourist Authority and evolved by it over many years. It has the agreement of the English Tourist Board, the Scottish Tourist Board, the Wales Tourist Board, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and the Countryside Commission and promotes symbols—or pictograms—which also enjoy the endorsement of the British Standards Institution and the ISO. As we are talking considerably of an international business, I believe that international standards should be followed.

I have expressed a number of my concerns. I have touched on the environment, on the quality of attractions, on safety and on suitability. But my real concern is that, in going for total deregulation we are damaging the very reputation of the product which visitors wish to experience. As my noble friend Lord Montagu reminded us, the Department of National Heritage has recently published the discussion document Competing with the Best, which sets out the department's agenda for tourism. I very much hope that in progressing these orders the Department of Transport will not overlook the aspirations of the Department of National Heritage and, most importantly, will not let total deregulation of signage destroy the very quality of the impression which British tourism seeks to provide.

7.5 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, for opening this debate. I agree strongly with the view of other noble Lords that a proliferation of signs along country roads or within towns is not desirable either on environmental or on safety grounds. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, seemed to be veering away at one point from his very natural and deep concern for safety but later in his speech he emphasised very forcefully the requirements of safety, so I do not feel that I need repeat all the excellent points that he made.

Surely the Government do not wish England to follow in the steps of the United States and, more recently, of France where every small town is surrounded by forests of signs which totally obscure such things as street names and direction signs put up to assist travellers in moving through or around the town. We cannot wish to encourage that. We have heard from noble Lords who have spoken with knowledge of the national parks. A large part of the county from which I come is covered by areas of outstanding natural beauty or outstanding landscape value. We all share with the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, the feeling that we do not wish these beautiful parts of our country to be despoiled by signs.

How does the proposed approach serve the Government's countryside policy? Why has the Department of Transport apparently abandoned its former opposition to a proliferation of signs on or near roads? I am disturbed by the presumption that local authorities will grant all reasonable requests for new signs which, combined with the relaxed criteria for determining which organisations can make such requests, involves the danger that the protective approach to the countryside adopted by many local authorities, including my own, an approach enthusiastically endorsed by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, will be swamped and overcome.

On the other hand, local authorities and the national parks have a proper interest in the maintenance of the local economy. That is true even in rural areas. Problems can arise when, for example, local shops, pubs or tea shops, which have had a modest tourist trade over a long period, are bypassed by a new road. One thinks also of good but smaller tourist attractions which cannot meet the visitor numbers required by current legislation but which nevertheless have a more than purely local interest. For example, I, as a resident, have an interest in trying to get to a large number of things in order to acquaint myself what is going on in various places within my county. I might have to travel 25 to 30 miles to get where I am going. I may not necessarily know well the area I am attempting to visit. Surrey is not a particularly large county. There are others which, geographically, are much larger. We have to think of a sort of hierarchy of signing to which I believe the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, briefly referred. He said that if there were to be signs directing one to smaller places, perhaps they could be of a different colour. It is difficult to think which colour to use because both blue and green are already accepted for other uses. I understand the point he is making. The point I am making is that there are some places of interest with facilities for drivers and visitors which could legitimately be signed, perhaps not from the motorway system but from other roads which are in the discretion of the local authority.

A properly developed and nationally authorised system of pictorial signs or symbols would also assist local authorities who wish to establish such a lower hierarchy of signage to places of local interest. It would very much reduce the amount of space that any such new signs would take up. One can imagine a pink sign, which is not a colour used by the Department of Transport. It could have on it a teacup, a windmill, or whatever, located where one of the excellent brown signs we have all learnt to follow would normally stand.

I do not believe that the Government should do what they propose. Some relaxation of the current criteria, however, might avoid the sort of conflict to which a noble Lord referred—that is to say, that which applies to Braintree and Essex County Council. As I understood the reference, that is precisely the situation where the local district council wishes to encourage the local economy, which is one of the duties laid on it. The county council says, "You cannot do that; you cannot put up those signs along the road because that does not agree with our policy or national policy". So the signs are put in a private field along the hedgerow. It is precisely that sort of proliferation I am anxious to avoid by allowing local authorities greater freedom to, first, determine what sort of local places of interest should be signed and, secondly, to rigidly control the type of sign which is put up. We cannot have masses of different signs whether on one or 15 sticks. There is no difference with 15 signs on one stick because they are just as confusing, particularly if they are all prepared in different ways. For example, there may be the logo of the little craft shop on one and a copy of the local pub sign on another. Such an arrangement of signs would be very difficult for anyone to follow and extremely distracting from the point of view of safety.

I hope that the Minister will consider allowing local authorities to combine both their role as supporter of the local economy and as protector of the countryside and of road safety by instituting further discussions as to how one can lay down nationally agreed but reasonably flexible rules for a second rank of tourist signing. I see the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, nodding his head gently in my direction. That might prove to he acceptable to a wide number of people.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I, like other Members of this House, join those who have already congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, on initiating this important debate. It may be that the Minister feels a little set upon. There has been not a word of commendation for what the Government are seeking to do, at least as far as the detail is concerned. What emerges from this debate is that this House and everybody who has spoken will be expecting from the Minister an assurance that the consultation period, which is much too short, will be extended and that the Government will think seriously about the draft statutory instrument which has been published, if not laid.

I can understand why the Government wanted to consult about this. We have here a massive document of several hundred pages and full of detail. Why did the Government not say more specifically that this was a consultation document? They should have said so. However, maybe that is not an important point because in his intervention the Minister said that this is a consultation document. Let us have an assurance from the Minister tonight that the Government are in fact entering into these consultations in a thoroughly bona fide way.

I want to know why the consultation period was designated as one month. Was that reasonable in the circumstances? Why the rush? If there is some need for this very substantial change—and the burden of proof rests fairly and squarely on the Government here—why do they have to limit the consultation period to one month? The Government have to discharge the assertion that there is an overly bureaucratic system currently in force. We had all this during the debates on the deregulation Bill. Nobody wants unnecessary bureaucracy. One wants to sweep aside unnecessary red tape.

The main charge which has been made in the course of this debate is that there is a real fear, not simply on the part of individuals, but on the part of reputable organisations dealing with tourism, the environment and safety, that the situation that could emerge under the Government's proposals could lead to a serious degradation of environmental and safety standards which would impact badly on tourism. Those are charges which are not lightly laid.

The noble Viscount is a thoroughly reasonable Minister whom we all like and admire. But we shall like and admire him that much more if he makes a positive response to the criticisms that have been made that he will discuss with his colleagues—this is not one of his responsibilities—ways and means of ensuring that the process of consultation will he real and that the period will be extended. Perhaps he will also be kind enough to say who actually supports the proposals. Most people have said in their responses that they want some relaxation of the regulations, and that is as far as they go. Then the criticisms really come with great force.

The noble Lord, Lord Montagu, was right to mention all the associations that have come out in support of these criticisms. For example, the Association of County Councils says: whilst efforts to deregulate, reduce bureaucracy and support tourism are to be welcomed, the general thrust of the present proposals effectively jettisons the delicate balance which the [Government], with others, has striven to maintain between a large number of competing and inherently conflicting interests". The Association continues: What is being generally proposed, however, not only consigns that patiently constructed balance to the dustbin but, worse, introduces a new and vastly enlarged competitive element which has the potential to bring the whole system of tourism signing crashing down about our collective ears". There is deep anxiety about proliferation, and the Minister must answer that charge too.

Far from making the situation easier for tourists and drivers, it will be much more confusing if deregulation were to take full effect. Is the Minister satisfied that the application procedures required, and the criteria set out, are in any sense adequate? What are the guidelines to be inserted here? What is the key information that will be required? Does he believe that there should be nationally defined common criteria? What would be the situation if adjoining highway authorities were to adopt different criteria? Those are the questions, with the others that have been put during the debate, with which the Minister must deal.

How does all this stand alongside our system of planning control? I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for the remarks he made about the Labour Government of 1945–51 and the impetus they gave to proper planning procedures. I was interested in his philosophic meanderings on the subject of the Conservative Party. I suppose it needs something like that. It does not have much going for it at the moment, and perhaps it should refer to the noble Lord for further advice. I am not sure that would do it much good either.

The debate has shown that there is great disquiet about this situation on all sides of the House. I hope that the Minister will tell his Secretary of State that we are not satisfied with what the Government have produced.

7.21 p.m.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Montagu for raising this important subject and for giving us the benefit of his considerable experience in the tourism field. I shall explain in more detail the proposals which have been put forward, but I should like to start by answering a number of criticisms made by noble Lords about the consultation exercise. I can give a categorical assurance that this is not a fait accompli; the decisions have not been made; the consultation exercise is an entirely bona fide one; and the responses to that consultation exercise, and indeed to the sentiments expressed in your Lordships' House this evening, will be fully taken into account.

That having been said, I was also pleased to hear the general recognition of the value of deregulation and the feeling that a relaxation of the current prescriptive rules is due. There has been a considerable difference on the question of degree. As ever, we must try to seek the correct balance. There has been a considerable thrust for this type of deregulation from a number of sectors in the tourism industry. That is worth pointing out to balance the counter-arguments which have been expressed strongly this evening.

The question asked by my noble friend refers to the regulations governing road signs and the consequences of sign proliferation in general. I believe noble Lords have generally accepted that this was prompted by our current proposals for a relaxation of the policy on signing tourist destinations and facilities. I should like to emphasise that our proposals relate only to extending the use of white and brown traffic signs to a wider range of destinations and facilities.

Under the Road Traffic Regulation Act, the design of all traffic signs must conform with regulations made jointly by the Secretaries of State for Transport, Wales and Scotland or be specially authorised by the Secretary of State. The placing of individual signs is the responsibility of the relevant highway authority. All local highway authorities have a statutory duty to ensure that signs are safe and to have regard to the effect of particular signs on local amenity. It is important to note that the existing regulations do not place any limit on the number of traffic signs that can be erected for any purpose. That is left to the decision of the local highway authority in the light of local road conditions.

We have discussed safety. My noble friend Lord Lucas and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, commented on that issue in particular. Again, it is worth recognising that the 1994 regulations give local highway authorities a great deal of flexibility in the detailed design of direction signs. In particular, there is no restriction on the type of destination that can be named on black and white local direction signs. In other words, the statutory provision for controlling sign proliferation is the general requirement in the Road Traffic Regulation Act for local highway authorities to ensure that signs are safe and to have, as I said, regard to local amenity. That is the control that is used at the moment to stop sign proliferation, and it will continue to be the control used to stop sign proliferation. The regulations are of course supplemented by Department of Transport guidance and advice.

The effects of the draft statutory instrument—I apologise to my noble friend for interrupting him at an early stage in the debate, but I must emphasise that this is a draft statutory instrument—are to extend the range of destinations that can be signed with white and brown signs and the range of symbols that can be included on tourist facility signs and to reintroduce the use of white and brown signs to indicate the facilities available in bypassed communities. An issue that has not been mentioned this evening is the value of indicating facilities that are available in villages or small towns that have been bypassed. We are increasingly seeing smaller conurbations being bypassed to relieve traffic pressures on them.

As the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, said, the definition of a tourist attraction eligible for white and brown signs would be amended under the proposals to remove the requirement for tourist board recognition and to remove the prohibition on using white and brown signs for establishments engaged primarily in retailing and catering. The arguments put forward against amending the traffic signs regulations fall into two rather different categories. The first is the argument that allowing the use of these signs for a wider range of establishments will give forth dangerous and unsightly sign proliferation. But I have already explained that the existing controls on sign proliferation will continue to be used to prevent that hazard.

Our proposals emphasise the need to ensure the safety of particular signs rather than to consider applications on the basis of inflexible general assumptions. There is no reason to suppose that the use of white and brown signs will be less safe, or more damaging to the environment, than black and white signs. The use of white and brown signs allows drivers to identify at a glance the types of destination being signed. Research suggests that drivers are likely to look for details on white and brown signs only if they are looking for tourist information. In other words, the message put across is that the white and brown sign is tourist information and not for general directional purposes. That is an important point when considering the question of the overload of information on the driver.

Also, when we consulted last year on the principle of deregulation, we received representations that the provision of clear and well-designed traffic signs could do more to help traffic and local businesses in a safe and environmentally acceptable way than the many, often unofficial, directional advertisements found on hoardings or parked vehicles in fields beside the road.

That was the point my noble friend Lord Marlesford was making when he expressed his concern about garage signs, for instance, in fields and possibly illegal signs erected on the highway.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, will not that unsatisfactory situation continue to persist? It is an additional burden.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, no. Of course, I accept that one cannot easily stamp out illegal signs and that there is a problem. However, increased access to legal, properly designed and located signs with the official authority of the local highway authority is preferable to unofficial, illegal, badly designed signs which could be found at inappropriate places. I fully accept the problem raised by my noble friend Lord Marlesford about unsightly illegal signs. I can assure him that the Government see that as an important issue.

My noble friend Lord Mountevans argued that white and brown signs should not indicate merely the type of destination that is being signed but should provide evidence that they meet certain quality standards. The eligibility criteria were tightened up in 1991 at the request of the tourist boards. That was intended to improve standards rather than because or any evidence that the widespread use of white and brown signs was having an unacceptable impact on the environment or causing any confusion at junctions. However, more recently we have been reviewing the policy of limiting eligibility for signing because of the many representations received by my department that it did not meet the needs of the tourism industry as a whole.

When we reviewed the policy we received strong representations that the white and brown signs should be available for a much wider range of tourist destinations and facilities than those recognised by tourist boards and that it should not be left to the tourist boards to decide which destinations and facilities should be signed. We also received representations that the procedures for applying for signs should be simplified.

The detailed proposals, which we circulated on 3rd April, reflect a policy that signing applications should be determined on the basis of local road conditions and the safety and environmental implications of erecting signs at particular locations, rather than central prescription or blanket policies. They also reflect the Government's view that it is not the function of traffic signs to control or maintain standards of service in the tourism industry and that white and brown signs, like other direction signs, indicate the route to a particular destination and not official approval of its quality. The determination of the quality of the attraction should not be related to the sign.

That brings me on to the subject of the departmental guidance that has been issued, or that we intend to issue, to help local highway authorities to ensure that signs are safe and appropriate to their environment. The traffic signs regulations are supplemented by guidance on the design and placing of direction signs generally in order to enable local highway authorities to provide drivers with appropriate information to complete their journeys efficiently and safely. The DoT design guidance is underpinned by a solid body of research about drivers' ability to absorb information from signs of different shapes, sizes and colours. I was much taken with the idea of the pink sign, which was put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas. I am sure that there has been full research on the qualities of the colour pink for signposting—

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, of course, the suggestion of the colour pink was a joke. However, the principle is one to which the Minister perhaps inadvertently referred. He distinguished between signage such as to major tourist attractions of the National Trust which have a seal of quality. That is what gives them the right to use the brown and white sign. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, was making the point that I made; that if we allow signs to places which have not been guaranteed by the tourist board, or whatever, a different colour would be suitable.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I note the point made by the noble Baroness and I will ensure that her suggestions regarding a further level of signing are taken fully into consideration. However, perhaps another type of sign could cause further confusion.

All white and brown tourist signs are required to meet the design and siting standards for direction signs generally to ensure that they are clear and legible. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, that that will continue to be the case under our current proposals.

The draft guidance also indicates that the responsibility for signing lies in the first place with the highway authority responsible for the road providing direct access to the tourist attraction or facility. There is little benefit to the tourist or to the business if signs are provided a long distance away but disappear as one approaches one's intended destination. We know from considerable research that lack of continuity in signing is the biggest cause of confusion, frustration and complaint.

We have had a full discussion on the issue of signing for tourist facilities. My noble friends and other noble Lords have made clear their views on the dangers associated with deregulation. However, I believe that there has been an acceptance of the value of deregulation and the fact that some relaxation is due. As has been noted, the Government have put forward detailed proposals. They have been subject to consultation and a wide range of responses has been received.

I conclude by repeating the assurance that the consultation will be taken extremely seriously. Responses to the consultation and the sentiments expressed tonight in your Lordships' House will be taken fully into account.