Roads (Modernisation)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th November 1953.

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Photo of Mr James Callaghan Mr James Callaghan , Cardiff South East 12:00 am, 27th November 1953

I rise to express the hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will find it possible to accept the Motion. From the appearance of the Chamber and the atmosphere in which the debate has been conducted, he may well find it not beyond his powers to accept the Motion. If he does we may hope to see its terms translated into action.

I join with the hon. and gallant Member for Macclesfield (Air Commodore Harvey) in congratulating the hon. Gentleman on his appointment. He has come in when the Transport Act has been passed and will have the task of administering it and, I have no doubt, of dealing with the letters of complaint about to arrive on his table from those who have to pay the Transport Levy. For the sake of hon. Members opposite I hope that there will not be many by-elections while that is going on.

I could take up many of the points made by the hon. and gallant Member for Macclesfield, but I forbear from doing so except to say that while there are many reasons put forward for new roads they seem to boil down to the simple question of two figures. In 1939, we had 3,100,000 vehicles on the roads and today there are 5,200,000. All the other arguments that have gone on between Members of the Select Committee and those who are not Members of the Select Committee as to whether the roads have deteriorated and conditions worsened may be debated, but if we practically double the number of vehicles on the roads in 15 years and do not build a single new road to cope with them—here I am not ascribing responsibility to anyone in particular—it must follow, remembering the state of the roads in the 1930's, that we have an inadequate road system. That is generally agreed on both sides of the House.

I wish to congratulate the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) on his maiden speech, which was very thoughtful and spoken with authority. Those of us who knew the hon. Member before he was elected, were not surprised to hear him speaking on this matter. The Pedestrians' Association have secured a notable recruit in the hon. Member. He has held high office in that organisation and whenever the voice of the motorist is raised in this House we shall undoubtedly hear the voice of Crosby raised in defence of the pedestrian. I was interested in the hon. Member's reference to the Jersey turnpike from New York to Philadelphia. I had the fortune to travel over it this spring. It is true that they had to put a speed limit on that road. When Father Devine was fined for exceeding the top limit of 65 miles an hour he put a curse on the road and forbade his followers from using it from then on. As it is a toll road it had a bad effect on the revenue. Perhaps that is an argument against tolls.

What impressed me was the ruthless way in which the Americans stopped up the access roads to the turnpike. They had no compunction in blanketing communities along the road. Another thing which impressed me—I doubt whether I shall get the same sympathy from Government supporters here—was the way in which the Americans suppressed advertisements. No advertisements were on that road. In view of the way in which the Government want to thrust advertisements down our throats through television, I do not suppose that I shall have the support of hon. Members in that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter) on raising this matter and also on the terms of his Motion. I suppose that we shall not hear very much from the Parliamentary Secretary today, despite the forecast of new road schemes we have seen in the newspapers. Knowing the sad lot of Parliamentary Secretaries, I am well aware that the Minister wants to preserve to himself the pleasure of making any announcement and I therefore do not expect that an announcement of a new roads scheme will be forthcoming this afternoon.

I very much regret the absence of any Minister from Scotland. There is a whole flock of them; we could have had at least one on the Government Front Bench. I also regret the absence of the Minister in charge of Welsh Affairs. My hon. Friend the Member for Caernarvon (Mr. G. Roberts) raised the question in regard to Wales and that subject is the principal reason for my speaking now. I know where the Minister in charge of Welsh Affairs is. He is stopping up another hole in the leaky boat of the Government at Brecon, where the Conservative candidate has resigned because he is in disagreement with the policy of the Government on agriculture. That is probably a good enough reason for his not being here, but we very much regret his absence.

I wish to turn to the reason why the Treasury consistently oppose expenditure on the roads. The reason is to be found in the words of Lord Woolton speaking in a ministerial capacity on a Motion in another place referring to road plans when he said, according to the journal "Highways and Bridges": If there should come to this country some degree of unemployment, plans will be ready and work can immediately begin. This is really the basic objection of the Treasury to doing anything about roads now. They live in the halcyon days of the mid-19th century when roads were made by Herculean navvies using picks and shovels. The Government believe that if there is unemployment in the future that is the way to provide employment by making roads again.

This out-of-date mentality still pervades the Treasury and, apparently, they have foisted it on to Lord Woolton. "Highways and Bridges" is a technical journal and it used better words than I could think of in commenting on Lord Woolton's statement. It said: The latter portion of Lord Woolton's statement shows a deplorable relapse into the lunatic economics of the nineteen-twenties…On some jobs it was even specified that no concrete-mixers should be used since hand mixing would employ more labour. The inevitable result was that work was hopelessly uneconomic and incredibly slow…To regard road construction as an outlet for casual unemployed labour is the height of folly and we beg the Government, and Lord Woolton, to get more in touch with realities. New roads will cost money, but the cost will rise to astronomical proportions if hand labour is used. No contractor in his senses would dream of embarking on major works of this kind without equipping himself with suitable machinery…Lord Woolton must surely realisethat in this age of mechanisation the pick and shovel are regarded as very nearly prehistoric in large-scale civil engineering jobs and hand labour as economically impossible. If he does nothing else, will the Parliamentary Secretary kindly cut out my quotation and send it to the Treasury?

That is the view of civil engineers and any of us who has had anything to do with road works knows that it is true. Yet this is the very reason restraining the Treasury, in the mid-1950s, from going ahead with construction of road works. I beg the hon. Gentleman to let the Treasury know how roads are constructed in the 1950s and that it is not a matter of waiting for unemployment. If unemployment does come and we start to make roads by pick and shovel methods they will be too costly to build by those methods.

Some of my hon. Friends have asked me particularly to mention Wales. I was disappointed not to find in the Annual Report for Wales and Monmouth, issued on 30th June, any reference to the Severn Bridge. Can the Parliamentary Secretary tell us whether that bridge is still the first priority project in this country for major road schemes? I mean, of course, in the United Kingdom, and I wish to make that clear to my English colleagues.

The Severn Bridge is the keystone to opening up the bottleneck in Wales which was described by my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarvon. The order for its construction was made as long ago as 1947, and, to the best of my recollection, it preceded the economic crisis by six weeks. At its peak, the building of the Severn Bridge will employ 2,500 men. We have been held up through the lack of labour and steel, but I believe that both—certainly steel—are now corning much more easily. As my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarvon said, the economic future of South Wales is linked industrially with the Midlands. Since the end of the war, 450 new firms have established themselves in South Wales.

We need the Government, first of all, to go ahead with the A.38 road from the Midlands, through Gloucester, to Bristol, and to link up South Wales with that road by means of the Severn Bridge. That will release a great deal of the products that need to move into and out of South Wales at the present time. There are a few people in Wales—not very many—who, according to their campaign for a Parliament for Wales, regard it as an iniquity that Welsh water should be exported to English cities.

I wish to say now that we want English exports to come through Welsh ports, and we certainly want English imports to come through them. If I were to go to my dockers in South Wales and say that it is regarded by some as an iniquity that Welsh water should be exported to English cities, they would just blow the whole idea out of the room in a hearty gale of laughter, and that is what it deserves. We are linked very closely on these issues, and everyone in South Wales recognises the close economic affinity between the two parts of the country.

I wish to emphasise another point made by my hon. Friend, which is the need for increased maintenance of Class 3 roads and unclassified farm roads. He made the case very strongly—and it is an accurate case—that in Wales one of the deterrents to getting the maximum food production is the poor communications that lead down to the roads. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) knows this to be the case in his own hill farms. This is especially true of Wales.

I put to the Parliamentary Secretary the practical proposition that if he wants the maximum food production he should consider whether he can classify some more of the unclassified farm roads—they are not solely, but mainly, farm roads—in rural Wales today, so that the Exchequer would bear some part of the cost of those roads and would give the local authorities an opportunity of putting their share into the expense.

There are two other points I wish to raise. The first is, why was less spent this year than last year on road maintenance in Wales? The figures are contained in the White Paper. There is not much in it, but the amount is less. There has been an actual reduction in the sum spent on the maintenance of highways in the year ending June, 1953, as against June, 1952. I think that is going the wrong way.

Will the Parliamentary Secretary please try to get published—if it is not his responsibility—the report of the committee under the chairmanship of Lord Lloyd, the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Welsh Affairs? This was a committee, of which the Parliamentary Secretary may or may not know, which investigated, among other things, the problem of communications in Wales. Had it been a secret committee, then one would not have expected to know its findings. But the fact is that this committee held meetings in the Guildhall in Swansea, and industrial associations prepared memoranda which they submitted to it.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to get this report published. There cannot be anything particularly secret about Lord Lloyd's recommendations on future communications for Wales. If the reason for its non-publication is that a little piece of grit has got into the machinery, then I ask the hon. Gentleman to do what he can to remove it. Although evidence has been taken by the committee, we have been refused permission to know what recommendations it has made on the subject. We want to know, and I ask the Minister to tell us. That is all I wish to say at the moment, much as I should like to have taken up many of the other points made in the course of this useful debate.