That is not what I meant. I meant that the priorities can and do change from time to time. I am going to deal with the matter of longer term programmes later on. Priorities are decided only when a fixed programme is decided, and then they are announced.
There are a number of major road projects of reconstruction which are urgent from many points of view, and we are extremely anxious to undertake them as soon as possible. The first consideration which I should apply—and from all that has been said today I know that the House will agree with me—is in the matter of road safety. It is most distressing to us that, as an hon. Member mentioned, the figures which we gave to the Press yesterday show an increase in the rate of accidents this year over those for this time last year. I should like to utter a word of warning, and to express my agreement with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby that, in many cases, where one improves a highway in order that the traffic may move more freely and more speedily, one does not necessarily reduce the danger to life by doing so.
The second consideration is that of production. Hon. Members will have read in the Press last Saturday that the Federation of British Industries and the Trades Union Congress—both in agreement—at the National Production Advisory Council on Industry, asked that urgent attention should be given to the improvement of the roads from the point of view of increasing the nation's production. The Chancellor of the Exchequer agreed to a meeting of the Emergency Committee of the National Production Advisory Council on Industry, with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Trans- port in the chair, in order to go into this matter and see what is required to be done.
It is interesting to note that in a recent speech Sir Harry Pilkington, the President of the Federation of British Industries, said that if given a choice industry would prefer an increased expenditure upon the roads to a corresponding reduction in taxation. My right hon. Friend and I recently received a deputation from the Chambers of Commerce on exactly the same subject, so when the hon. Member for Southall chose this subject for debate in this House today he was giving the House an opportunity to discuss a matter which is really uppermost in the minds of responsible and representative bodies.
It is manifestly absurd for us to be calling upon industry and agriculture to increase production and reduce costs if the inadequacy of the transport available to them means that they are unable to dispose of their products or to obtain their raw materials reasonably quickly and cheaply. The whole matter is at present engaging the very close attention of the Government, and its importance is realised not only by the Ministry of Transport, which is considering this matter all the time, but is fully realised by all Departments connected with industry and agriculture. Inadequate bridges, for example, make necessary long detours which waste time and petrol, and they also result in those heavy loads, to which so many hon. Members have referred today, being diverted from the main roads and going on secondary roads which were never designed to carry burdens of that sort.
I now turn back to the sentence in the Motion asking for adequate grants to local authorities for road maintenance. I recognise that, after the extreme economy that has been imposed upon all road authorities during the last 15 years, the time is coming when there will have to be increased expenditure to make up for arrears of maintenance. The old adage about a stitch in time applies to roads as much as it does to everything else, and we have ignored that adage for too long, but we cannot, within the limits of our financial and economic resources, both start a programme of major improvements and embark at the same time on any ambitious scheme for speeding up the maintenance of our existing roads.
We must do all we can to increase the amount of maintenance work done. Nevertheless, I hope that from what I have said, and also because of the preference which hon. Members have shown for the work of major improvement upon the roads, that they will agree that the first priority should be given to the improvement rather than to the maintenance of the existing road surfaces.
I should like to say a word about research. One hon. Member, Iwas very glad, referred appreciatively to the work that is being done by the Road Research Laboratory. If we are going to embark upon a new programme of road improvement, and, perhaps, later of road construction, then it is vitally important that we should make certain that we are getting the best possible value for the money.
It is one of the peculiar characteristics of this country—and it applies to roads as much as it does to agriculture—that soil conditions in one place may vary almost completely from those only a short distance away, and if we are going to get the cheapest and most enduring and most satisfactory roads it is extremely important that we should make a very careful study of the soil. A lot has been done in this country in the way of such things as soil stabilisation during the last few years. There are also in some parts of the country extremely good and yet cheap substances for road maintenance. If we are to get the best results out of our programme it is extremely important that we should see that research ascertains for us exactly what is the most suitable road to build in any part of the country.
The hon. Member for Southall refers in the Motion to "a comprehensive major road plan." Such a plan was announced in 1946 by the right hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Barnes). It did not survive the financial crisis of 1947. The cost would be tremendous. The total estimated cost would be at present day prices of the order of £160 million for these new motor roads. That was, of course, only a part of the general programme which at that time the right hon. Gentleman considered necessary in order that the country should have satisfactory roads.
The first year's commitment, including the maintenance and the improvement of existing roads as well as the new road programme, amounted to £80 million. It is important to compare that with the total figure of road expenditure for the current year, which is approximately £33 million.
I think the whole House, which has been urging that we should do something immediately to improve our existing roads, will agree that it is not possible for us to embark in any ambitious way upon that new programme at present. I think that is implicit in the Motion, because the hon. Member puts it last and also subjects it to the reservation that it should be commenced only "as soon as possible." It is anybody's guess when and whether it will be possible to embark on such a scheme. I had an estimate the other day from the Ministry of the cost of such roads, and the cost is unlikely to be less than £200,000 per mile. Thus, without in any way rejecting that as an objective in the future, I am bound to say that in my opinion it will be some time before we can make much headway with this programme.