Orders of the Day — Traffic Congestion (Large Cities)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th May 1959.

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Photo of Mr Harold Watkinson Mr Harold Watkinson , Woking 12:00 am, 7th May 1959

My hon. Friend is quite right. I do not want to make a very long speech, but if he is interested I will let him know about a number of sites which the Westminster City Council and my Ministry have picked out, so to speak, so that if a developer comes forward the sites will be available. For instance, I think that the Minister of Works would consider quite a large site in Hyde Park if some suitable developer came forward. We could have a garage there, which would be underground and not seen, to hold over 1,000 motor cars. We have that point well in mind.

There has been one development in policy which I should like to mention. We have been forced to the view that it is absurd to spend large sums of money on building new roads and immediately lose one-third or even half of their capacity because they are turned into car parks. Hon. Members have only to look at the Thames Embankment to see what I mean. I make it plain that in future my Ministry will ask any local authority which brings an urban scheme forward, "What plans do you associate with this scheme, for off-street parking? Can you arrange it under the road or in association with the building of the road or in some other manner?" I make it plain that, in future, schemes which have a car-parking element will undoubtedly receive priority over schemes which have not. I know the difficulties, but I think that it is right that in future we should ensure that study of such a provision has been made for keeping the cars off the street before large sums of public money are spent.

A new development which I hope will be supported in the House of Commons and elsewhere is what I will call clearways. It comes back to my theme of medium-purpose roads. We must have certain trunk roads, both within and without cities, where there is no parking at all. In other words, if someone wants to stop he must get off the road, on the verge or round the corner or somewhere else. We hope to start the first experiment in clearways this summer. We shall probably choose country trunk roads to start the experiment, but we hope to carry out experiments both within cities and out of cities in the hope that in due course the House will agree to some legislation, which may be necessary, establishing this clearway principle on certain important through-routes.

May I say a word about discs? I am not opposed to discs, but I recently had a quick look at the scheme in Paris and I was interested to learn that on 31st March this year 360 enforcement officers had to be employed in Paris to staff the scheme, which is three times as many as would be necessary on a metering scheme. I am bound to say that to my untutored mind the possibilities of evasion seemed to be extremely large. The scheme brings in no revenue and it does not mark out the streets or give room for goods vehicles. Nevertheless, in some provincial cities and outer London areas it may well have a part to play. For example, if Kingston-upon-Thames or some other provincial town made the suggestion that it would like to try the disc scheme, my Ministry would be willing to facilitate it.

I want to turn quickly to the question of the better use of public transport. We delude ourselves if we think that our cities will live if their transport is catered for only by the private motor car and if public transport is thrown on the scrap heap. The proof of that is to be found in the sobering thought that every day British Railways provides for 3.5 million passenger-journeys and buses provide every day for 50 million passenger-journeys. No one should think that the private motor car can possibly be capable of that sort of thing, because it is quite impossible.

What I think we want to do is to try to fit the pattern of our public transport into a slightly new concept in our cities, and I hope that that is one of the things which the London Travel Committee will do. I think there are possibilities in having more "shuttle" bus services in the congested areas, in having buses waiting at certain points where they can be drawn into the stream in order to pick up the queues quickly. All these things are being studied, and I think things like that could give new life to public transport and better services to the public.

On the railways, there must be more electrification. Stage one of the North Kent coast line will start in June, London-Southend will be completed in 1961, and the Metropolitan Line schemes in 1962. London Transport is spending £15 million on new rolling stock for the tubes, and there again modernisation should bring a much better service, and, I hope, enable public transport to carry a greater share of the load.

The Victoria line is not by any means disposed of or buried by being put to the the London Travel Committee. This issue has been before the House of Commons for many years. I think it should be looked at again in the light of the future plans we are trying to make. I hope that the report on it will reach me in June, and I certainly undertake now to give it very serious and early study as soon as I have received it. One cannot dismiss a scheme like this, because of its immense carrying capacity, although I must say that it will almost certainly lose money. However, that is something we may have to face. In any case, I must first be advised whether we could spend £55 million in some better way in order to get a better traffic dividend, and I have asked the London Travel Committee to advise me on that.

Next, I want to say a word or two about this vexed problem of control. I quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this is indeed responsibility without any power, so far as the London traffic authorities are concerned. I and my Ministry are supposed to be that authority, but we have no power, and we have to work through the police, the L.C.C. or the boroughs. I do not say that the system does not work reasonably well. It does, thanks to the kindness and cooperation of the people on the London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee, which, although in theory it should not work at all, in fact works remarkably well.

My Ministry has recommended to the Royal Commission that there should be a radical change in the traffic structure for London. We think that there should be a central traffic authority with real power for the Greater London area, but that means treading on the toes of the L.C.C. and a lot of other interests. All I can say is that we have put our case in writing and we will put it again verbally and very powerfully to the Royal Commission. Although I do not think it is right for me to say to the Royal Commission what we think it should do, I say that this is a very important aspect of its work, because I think that if we continue as we are, we invite the very fair criticism of outside people who come to look at our cities, like Mr. Marsh, for example, that they wonder how we make it work at all.

I should like to say something about other cities. I should like to see more of the conurbation committees set up. Those that have been set up are working extremely well. They do not plan routes in detail, but try to foresee the general future so as to advise us on what are likely to be the future developments in Birmingham, Manchester and other places. I think that the architectural profession is quite wrong in feeling that in some way or another it is being left out of it. It is not. I have written to the chairmen of the existing conurbation committees hoping that they will pay the greatest possible attention to expert advice from architects or from anybody else who can help in their very difficult task.

Better control and co-ordination must await the Report of the Royal Commission. In the meantime, we may have a lot of committees, but they are all trying to work to a common end. I am very grateful for their help. In London we must get on as best we can in the hope that the Royal Commission, in its wisdom, will provide us with a simpler and more powerful authority. In other cities, I hope the conurbation studies will go on so that my Ministry may be clearly warned concerning the plans which they want to make. The London Roads Committee will I hope soon report and give us some guidance for London itself.

To sum up, I would say that at least we are trying to tackle the job. Anybody in my job, if he is honest, must admit that there is an immense amount more to do if we are to solve the traffic problem, but at least we have made a start. We are beginning to learn some of the lessons and trying to see how to solve this problem, not in America or Germany, but in our own country and in our own way. I am rather alarmed that there are some people who seem to regard the motor car and the development of transport as a sort of adverse development. I do not think it is.

If we are to have this technological advance and an expanding economy, we must provide the fruits for every member of the population, and things like motor cars, aeroplanes and new trains are perhaps some of the more obvious end-products of any technological civilisation. It is our job as a Government to try to see that they are freely available and exploited to their full capacity. This is really very much the job of a Minister of Transport—to try to see how this country can live alongside the aeroplane, the motor car, the new diesel engines and all the rest.

I would end by saying that I think we have made a good start, but that if we are to solve the problem, the country must face the fact that in future we shall have to invest a great deal more money in transport than we are doing today. In these middle years of our century, I myself cannot think of any better investment of public money than one which can bring life and vigour and expansion to our country by a modern system, not only of roads, but of railways and airways, if we are to be a prosperous and efficient country.