The Minister has had a fairly rough passage for the last half hour, and I am sorry to have to prolong his inconvenience.
As with most Adjournment debates, this is a comparatively small matter. I am sure that it is no new problem to the Department. I repeat that this is a small matter, but it is important to citizens of this country that they should be able to have small matters ventilated in this House.
I want to discuss a matter that I have raised with the Department over a long period. It concerns a speed limit through one village in my constituency. This is a village which, as has happened in many parts of the country, grew up round a rural road and now finds itself sitting on a main artery of the transport system. The artery of which this road forms part is between Manchester and the North Midlands at one end and South Wales at the other. Much of the heavy traffic that causes the trouble passes through this village.
The history of this complaint goes back over many years. The Minister will be aware of it. I know it, and the people concerned know it. If you, Mr. Speaker, want to know the history, I can convey it to you later, but not now.
The first thing to consider is whether there is a need for a speed limit. Secondly, if there is no need for a limit, what are the alternatives? For many years the Department has used what it calls criteria—but perhaps one could call them tests—to decide whether a speed limit is necessary. These criteria are, first, the accident rate; secondly, some horrible thing called 85 percentile—a revolting expression—which is, I understand, the speed at which 85 per cent. of motorists travel under ordinary circumstances; and, thirdly, the characteristics of the road and—and here I use the Secretary of State's words—
the extent to which neighbouring land is developed and the presence of potential hazards.
There we have accident rate, speed and road characteristics.
I am doubtful that in this case the Department or even the police are aware of all the accidents that take place. They never hear about the near misses, that is for sure, by their very definition. Even the secretary of the parochial church council, in writing to me on another matter, spoke of the
many traffic incidents which occur in the village
I ask the Minister to note the use of the word "incidents" rather than "accidents".
In August and September there were two accidents. There may have been some since, and there may have been some before. I assure the Minister that I am not being selective. These are things that happened and were brought to my notice. There was a lesser accident in August, and a worse one on 6th September.
I give the Minister a description of the accident that occurred outside the village shop in Leebotwood—the name of the village involved—on Monday 6th September. It involved two cars. One was leaving the Leebotwood shop, and the other was travelling from Shrewsbury towards Church Stretton. Three people, two women and one little girl of five or six, were badly hurt and taken to hospital in Shrewsbury. Both cars were severely damaged. In the interests of brevity I shall not read the rest of the description. The Department talks about the accident rate. If that sort of accident, occurring twice in one year, is not an "unacceptable accident rate", what is?
The second test is the 85 percentile. Who carries out the tests of this percentile? It is done by the police. It sounds a good idea, but is it? One could say that the police are the obvious people to do it; they have the equipment and the facilities, so let them get on with it. The police are enforcers of the law and should not carry out these experiments and inquiries. No one passes a police speed trap, or what may look like one, without being very careful.
On 22nd December the Secretary of State wrote to me, partly as a result of representations from me, to say:
We will ask the police to make a further speed check.
In my view this should have been a civilian matter and an unobtrusive check should have been made. It is worth asking the Minister why it took one month from the date of that decision to make the check to send two or three coppers out to do the necessary.
What was this test? I have a letter from a retired colonel who lives in the village. I have his description of the test—and bear in mind it is upon this that the Secretary of State bases his statistics. The letter is dated 21st January and says:
This morning at about 11 a.m. a police radar car arrived and set up the equipment outside Leebotwood Village Hall. Although I had asked the police to let me know when they were coming I knew nothing about their arrival until the village shopkeeper telephoned me to tell me what was happening
The morning was very dull and the road was wet. Traffic was heavy. There were queues of six or seven cars travelling very slowly behind heavy lorries. A tractor with a load of hay came past with two cars following it at about 10 m.p.h. to 12 m.p.h. All these vehicles and their speeds were recorded. I understand from the two police officers present that they were trying to arrive at an average speed. While I was there only one car had a completely clear run and that was recorded at 61 m.p.h. The police officers, who were most co-operative, were both in uniform but were seated in a plain car and were not wearing caps.
It is upon this that the Minister's statistics are based.
Until the oil crisis the speed limit in this country was 70 m.p.h. I tried, before that point, to get the speed limit on this road lowered. It was deemed to be impossible to do that because of the criteria the Minister has mentioned. What I would point out is that although it was not deemed suitable to lower the limit on this road going through the village, for every foot of the main A5 between London and Shrewsbury which passes through Shropshire there was imposed a limit of 50 m.p.h. The criteria were presumably met by the main road but not by the lesser A49. It seems a strange commentary on 30 years of road progress. It certainly shows the futility of some of the arguments we have heard.
The Minister has mentioned the characteristics of the area and the extent to which the land is developed. We are talking about a country area, not Birmingham, London or Cardiff. The parish room is on the opposite side of the road to the pub. There is a bridge, a brook and several farms. The one telephone box in the village is on the opposite side of the road to the pub. I do not wish to exaggerate, but the result is that people are frequently crossing. Children are frightened to cross. I can quote cases of children frightened to walk alongside the road, let alone cross it. In addition, cattle and farm vehicles use the road.
What are the alternatives? One is that we could build a bypass. I do not suggest that for one moment, because it is economically impossible and probably not desirable. I know the area well, having lived on the road for three years.
The second possibility is to have a pedestrian crossing, but for that it is necessary to have a refuge in the middle of the road. That is the general policy. I have been trying to secure pedestrian crossings in Shrewsbury and have always been refused on the ground that there is no room for a refuge. The third possibility is a speed limit, which is what I am asking for. The fourth is double white lines, because it is not desirable that cars should swing out and go across the centre of the road, as they do now. The final possibility is to do nothing.
I am afraid that one day there will be an accident which will result in death. I have no doubt that then we shall have a speed limit, white lines and all sorts of things.
Before the Minister settles into a feeling of too much satisfaction over this, apart from what I have said about the way in which the statistics are obtained, he had better remember that it was his own Department which, in 1947, decided that cat's eyes in the middle of roads were of no further value.
In conclusion, I should like to quote from a letter to me from the local county councillor, who does not know of my intention to quote it. He says:
The situation now is that the County Council, the Parish Council, the people and their representatives recommend the Minister to take further positive action to institute a speed limit … together with a double white line and the other items now referred to the highway authority".
I hope that the Minister will help me in this respect.
I have listened with great interest and sympathy to the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the difficulties that residents of Leebotwood have to suffer because they are living beside a busy trunk road, with their community divided in two by the pressure of traffic. As I represent an area that is astride the A1, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I well understand the sort of problems to which that leads, even if they are on a rather smaller scale with the 150 or so inhabitants of Leebotwood. We all sympathise with communities in that sort of situation. They have a great deal to put up with. Their peace is disturbed and they feel continually harassed and threatened by heavy lorries travelling on roads which were not designed to carry them properly. They have to face the risks involved every time they cross the road to the shops, to visit their friends, to take their children to school, or to collect their pension.
The hon. Gentleman has brought this problem before the House before, and has brought it to the attention of successive Governments. We should congratulate him on not giving up. I am sure that persistence is an art in his part of the world.
I now turn to the specific problems raised by the hon. Gentleman. Between Hereford and Shrewsbury, the A49, on which Leebotwood lies, is an important part of the trunk road network. It is a major strategic route between South Wales and the South-West at the one end and North Wales and Merseyside at the northern end. It is particularly important as a link between North and South Wales, and has considerable significance for the development of extensive rural areas along the border. The M5 and M6 motorways run in the same general north-south direction, but, since they are generally some 25 miles further to the east they do not serve the same border communities. The A49 is therefore expected to remain an important part of the strategic network of trunk roads, and, although the Department is unlikely in the foreseeable future to need to replace it with any motorway or other new route, the possibility of improving it is always under consideration.
The traffic is fairly heavy. We reckon that about 13 per cent. of the vehicles using the A49 in that area are heavy vehicles, which obviously cause particular problems. It is a single-carriageway road, in many parts winding, and in places no more than about 22 ft. wide, with hedges and only minimal verges. Over the years small improvements have removed many of the worst bends and widened substantial lengths of the carriageway to the current standard of 24 ft., with at least 6 ft. wide verges and footways where appropriate. A few major schemes, such as Ludlow Bypass, and bypasses of Ashton, Brimfield and Leominster, have been in the trunk road preparation pool for several years.
I am happy to be able to tell the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) that we were able to select Ludlow for at least not the worst treatment in the announcement we made two weeks ago as to our priorities for road schemes, and I hope that work there will be starting soon. It has not been substantially affected under our revised proposals, as we have given it a higher priority than in the past, because we recognise the strong claims of the area.
The village of Leebotwood is about three miles south of the village of Dorrington, in a length of almost 5½ miles to the north of Church Stretton, which at one time and another has been improved to a reasonably good single carriageway standard. It is very much a rural area. There are only about 150 residents. On one side of the road, only 10 per cent. of the frontage is built up. On the trunk road, there is only one shop, the parish hall and one public house, the Pound Inn. There is no garage on the road, and no school or church, with the result that the trunk road tends to be much less cluttered with parked and stopping vehicles than is usual in a village, and congestion is minimal. There is still scope for further improvement in the layout of the road at the northern end of the village, but through Leebotwood it is generally wide with adequate visibility, and through-traffic is able to move freely.
However, as the hon. Gentleman explained, there has been a number of accidents, including, tragically, one fatal accident, since August 1974.
There were two accidents last year and four over a three-year period, which has resulted in consideration whether there should be a speed limit of the kind that the hon. Gentleman proposes. Not surprisingly, the reaction of local inhabitants has been to press the Department to impose various restrictions, particularly a 40 m.p.h. speed limit through the village.
At present, of course, as a single carriageway road, the A49 through Leebotwood is subject to the 50 m.p.h. speed limit imposed by the Temporary Speed Limit Order 1975, which was extended for a further period of six months from 1st December 1976, and I would recommend its continuance there if national limits for single carriageway roads were to be lifted in the revision that we are currently considering. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that, under Schedule 5 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1967, heavy goods vehicles are, except on motorways, subject to an overall 40 m.p.h. speed limit. That is an additional protection for the village, although there is, of course, the problem of policing, which is not always easy to do.
I fully appreciate the anguish that tragic accidents arouse, particularly in a small, closely-knit community, and the concern that something should be done to prevent a recurrence, but unless it is clear that there is an identifiable link between the incidence of accidents and the speed of traffic, a speed restriction, even if it can be enforced, is no real safeguard. It is unlikely to prevent further accidents, and on a relatively good road with reasonable visibility, such as there is through Leebotwood, it can only reduce the motorist's respect for speed limits generally.
The four accidents that have taken place since 1974 have not really been caused by excessive speed; they have been caused by other problems. The Department has evolved certain national standards by which to judge whether a particular speed limit would be appropriate in an area. The hon. Gentleman listed the criteria. I agree that they are full of jargon and words that are not always easy to understand, but they relate primarily to the excessive speed of traffic and the rate of accidents over a three-year period.
There is some flexibility, in that the nature of the road and its surroundings are also taken into account. Unfortunately, as I have said, the visibility along the road through Leebotwood and the nature of the road in the area do not add to the case for speed limits there.
In response to the hon. Gentleman's representations, the case for a 40 m.p.h. limit in Leebotwood has been considered. I assure him that we shall consider it in the light of the criteria. However, there is the problem that we have no clear evidence at present that the four accidents that have taken place were caused by excessive speed.
A further suggestion has been made, namely, that the double white lines in the centre of the road be extended through the village. That suggestion is unacceptable, on the same grounds. Double white lines are intended to indicate locations where road conditions make it unsafe for vehicles to cross the lines when overtaking, or to park in that length of road. Although a system of double white lines exists on the northern approach to Leebotwood, where these criteria are met, there is no case for extending them through the village, on the relatively straight stretch of road, where the criteria are not met.
I understand the strong feelings of the residents who want more protection and who possibly feel that local needs are subject to some inflexible dogma from the Department of Transport. I assure them that that is not the case. We try to consider matters as much as possible from a human and local point of view, while taking into account the criteria. We try to interpret them as flexibly and justly as we can. I appreciate the feelings of those in the village, and we can try to help in one or two ways.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have already taken some action to reduce potential hazards. A number of additional carriageway markings and warning signs have been provided, a hedge has been cut back to improve visibility, and a fence has been erected outside the Pound Inn. I undertake to give urgent consideration to further improvements, such as the removal of a public telephone box from its present position adjacent to the junction with the private road called Cooper's Meadow, where the one fatality occurred. There is some evidence that the telephone box obscures visibility, and there are alternative places where it could be put. I undertake to look into that possibility. I shall be able to do so fairly quickly.
There are further possibilities—for example, possibly cutting back the hedges in that part of the village, although that will be a longer-term project. Certainly that will be considered if we feel that it will help. A hedge has been cut to improve visibility, and perhaps we can take that policy further. Partly, it may be done by trimming, but it may be necessary to consider a more fundamental approach. The right way forward at the moment is to seek to improve the visibility at the road junctions. Accidents appear to have occurred when people have turned into the road or tunred off it and have been struck at that point rather than be excessive speed in itself.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall look sympathetically at these minor improvements, which I hope will make a positive contribution to the safety of the road through the village.