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.