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London—Birmingham Road

Volume 499: debated on Friday 25 April 1952

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Motion made, and Question proposed "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Butcher.]

4.6 p.m.

In this debate, which concerns the merits of what must be the most dangerous part of one of the most dangerous roads in this country, I wish to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport two quite simple things. The first one is that he should endeavour to proceed at once with a relatively short length of by-pass road. The second is that he should think over and argue in other quarters a somewhat novel approach to the whole question of road safety.

The particular length of road to which I refer is the portion of the London—Birmingham road—roughly the stretch which is within Hertfordshire, and part of which is in my division—from London Colney, through St. Albans and on to Redbourn. This road is an ancient road, and that is one of the principal reasons for the difficulty there is in making it a safe one. It was built before Roman times. It certainly was a major Roman road and became built up very early on, on both sides of its length, in a number of places, and it has proved impossible, over a number of lengths, to widen the road, which is the ordinary method of trying to make a road safer.

It is because of the original winding nature and the narrowness of the road that it is so dangerous. To give the House some idea of the number of accidents that occur—and here I should like to thank the Parliamentary Secretary for the help he has given me with these figures—over the last two years there has been an annual rate of over 50 and nearer 60 accidents involving injury to people. This is apart altogether from accidents only involving damage to vehicles. There has been an average of five people killed per annum on this very short length of road. That means that every two months someone is killed and at least 10 people are injured on that part of the road.

The House will therefore appreciate that it is an extremely dangerous part of the road and is, moreover, one which is carrying exceptionally heavy traffic. All the lorry traffic between London and Birmingham goes down this road. A great deal of the Manchester and Liverpool traffic, nearly all the new cars to and from Coventry and London, from London up to the Midlands and from Luton to London, goes down this bit of road. Lastly, all the traffic from the brickfields of South Bedfordshire, bringing the bricks to London for housing, goes down this road, too.

So, even though the number of vehicles may not be the highest in the country—I believe it is between the eightieth and the ninetieth highest in the table of trunk roads in the country—nevertheless the kind of vehicle which uses it is exceptionally heavy and there is a steady rumble of traffic which goes on throughout most of the 24 hours.

This heavy traffic, at London Colney, has to go through a very narrow stretch of road. It is only 22 feet wide at its narrowest part, and houses are built right up to the road on both sides. It is on an incline, and there is a blind corner. It is, therefore, apparent that, at this place in particular, there is nothing whatever that the Minister can do to alleviate the conditions except by building a by-pass, and for that I believe the plans are already fully advanced.

It is estimated to cost £300,000, and would, I believe, represent one of the major ameliorations of road black spots when that by-pass can be built. Therefore, I ask the Minister to give an answer to the question how soon he hopes to construct the by-pass in this particular place, and what kind of priority this project will have over the other necessary road works which he has in hand.

Until the by-pass is built, however, something ought to be done to mark the fact that this place is an extremely dangerous one. Two children were killed there a very short time ago, when a lorry mounted the footpath, and they had no chance whatever. Nor did the driver of the lorry have much chance, because he could not see that he was approaching a dangerous place, and there was another vehicle parked and obstructing his line of vision.

An immediate improvement could be made by marking the fact that this place is an exceptionally dangerous one, and my solution would be to place a notice prohibiting parking and overtaking over this short section of road. These signs would at least indicate to the drivers of traffic coming into the village that they are nearing an exceptionally dangerous spot.

The road then follows on into St. Albans, again an ancient city with narrow roads. Not much can be done to widen these roads, and, again, the only permanent solution is to build either a bypass or a motor road. In fact, a motor road is planned, though I do not expect that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to indicate when we shall be able to get on with the building of it, because it is a major job, but I think it should rank very high in the list of new roads when they can be built.

Beyond St. Albans, there is another long winding stretch known locally as "Suicide Stretch." Along this stretch of road, many people are killed every year and many accidents take place. Here, again, if only the fact that the road is an exceptionally hazardous one were specially marked, I think there would be a reduction in the number of accidents. What happens is that the drivers of vehicles, having got out of the congested area of St. Albans, feel at last that they are on the open road again and start overtaking, without realising that they are on a relatively bad stretch of road. This means that the worst kind of accidents occur, and head-on collisions are constantly occurring. I do not ask for a "no overtaking" sign on this stretch, but I think it should be marked more clearly than it is, in view of the number of accidents which take place in this area.

So much for the particular stretch of road about which I have given the Parliamentary Secretary full details. I should like now to spend a moment or two on a general approach to road safety. I believe that, in our annual system of budgeting, we cannot really get true value, nor can we be seen to be getting true value, for the money we spend on our roads. I believe that a far more constructive approach to the loss of the wealth of the country through road accidents is an absolutely heartless approach purely on a cash basis, and I believe that, in this way, by no means minimising the tragic effects of these accidents, we can see how we are wasting our most precious natural resource, which is our manpower.

I am quite certain that, if it were possible by simply spending money to avoid an accident, we could very simply calculate how much money it would be worth spending in order to prevent one accident a year. For that, we must put a value on a man's contribution to the national income. I believe that the average contribution of a man's work to the national income is about £1,000 per annum. All of us working together are contributing something like that for each one of us every year. If, therefore, we were able to save one man's life every year just by spending money, we should be saving £1,000 in the first year, £2,000 in the second year, £3,000 in the third year, and so on.

This simple calculation shows that, if simply by spending money it would be possible to save one life a year on the roads, it is worth while spending £400,000 now in order to save one life per annum. This calculation—I do not want to go into the details of it at this moment, but nevertheless it is quite right—is quite right if we take the rate of money at 5 per cent.

There is a similar position if we save six accidents a year involving injury to people. It is worth spending £20,000 to save six accidents a year, and that means that, on the short stretch of road to which I have referred, it would be worth while spending £2,250,000 now, for the whole lot would be recovered from the efforts of the men, who will, as a result, be here to work in years to come, but who, otherwise, will be killed every year from now onwards, on that particular stretch of road.

I am perfectly well aware that this is a business man's approach to the matter of road safety, and the Parliamentary Secretary will have to argue extremely hard—though we know he is capable of that—to get that point of view accepted in certain quarters, but I believe that it is a far more logical approach to this problem than the one whereby we have to make an annual budget of how much money we can spend on roads, and that goes up or down by reference to quite other things than the results we get from spending money on the roads. I believe that, in any real system of priorities, we should spend much more on the prevention of accidents, on the prevention of this loss of productive earning capacity, and, indeed, on the prevention of all the misery which goes with these accidents.

If we do that we shall find ourselves recouped over the years to come for our expenditure today. It is a long-term approach, and it will take a great deal of drumming into certain heads, but I believe that those people who are most interested in transport are thinking along these lines themselves. For the immediate thing, what I do ask my hon. Friend to do is to consider urgently putting the London Colney by-pass high on his list, and, until he can get on with the construction of that road, marking that particularly dangerous stretch more effectively than it is at the moment.

4.19 p.m.

Anyone entering the portals of the Ministry of Transport in the capacity of Parliamentary Secretary must prepare himself for a series of Adjournment debates initiated by hon. Members representing all parts of our island, all of whom will preface their remarks by telling us that they are about to draw attention to the most dangerous part of the most dangerous road in the country; and my hon. Friend is no exception. I am, however, more fortunately placed today than I often am, in that on many of these occasions I have to inform myself as to the local circumstances by a study of regional maps and reports from divisional road engineers, whereas on this occasion I happen to have had the good fortune to have spent my very early childhood at Barnet, from which in those days it was regarded as a very considerable pilgrimage to drive behind a pony to the village of London Colney, where the traffic problem and the accident record was, for obvious reasons, less severe than it is today. So I find myself on familiar ground in listening to my hon. Friend.

He is right in telling us that this is an ancient highway. Coming from London, one passes through Barnet and, going on through London Colney, one arrives within a distance of a mile and a half at the ancient Roman city of Verulamium, known today as St. Albans. This road must have been in existence for a very long time indeed.

But my hon. Friend is concerned with the harsh 20th century, an age of speed and danger, and he is probably aware that we have a long-term scheme which would divert traffic from London along the Watford By-Pass instead of by A.5 and A.6, which is the road in question, and thence by the new motor road to link with A.5 near Flamstead and continue to A.6 south of Luton where it would join the proposed motorway to Birmingham. This, of course, will relieve both A.5 and A.6. A link road will connect the new road with the North Orbital Road, thus enabling traffic which will still pass through Barnet and London Colney to join the new road and avoid St. Albans.

In addition to by-passing St. Albans, with its narrow streets, to which my hon. Friend so rightly made reference, the new route will also by-pass Elstree, Radlett, Frogmore, Park Street, and Redbourn on A.5, and Harpenden on A.6, and will thus do away with the necessity to construct local by-passes in those areas. This, of course, will be cheaper than dealing with the matter piecemeal by means of local diversions and the improvement of existing roads. But we are living in a very harsh financial period of our history, and the cost is in the region of £4 million, which is out of the question at the present time when all sections of our investment programme have to be so drastically restricted.

My hon. Friend has told us—and I happen to know the source of his inspiration, which is the same as my own—that the by-passing of London Colney alone for such traffic as may still go through Barnet is also envisaged in our plans. But the cost would be in the neighbourhood of £300,000, and this again must be postponed. If my hon. Friend feels, as all good local Members do, that surely £300,000 is not a high price to pay for safety in his constituency, I must tell him in all good temper that such money as we have for new schemes of this kind on trunk roads for the whole country amounts in this financial year to no more than £750,000 for the whole year, and has to be spread thinly over comparatively small schemes to relieve the worst of the danger spots everywhere.

It is right to draw attention to the need for major projects for improving our road system, but at the present time we can only regard them as part of the structure of a better future. My hon. Friend is probably aware that there exists at the Ministry of Transport a 30-year plan for road construction that takes us into a future, which, we all trust, will be better not only internationally but in the sphere of transport as well. The major schemes which I have mentioned, desirable as they are, are only a few among many, for example the schemes for the Midlands and South Wales trunk roads, which ought to be carried out as soon as we can afford them.

My hon. Friend referred to the "no waiting" regulations, to localise the problem again, on the A.6 road at London Colney at points between King's Road and the Golden Lion—a pleasant hostelry, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, which you may or may not have visited, possibly not within the course of your official duties but in a private capacity, as I have. These were imposed by Statutory Instrument No. 1343 of 1950 and came into force in August of that year.

As my hon. Friend knows, heavy goods vehicles form a high proportion of the traffic there, and on this restricted length of road there are a number of cafes, mostly open all round the clock, catering for lorry drivers. There are free parking facilities for approximately 160 vehicles off the highway provided by the cafe owners, and there are other parking facilities nearby, including the London Colney lorry park, with accommodation for 300 vehicles, for which, I understand, a charge of 2s. per night is made.

These lorry parks were not, however, fully used and danger and obstruction were being caused by lorries parking on the highway. It was in November last, following an accident in which two children were killed, that my hon. Friend raised the question in writing of extending further south the existing restrictions and of imposing a prohibition of overtaking because the road was narrow and winding. Conditions which necessitated the existing "no waiting" restrictions do not arise on the road further south, and even if this restriction were extended as suggested, exemption would have to be made in favour of vehicles loading and unloading. That is one of the difficulties which arise all over the country when we deal with "no waiting" orders.

The divisional road engineer of the Ministry reports that he could find no evidence that waiting vehicles presented difficulties there. "No overtaking" regulations, to which the hon. Gentleman also made reference, could not, in our view be justified by existing conditions, but to assist drivers the solid white centre line is to be extended and the bend sign at the approach to the river bridge has been re-sited and I think he will find it is now much more conspicuous.

I find it a little difficult, owing, no doubt, to the very late Sitting extending into the watches of the night, to follow my hon. Friend's mathematical digressions into the sphere of road safety and his somewhat abstruse calculation on the saving of individual life, because he prefaced his remarks by saying that he was endeavouring to deal with a section of the road known as "Suicide Stretch," and it occurred to me that if a gentleman, or lady for that matter, is determined upon suicide, the computation of the expenditure in order to prevent that through the medium of road safety offers some little difficulty; or has my hon. Friend a different scale for homicide. I found it a little difficult to follow that particular part of his remarks.

As regards accidents in London Colney, I understand that in the period from the 1st June, 1949, to the 29th February this year there were 47 accidents involving personal injury and five deaths resulting from accidents, and that, of course, is a disturbing state of affairs. But it is not without significance that these accidents are not concentrated on any particular spot; in fact they cover 1½ miles of road, and it is therefore difficult to handle the matter under our "black spot" scheme for which £1½ million has been made available to clean up dangerous corners and the like. There is a long stretch involved.

However, I should be sorry if any hon. Member who takes the trouble to ballot for the Adjournment should not have any favourable answer. It always takes some time to draw a winning number in the ballot, and I often glance at the book kept in Mr. Speaker's office to apprise myself of possible events to come. I have noticed my hon. Friend has had his name there for some weeks now in the hope of raising this issue, and it would be a pity if he or any other hon. Member after taking all that trouble and informing himself so well on the problem, were to be turned away with a reply from this Box consisting either of platitudes or negation.

But the hon. Member has not come here entirely in vain. Following his continued representations on this problem which, if I may be allowed to say so, are so typical of his constant zeal for the well-being of his constituents, it has been decided to seek the advice of the London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee about London Colney. They are a body who sit regularly to consider these various local difficulties and to give us the benefit of their views.

I understand that London Colney is on the agenda for their meeting next month, and I hope my hon. Friend may take some comfort from that fact. We shall see to it that their attention is called to his extremely cogent and eloquent remarks today. But it is not for me to predict what view they will take. All we can do is to put the machinery in motion and, if I may end with a phrase familiar to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker and to all hon. Members, the matter will now be actively pursued through the usual channels.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-seven Minutes to Five o'Clock.