John Horam – 1978 Speech on Roads in South-East England

Below is the text of the speech made by John Horam, the then Under-Secretary of State for Transport, in the House of Commons on 29 June 1978.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) for raising this subject because it is, as all hon. Members will agree, an under-debated subject in the House of Commons. I am delighted that the hon. Member found time to discuss it rather earlier than most Adjournment motions.

First, in reply to the hon. Member’s remarks and those of the hon. Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith), who intervened briefly, I take the point that in the past the whole of the South-East, including Sussex certainly, has had less than a fair share of the national cake of road expenditure. I do not think anyone would deny that. What is, happening, however, is that the balance is now being changed and the number of motorway and trunk road projects, let alone county projects, under way in the South-East, including in Sussex and Kent, for example, the links between London and the coast, is really very considerable.

My first point is on the question of road maintenance, because the hon. Gentleman quoted at some length from an article in the magazine Drive which came out very recently. I regret that article because it was full of inadequacies and distortions, and I am really surprised that a magazine which is run by the Automobile ‘Association should indulge in such scaremongering on the subject of road maintenance. I welcome an article on this very important and worthwhile subject. but those responsible should have taken the trouble to be more accurate in their presentation of the situation.

It was said, for example, that expenditure had decreased by as much as one-third over the period from 1973–74 until today. That is really gross exaggeration. Probably it has come down by no more than one-eighth over the period, so that that is a distortion by a factor of more than two. I hope that if in future Drive writes on the subject it will get its facts more accurate. It has to be said, however, that expenditure on road maintenance has been cut there is no denying that. Public expenditure has been constrained and, as we know, Conservative Members have urged the Government to go much further than they have gone in restraining public expenditure. But it is a question of balance.

What has now happened is that, after certainly a period of three or four years of successive cuts in road maintenance expenditure, it has now bottomed out and is stable. Looking at local roads, it is now stabilised and will continue at roughly the present level, which is really very high. We are talking of something of the order of £470 million in White Paper figures, a very considerable sum. Not only that, but maintenance of motorways and trunk roads, which take 28 per cent. of our traffic, is now increasing and will be over £80 million next year and going towards £90 million by the end of the decade. Thus it is actually increasing. The situation is therefore very much better than either Drive or the hon. Member for Lewes has said.

Mr. Rathbone

I should like to be precisely reassured on this, because Drive may have been off the rails in some of the points it quoted but it gave a direct quotation of a spokesman from the hon. ​ Gentleman’s Department saying that it was Government policy to reduce road maintenance funding. I hope that by what he has said the Minister has refuted that and turned it on its head.

Mr. Horam

Yes, I have, The situation is that in the White Paper on transport policy produced last year we said that there would be a further small cut in maintenance expenditure. That has now taken place. We have reached the bottom of the slope down and we have stabilised at roughly the figures now being spent. We do not intend to take the process any further, so that there will not be any further cuts in road maintenance. As I said, on trunk roads, and particularly on motorways, maintenance expenditure is increasing.

The hon. Member for Lewes referred to the number of repairs on motorways. One thing which strikes people on motorways these days is that an increasing number of repairs are being done. The amount of repair work has to increase because many motorways were built in the early 1960s and the surface has now reached the end of its design life.

Second, while, for general economic reasons, undertaking that restraint on maintenance expenditure, simultaneously the Government embarked on a series of road maintenance surveys, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned—I cannot recall whether Drive mentioned it—which started in 1976. We have now reached our third annual survey. The first two were to establish a base level of information against which we will judge the trend over the years. I cannot yet give a detailed analysis of the position, but our general evidence is that there is deterioration in the quality of our roads.

We shall have these further comprehensive checks—they take place at no fewer than 6,000 different places in the road system—to make sure that we do not go below a level which would adversely affect safety on roads and their general condition. So the matter is being looked at scientifically and rationally.

Mr. Rathbone

I mentioned that it had been estimated that, if road maintenance funding were not dramatically increased —not just stabilised—in 1983, it would become financially impossible ever to stabilise the quality of the roads. From what the Minister says about future ​ budgeting and about the tentative results of this survey. I gather that he is denying that. Could he elaborate to reassure me?

Mr. Horam

The quotation to which the hon. Gentleman referred—he so-called backlog which could not be made up—came, I think, from the Asphalt and Coated Macadam Association. That is an interesting source, because that body clearly has a vested interest in road surfaces. But it is wrong. We have no evidence that such an unsupported assertion is correct. All our evidence suggests that we have got the level of spending about right. Certainly we should check our general view, as we are doing with this comprehensive survey which we do every year, but we have no reason to believe that we are wrong. The important thing is to take an objective view and not to rely on the assertions of vested interests.

Mr. Rathbone

Including the Government.

Mr. Horam

Certainly.

I now come to the more local matters of Sussex in particular and the local transport planning in that area. Since April 1975, county councils have had full responsibility for local roads as part of their comprehensive responsibility for local transport matters. The Department’s involvement has been through the medium of the transport supplementary grant procedures and the annual statement which the councils submit to the Secretary of State on their local transport policies and programmes—the TPPs.

It is important to remember that the county’s local transport needs are considered as an interrelated whole. It is up to the county to decide within the framework of central Government policies and available resources where the need for particular new local roads lies in relation to the various other transport priorities, such as bus revenue support, maintenance expenditure and so on. This is an area where the operation of local choice is very important, because local authorities know the needs of their areas.

Turning to East Sussex in particular, and keeping in mind that distinction between the role of my Department and the local responsibility of the council, perhaps we could consider the last TSG ​ settlement, for 1978–79, for East Sussex. under which we are now working.

In its TPP bid for this year which it submitted to my Department last summer, East Sussex decided that the highest priority major new local transport scheme was a new road—as opposed to any other item of expenditure—and that the highest priority was the second part of the Hastings spine road. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State reviewed the East Sussex TPP in the light of the total call on the resources available and the proposals before him, he found that he was able to accept an overall level of local transport expenditure sufficient to permit the county to make a start on this new road. The county was told of this in the regional director’s letter of 15th December 1977.

In the South-East as a whole, again within the overall resource constraint, my right hon. Friend was able to accept sufficiently high expenditure levels to permit several other first priority schemes. In fact, as far as each county’s first priority road schemes were concerned, virtually everything bid for in the South-East was accommodated.

In East Sussex there was the Hastings spine road, which I have already mentioned. In West Sussex the by pass of Bramber and Steyning will be able to start in 1978–79, the current financial year, as planned. In Hampshire, although for administrative reasons the first-choice scheme, which was the Easton Lane link at Winchester, was not allowed for, both the second and third priority schemes, Odiham bypass and the Hulbert Road link to the M3 at Waterlooville, were included. Kent did not include a major new road scheme in its bid for 1978–79. Nor, after proposals for a junction on the M25 were deferred, did Surrey.

In all, about £20 million is being spent by counties in the South-East in this current financial year on their own choices of local transport schemes. This figure includes both small schemes and large schemes and both new schemes and schemes already started. But all are capital works, over and above the ordinary recurrent expenditure—on maintenance or bus subsidies, for instance. So quite a lot is going on on local roads —we are not talking about motorways or trunk roads—in the South-East in the ​ current financial year with the help of financial support from my Department.

Mr. Rathbone

I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates that, as I pointed out earlier, one of the reasons why he can claim that a lot is going on and why his Department has granted the counties what they wanted to have is that the counties have been circumscribed in putting forward their plans for each year because they knew of the budgetary limitations and the way that the TPPs would be inspected. It was the very fact of the TPP which inhibited them from putting forward plans which they would otherwise have put forward and which has meant that over the years a huge backlog of desired but unrequested roads has built up.

Mr. Horam

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can have it both ways. Over the last three or four years we have been in a period of general expenditure restraint. I shall have something to say about the future later in my remarks. But one has to accept that general economic restraint of the last three or four years. I think that the county councils accept it.

I turn now to the future. Obviously I cannot prejudge my right hon. Friend’s decision on TSG settlements yet to come, but it is worth mentioning the sort of scheme that we know counties in the South-East have in mind. Let us look first at East Sussex. Its proposals in last year’s TPP for future years included, among others, an improvement of the access to Shoreham Docks and the bypass of Uckfield.

As the hon. Member will know, the routes to the country’s docks are a matter of great concern to the Government—he mentioned Newhaven as well as Shoreham—and should this Shoreham Docks proposal be carried forward in the bid for next year we will look at it very carefully and sympathetically. The bypass of Uckfield is also likely to remain high in East Sussex’s order of priority, relieving as it should, the small town centre of the considerable through traffic on the A22.

I turn now to the longer-term needs of the South-East as a whole. Much work is being done. I would mention in particular the strategic review of roads in the region which is in hand under the ​ auspices of the Standing Conference on London and South-East Regional Planning. My officers are in contact with the conference officials, and I understand that they expect to meet again in the next few days at working level.

Mr. Rathbone

When might that group report?

Mr. Horam

I cannot say offhand. It is having a meeting in the next few days. That may well be part of a series of meetings which may not necessarily lead to a final report. If it does, I will inform the hon. Gentleman well in advance. These figures and particular schemes do not give the whole picture.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether we would reconsider our view about the relationship between national schemes and local schemes. I think that he was asking for more support for local schemes. I can tell him that my right hon. Friend has said that he is willing to look again at the amount of resources which the Government are making available for their own programmes for motorways and trunk roads, as opposed to the county schemes for local roads. We feel that that relationship—given that we have had a long period of motorway and trunk road building—can with benefit be looked at again. Obviously, the hope of the counties will be that we can make more resources available to them. I cannot commit myself at this stage, but we are prepared to examine that to see whether we can change the relationship.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have also opened recently the Lewes bypass. Indeed, I opened it myself. There are also further improvements in prospect there. The South Street link has been started. There are improvements near Brighton. In particular, major improvements are being carried out at Falmer. Elsewhere in East Sussex, there is much trunk road work planned for the near future. The programme centres generally on improvements to the coastal road, the A27 and A259, with the £11 million Brighton bypass as a major scheme in the early 1980s, and improvements to the newly-trunked A21. There is also a sizeable bypass of Robertsbridge and Hurst Green to come.

Several of these trunk road schemes, particularly those at Lewes and the ​ Brighton bypass, will have a major effect on access to Newhaven Docks, to which the hon. Gentleman referred in his speech. The county’s own Newhaven ring road, which has recently been completed, has already considerably improved the access to the docks.

Elsewhere in the South-East, the overall road system is dominated by London. Many of the radial routes are trunk roads and many have been considerably improved in recent years. The A20, for example, and the A2 have been improved. Much further work remains in the pipeline. Both hon. Gentleman will know that the highest priority of all in the Government’s road programme is the orbital motorway, M25, around London. This will do much to improve communications for Londoners and for people who live in Sussex and in Kent.

Finally, I want to touch on one or two other matters raised by the hon. Member for Lewes. He asked me seven specific questions at the end of his remarks. I think that I have dealt with maintenance, the subject of his first question.

The second question was concerned with the relationship between national schemes and local roads. The hon. Member asked me, further, to reconsider our approach to local transport subsidies. In general, he seems to be in favour of more support for capital schemes as opposed to revenue schemes, such as bus support, for example. I think this is a matter of balance, frankly, and that there is a party political difference between us here. The Government are concerned that there should be proper support for bus services, otherwise we are losing too many of these services throughout the country. Bus services are being cut back and fares increased very rapidly. The Government want to stabilise the position. There may be a party political difference between us on this. It is a matter of judgment between Government and Opposition and a matter of judgment for local authorities to take into account. They have very considerable freedom of choice.

Fourthly, the hon. Gentleman asked me about lorries paying their way. Our taxation statistics regard heavy lorries as those over 30 cwt unladen—broadly 3½tons laden. For these vehicles as a class, there has been no shortfall between revenue and attributed road costs since 1977–78. In 1978–79, revenue from these ​ vehicles is expected to exceed allocated costs by £65 million. This figure takes account of the fact that two groups of the heaviest vehicles are not yet wholly covering their cost. The hon. Gentleman referred to that aspect. The Government, however, remain committed to ensuring that all groups of goods vehicles cover in taxation at least the public road cost—that is, the cost of wear and tear and the building of the road attributable to them. That is our clearly stated policy.

Fifthly, the hon. Gentleman asked whether road users get a fair share of the taxation which they have to bear. There are two points here. First, taxation as a whole should cover the cost which road users throw on the community by requiring roads to be built and maintained for them. That is clearly Government policy. But, in addition, they will be asked to contribute an extra amount for the general Exchequer requirements. It is entirely a matter for the Government of the day to decide how big that should be. It could be nothing or it could be a very large sum.

The EEC measures which we shall be adopting to deal with the general problem of taxing lorries fairly divide it into those two portions—the portion whereby one recoups from road users the cost they impose on the community and, secondly, anything over and above that which is a general contribution to Exchequer requirements. When this system comes into being—it is being negotiated inside the Common Market at present—we shall have a clear way of showing people exactly what they are contributing.

Mr. Rathbone

Can the Minister estimate whether that will increase the amount of moneys paid from vehicle excise and so forth, which are used for road building and maintenance, or will it decrease them?

Mr. Horam

It will depend on the costs and revenues as they are assessed at the time in question. Clearly the heaviest of lorries are not meeting their full costs at present. If more taxation is put on them, that will raise more revenue. But, equally, motorists are paying more than their fair costs at present. It would be a matter for the Government of the day to decide what they should do about that. I do not ​ think one can really answer that question unless one looks two or three years ahead at the figures.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether we would have TPPs every three or four years. The answer is that we wish to have a graded approach to change rather than the sudden jerks which one would get with a three-year or four-year appraisal. I think that the process of annual appraisal fits well into councils’ calendars and ways of working. It is sensible and has been accepted by councils for a number of years now. To go over to a longer period of gestation would not be right. The hon. Gentleman may well disagree—

Mr. Rathbone

The East Sussex County Council for one is very specific on this point. The need to produce annual TPPs relatively early in a calendar year has to anticipate the grants from national Government later in the year. It does not aid the planning of the road programme, either in building or maintenance terms, for the future fiscal year and it adds immeasurably to the administrative costs of running the whole transportation budget. As I instanced in my own few words, there has been a doubling of the proportion of that transport budget which is paid in administration from 10 per cent. to 20 per cent.

Mr. Johnson Smith

Only yesterday I was talking with senior officials and councillors from the West Sussex County Council. They made exactly the same point, and I hope that the Minister will look at it again.

Mr. Horam

We are anxious that any TPP paper or report should not be over-elaborate. We are not anxious to create ​ paperwork for the sake of paperwork. But this is a system which has been developed over several years. The amount of paper work is not very large.

Mr. Rathbone

Two hundred and fifty pages.

Mr. Horam

That is an exceptional case. I know of some counties which produce a TPP of only a handful of pages. Perhaps East Sussex has taken considerable trouble over its TPP, which is praiseworthy.

Mr. Johnson Smith

And West Sussex.

Mr. Horam

West Sussex as well. Certainly we would not wish counties to be over-bureaucratic about it. I think that the system is now well understood and can be managed reasonably well by county councils.

I was also asked whether we could relax some controls on small matters which are more legitimately the concern of local authorities. We are sympathetic to this suggestion. We have looked at this carefully, and it may well be that there are quite a few things which in future years we can hand over to local authorities, which will mean that more decisions are taken locally by people who best understand the needs of the local community. Indeed, we are in consultation with some of the local authority associations about matters of this kind, and I believe that we can make progress.

I think that we are beginning to make the sort of progress in Government policy which both hon. Members have so clearly and cogently said is their aim.