HC Deb 21 November 1956 vol 560 cc1896-904

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

10.55 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Cleveland)

I wish to raise a matter concerning the policy of a public authority. I must confess that I have always thought this particular policy to be regrettable, but I think that it has become even more regrettable because of the events of the last few weeks in the Middle East.

I refer to the obstinate policy—I do not think that that is too harsh a way to describe it—of the London Transport Executive in persisting in a programme of replacing electric trolley buses by diesel oil buses, at a capital cost, I believe, of about £10 million, and with an ancillary expenditure which is possibly double that amount.

There are many objections to diesel vehicles. These have been very well canvassed in the past. Diesel vehicles are an offence to the senses, particularly in the narrow London streets. They are certainly noisy, and, although I do not put it too highly, I think that there is at least a suspicion that diesel fumes are a contributory cause of lung cancer.

It can be argued, I think, that at a time when there are supposed to be restrictions on the capital expenditure of public authorities this large sum of money to be spent on the replacement of these perfectly sound electric vehicles could be put to better use.

The arguments which I have mentioned are weighty in themselves, but tonight I propose, with the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation present, to give them all second place to my main contention, which is that it is, in my view, and, I should think, in the view of a great number of people, very short-sighted folly to make the entire surface transport of the largest urban concentration of population in the world entirely dependent in the long run on fuel, every drop of which must be brought to this country from overseas. It may be objected that a certain amount is derived by synthetic means, so let us say, if I do not persist in the words "every drop," that the great bulk of it is brought from overseas. One would have thought that the Suez crisis and the other Middle East events of the last few weeks would at least have caused the London Transport Executive to stay its hand. I will put it no higher than that.

Yesterday, the Minister of Fuel and Power announced the rationing of petrol and fuel oils of all kinds. That was melancholy news to the House and probably to the country as well, but it did not come as a great surprise to informed people.

I do not propose this evening to enter at all into the controversies of the last few weeks that we have had in this House, but surely it has been obvious, as I say, to informed people, that ever since the Middle East difficulties started there was a threat all the time to our oil supplies. The Government argued that if they did not intervene the oil supplies might be cut. They did intervene, and the oil supplies have been cut. As I say, I am not going into the rights and wrongs of that policy, but I am arguing that from the very beginning, ever since July, there has been this risk of restriction on the oil supplies to the United Kingdom.

Yet it is since last July, as the Parliamentary Secretary must know, that the London Transport Executive has placed contracts for the first of these new vehicles. In a sense, one can forgive the Executive or, at least, understand it: it may take a narrow view of this question; it may gaze on smaller horizons and not gaze on the wider world. But it is very difficult to exempt the Minister of Transport of blame, because as recently as 31st October he was defending this position.

I put a Question to the Minister on that date, asking him … whether, in view of the desirability of limiting as far as is practicable in present circumstances the import of fuel oil, and the desirability of not adding further to the volume of diesel fumes in the congested London area, he will give a general direction to the British Transport Commission to disallow the decision of the London Transport Executive to spend over £10 million on the purchase of diesel buses … The Minister replied: The additional consumption of diesel oil will be comparatively insignificant."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st October, 1956; Vol. 558, c. 158.] I do not know what the Minister means by the expression "comparatively insignificant". Does he mean in relation to total consumption? If there are hundreds of diesel buses running week in, week out, year in, year out, how can it be "comparatively insignificant"? It is like a drunkard arguing that his personal consumption of alcohol is comparatively insignificant in relation to the total consumption of all moderate drinkers. The point is that he should not be drinking at all, and I would have thought that the London Transport Executive, if it were following a wise policy, would not be making itself more dependent on imported fuel, but less dependent. Who is to know that the present crisis is only temporary? We hope that it is, but, nevertheless, that part of the world from which most of our oil comes is, to put it mildly, a centre of constant political disturbance.

I should have thought that the responsibility for guiding the London Transport Executive in the right direction was that of the Minister. Up to now the Minister, and his predecessors—I want to fair—have hidden behind standard excuses of the modern Minister: the expert committee, or saying they should not intervene in something which they regard as purely a commercial matter.

I cannot see that, in relation to this issue, either excuse is valid. It is clearly a matter of vital national policy for the Government to decide. We are spending large sums of money developing the mining industry. We do not regard that industry as one which is, in any sense, declining. We want more coal, we are sinking new shafts, because we must have electrical power, which is derived in the main from coal—and will be in the future.

To supplement our coal supplies we are proposing to embark on a large programme of nuclear energy, with many nuclear power stations. There are rumours that the present programme is to be greatly extended. So one would have thought that it was the general correct intention of the Government to meet, as far as possible, the energy needs of the country from indigenous sources using electricity as the intervening medium.

I am not disputing, and no one, I think, would, that oil is not vital to our economy. We cannot hope to replace it completely, and should not make the attempt. But just because oil is vital to the economy, both for industrial and agricultural purposes, it is all the more reason surely why its use should be reserved for those occasions and situations where there is no alternative.

Of course, I know that by some it is said against the electric trolley vehicle which succeeded the tram that it is not a flexible vehicle, but one who travels by a petrol or oil bus would hardly call it a flexible vehicle these days in Central London. The argument may be that the trolley bus hinders other road users, but I believe that is the policy of the Ministry now to restrict, by means of parking meters and other devices, the number of private cars coming into Central London. Therefore, I should think that argument against the trolley bus will not in the future be anything like as strong as it was in the past.

It can be said at least in favour of the trolley bus that it is smooth, quiet and clean, that it has a tremendous passenger-carrying capacity, and that it does not wear out quickly. A curious fact is that while in this country, dependent, as we are, on imported oil, it is the tendency, not only in London but in other great cities, to do away with the electric road vehicle, in Continental cities, and even in the United States of America, with all their oil resources, they are extending their use of such vehicles.

I think I know why the London Transport Executive persists in this policy. It is because the Executive has a narrow and tidy mind in matters of this sort. It likes the cosy idea of standard buses with standard depots and a standard maintenance organisation. I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that he should put it to his right hon. Friend that he should resist this cosiness and inject, in view of the present circumstances, a little of the cold wind of realism.

Whatever he may have overlooked in the past he now has every reason in the national interest to postpone the implementation of this mistaken policy—at least, to postpone it. He may say, if he wishes, that he has had representations from both sides of the House, because I understand that the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro), if he can catch your eye, Sir, would like to say a word also in support of what I have tried to argue.

I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to put it to his right hon. Friend that the decision be postponed. Let the interval be used by the London Transport Executive to discuss with the British electrical industry, which has great experience and knowledge of these matters, how modern electric road surface traction can be adapted to meet London's traffic needs in great part. I feel that a vast amount could be done by proper cooperation between the engineers and experts of the Executive and the electrical manufacturing industry. If that were done for London, then in due course, I think, other great cities in this country might follow a sound example.

11.9 p.m.

Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)

I am sure that the House is indebted to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Cleveland (Mr. Palmer) for raising this very important matter of principle tonight, for the policy that is pursued by the London Transport Executive will find an echo in the transport arrangements and policies of very many provincial cities in this country and, perhaps, to a lesser extent, in foreign cities, too.

On occasions, I have quarrelled with the Government about fuel and power policy. One aspect of it on which I have always quarrelled with them is this, that it is disastrous from the economic point of view, from the strategical point of view and from the financial point of view, to swing our reliance most largely from indigenous coal resources to imported fuel oil. Only 16 months ago, during the last major controversy on this issue, to the right hon. Gentleman who was then Minister of Fuel and Power I used those words exactly. The principle at stake is whether a major public corporation shall be allowed, particularly in present critical circumstances affecting our oil supplies—and about 75 per cent. of them come from the Middle East—to pursue a policy, though it is allowed to within the autonomy of the Statute, which I believe a majority of this House consider is inimical to the public interest. I use the word inimical for four separate, though related, reasons.

First, coal is the principal means of generating electricity in this country today. Our electric power stations are enormously expensive fixed assets, used to only 24 per cent. of their operational efficiency. That means that the load factor of them is as low as 24 per cent., or that less than one quarter of the maximum efficiency of the station is employed. If electrical transport is substituted for diesel oil transport it is generally found that the electrical transport is used at off-peak times. For example, trolleybuses plying in the suburban areas of cities are used to their maximum extent, taking workers to work in the morning and bringing them home at night, when the load has already shifted for the most part from factory machinery, thus helping to spread the load and improve the operational efficiency of power stations.

The second point was brought out admirably in the Ridley Report on Fuel and Power Resources as long ago as 1952. During the passage of the Clean Air Act last year, and the Private Member's Bill that preceded it, there was widespread public criticism of the fact that that particular Statute could have no regard to filthy, stinking petrol and oil fumes, which are particularly obnoxious in narrow and congested city streets and urban areas, and vast clouds of black and dirty smoke, which is particularly offensive. I am informed by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research that in the present state of our scientific knowledge we have no means of cleansing or dispensing with those fumes. At least, trolleybuses make a much more direct contribution to a policy of clean air and the abatement of atmospheric pollution than the diesel oil bus.

Thirdly, we are building large and expensive atomic power stations. They must be used to maximum efficiency if the nation's investment in them is to yield the optimum results. The only means of applying atomic power to traction, whether it be railway or road traction, is through the medium of electricity. It is surely inconceivable that railway engines and buses will in future be powered by small atomic piles on each vehicle or engine. The power can only be provided through the electricity grid system, and I believe that we should endeavour to switch as many diesel oil buses as possible on to electricity, instead of the reverse process, in order to pave the way for utilization of atomic power.

Finally, a current point of some importance. The private motorist will be very hard hit by petrol rationing. I do not think that he will take very kindly to the fact that public corporations are to be allowed to continue to consume vast quantities of diesel oil and petroleum products, and, in the case of the London Transport Executive—an example that may well be copied by provincial cities—actually to increase their consumption of petrol products by dispensing with what are at present, I believe, highly efficient electric vehicles.

The Minister of Transport, who has corresponded with me about this for three or four years, has always said this is a decision resting within the autonomy of a public corporation. I dissent from that. Where matters of important principle are involved, affecting our national economy, especially at a time such as the present when there is grave petroleum and oil shortage, my right hon. Friend should ask the Minister to intervene to get the London Transport Executive, and probably some others, to reverse its decision renouncing the use of the highly efficient and versatile trolley bus.

11.16 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Hugh Molson)

It is one of the strange coincidences of political life that I should have dined tonight with the British Electric Traction Company and that I should have asked to be excused before the end of the dinner to enable me to answer this debate and state why I am not prepared to agree to the advocacy by hon. Members of electric traction upon the roads. I must say that to leave to make a speech of this kind was like biting the hand which, at that time, was feeding me; but I was a little fortified in the arguments which I am going to make when the chairman of the company told me that in all their undertakings there are now only two which now consist of trolley buses. It would seem, therefore, that private enterprise has arrived at the same conclusion as London Transport Executive has done.

Although the hon. Member for Cleveland (Mr. Palmer) spoke of the decision to change from trolley buses to oil vehicles in present circumstances, I have a feeling, from the general line of his speech, and also that of my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro), that "present circumstances" form a convenient hook upon which to hang arguments put forward on a number of occasions in the past. Most of the arguments dealt with the general question of whether electric traction or the diesel engine was the more efficient form of transport in London streets; so I should like briefly to reply to the other and more general arguments put forward.

It was suggested, without any great conviction, that the fumes of diesel transport exhaust were a contributory factor in the causation of lung cancer. That matter has recently been investigated by the Medical Research Council's Group for research into atmospheric pollution, and in its researches the London Transport Executive co-operated. Dr. Lawther, the Director of the Council, is reported to have said on 2nd November at the annual Conference of the National Smoke Abatement Society, that There is absolutely no evidence to justify the allegation that oil engines are responsible for the rise in the incidence of lung cancer. The hon. Member for Cleveland also suggested that at a time when capital expenditure in this country has to be limited, it was unjustifiable that the London Transport Executive should invest £10½ million in new Routemaster buses. I would remind him that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said on 17th February, in the House, that the Transport Commission had made all the reductions in capital expenditure that had been asked of it for this year.

The third point put forward—and that was the one which hung most naturally from the hook—was that at present, and owing to difficulties encountered over Suez, it was desirable that the Minister should now reverse the policy adopted by his predecessors. It had obtained the support of the Chambers Committee, which investigated the general administration of London Transport and had come to the conclusion, in regard to this policy, that it was justifiable on commercial grounds.

The order for the first of the 1,500 Routemaster buses has been given, but the first batch of them will not come into service until 1959. I hope that the Government will be acquitted of any undue complacency if I say that we certainly hope that long before 1959 oil supplies will once again be normal.

Before sitting down, I should like to state briefly the reasons why the London Transport Executive is proposing to make this change and why my right hon. Friend is supporting it, and will continue to support it, in doing so.

First, a diesel bus is cheaper to buy than a trolley bus of equivalent capacity. Secondly, it is more mobile in traffic and more flexible in operation, and in that way it reduces the congestion in the streets and enables the standard of service to be improved. Thirdly, unlike the trolley bus it is not subject to mass holdups through dewirement, and when there is a local power failure there are not a large number of vehicles immobilised in the streets. Fourthly, it has been proved by experience to afford material economies and better service.

The hon. Member for Cleveland accused the London Transport Executive of having a narrow and tidy mind. I do not see why anyone should be sensitive at the accusation of having a tidy mind. The complaint he made, however, was that to have all the vehicles of the same kind would result in a reduction in maintenance and repairs costs. That seems to me to be an extremely desirable thing. I should have thought that the London Transport Executive would be justified in putting that forward as an additional reason for abolishing the comparatively small number of trolley buses which exist and replacing them by the smaller number of buses which will be uniform with all the other buses in its services and which can be maintained and repaired in the same establishments.

Those seem to me to be reasonably conclusive arguments in favour of the policy which has been adopted by the London Transport Executive. For those reasons I am unable to agree that there is any justification for my right hon. Friend to withdraw his support from the Executive.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Eleven o'clock.

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