HL Deb 07 July 1997 vol 581 cc411-4

2.57 p.m.

Earl Attlee

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any plans to amend the Construction and Use Regulations to provide for an increase in axle or gross weights of articulated commercial vehicles. In doing so, he declared an interest in that he is president of the trade association affected by the legislation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, when the United Kingdom's derogation from certain of the European Community weight limits expires on 31st December 1998 we will allow increases in the weight limits for articulated vehicles on international journeys from 38 to 40 tonnes for vehicles with five or more axles and from 35 to 38 tonnes for vehicles with four axles. In both cases the drive axle weight limit will be increased from 10.5 to 11.5 tonnes.

The previous government issued a consultation document which invited views on, among other things, a possible general increase in the maximum weight limit to 44 tonnes for certain six-axle articulated and drawbar vehicles. We are considering the responses and, in particular, the possible effect of any increase in maximum lorry weights on rail freight.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. What will be the effect of the increase in axle weights in relation to road damage?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, road and bridge wear depend upon how a vehicle's total weight is spread via the axles to the road surface. Wear is reduced by spreading loads evenly and avoiding heavy individual axles. The 44-tonne six-axle vehicles with the drive axle weight limited to 10.5 tonnes cause no more wear than the 38-tonne five-axle vehicles that we already have.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Sub-Committee B of the European Communities Committee, of which I was then a member, recently published a report which came down in favour of 44-tonne six-axle vehicles because they do less damage to the road than the 40-tonne five-axle vehicles which we will have to accept at the end of next year in any case? Is the noble Baroness also aware that there is an estimate of 6,000 to 7,000 lorries being taken off the road if we go to 44 tonnes, most of which would not be applicable for rail freight? For example, petrol tankers delivering to garages by the side of the road would be an area where there would be a substantial reduction in the total number of lorries.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am aware of the arguments that the noble Lord puts forward. Although 44-tonne six-axle lorries would be more efficient and no more damaging than existing vehicles, the responses to the previous government's consultation document on lorry weights confirmed that there would be some loss of freight traffic from rail to road. The Government's overriding goal is to win more freight to the railways. So we shall have to consider that aspect very carefully as we work up proposals for an integrated transport policy.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group. Is the Minister aware that when Sweden raised the maximum lorry weight from 40 to 60 tonnes 23 per cent. of the traffic was lost from rail to road? Does she agree that when 44 tonnes were being taken on six axles there was less pressure on the road surface? Does she further agree that when there are 44-tonne lorries on bridges nose to tail the extra four tonnes must cause more damage to big bridges?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, my noble friend's contribution shows clearly that there is not a unanimity of view on this issue and that we have to weigh up carefully the arguments that have been put in response to the consultation document and look carefully at the impact on rail freight.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, does the Minister also accept the need to achieve standardisation of maximum weights right across the EU? How will she achieve that?

Baroness Hayman

I suspect not single-handedly, my Lords. Many countries find that it is in their interests not to standardise in the sense that we have to have standardisation for international traffic but not necessarily for national traffic. There is also the issue of not having standardisation between journeys that take place only by road and having perhaps different weights for those that involve rail and road journeys. There are some complexities involved.

Lord Elton

My Lords, will the noble Baroness tell attentive but ill-informed Members of the House like myself whether they are right in thinking that she did say that we shall shortly be obliged to admit lorries of greater axle weight than in the past? If that is the case, are we to face a massive programme of bridge closure, strengthening and cost?

Baroness Hayman

That was what I said, my Lords. We are under an obligation from 1st January 1999 to accept those lorries with higher axle weights. That has brought with it a programme of bridge strengthening, because we are equally under an obligation to have for international transport the primary routes available to those vehicles. By 1st January 1999 the Highways Agency aims to ensure that 40-tonne vehicles can use all structures carrying trunk roads and other important routes over trunk roads.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, can my noble friend give any idea of the number of bridges on country roads or in remote places that may need to be blocked off? It would be quite impractical to strengthen all of them. Many are of a masonry construction and not steel. It would be almost impossible to strengthen all of them. Has that point been considered with care? Will we have a whole series of signs saying, "No access to this road for vehicles over 44 tonnes in weight"?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, those are precisely the issues the Highways Agency has been addressing. It makes sense for the Highways Agency to concentrate on the motorway and trunk road network and for local authorities to concentrate on strengthening only those bridges on the routes where the most substantial flows of HGVs will take place. In most cases this will mean the primary route network, but we have to consider the areas where there are local roads leading to important industrial sites which need access.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, can the noble Baroness assure the House that there will be a sufficient interval—say, a few weeks—before these new weights come into force so that Westminster Bridge can be opened just for a short time?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am sure that my honourable friend the Minister of Transport for London will have that point very much in mind. I shall pass the noble Lord's comments on to her.

Lord Evans of Parkside

My Lords, will my noble friend acknowledge that the huge juggernauts she is talking about are all very well on motorways and trunk roads but are an entirely different proposition in small towns and villages? Is there not a case to be made for banning juggernauts of these new huge axle weights from all small towns and villages?

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, my noble friend makes a point that is obviously echoed around the House. I believe that a local view needs to be taken on whether to strengthen the structures on non-trunk roads or whether to use alternative measures, which might include a lorry ban.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, what increases in licensing charges will be imposed on these larger vehicles? Can the Minister say how part of the revenue resulting from any increase in licensing charges will be passed on to the local authorities which have to sustain the cost of upgrading the bridges and roads?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the cost of the upgrading programme is being met through grants from the Department of Transport. The issue of road fund taxation and its potential hypothecation is one that is considered primarily by the Chancellor.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, the answers the noble Baroness has given us have raised some concerns in my mind as to the amounts of money we shall have to find to meet an EU directive on these vehicles. Is there a case for applying to Brussels for EU structural funds to meet the cost of the directive?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, on the surface that sounds an attractive proposition. However, I have to say to the noble Baroness that we have had a derogation from 1985 to 1999 to undertake this programme. It is undoubtedly an expensive programme and I shall certainly bear her suggestion in mind.

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