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Column 992The Government's whole attitude to intermodal traffic and traffic that could be partially carried by rail is called into question by the regulations and derogations. The Department of Transport's inactivity over the past few years has led directly to a transfer of freight from the railways to the roads. That is directly contrary to the general principle running throughout the Community and is directly contrary to regulations that the Community introduced as long ago as 1975.
I urge the Secretary of State and his colleagues to consider the way in which other EEC countries have, in various ways, subsidised their road haulage industries. The normal reason given by those countries for having such subsidies is that they want to encourage the transfer of traffic from road to rail. However, I hope that the Secretary of State will agree that the British road haulage system's dependence on market forces has not been particularly successful, especially with regard to United Kingdom- continental traffic. Three years ago British-based hauliers carried over 60 per cent. of United Kingdom-continental traffic. They now carry 42 per cent. according to the Freight Transport Association. There are signs that the decline in Britain's share of that traffic is accelerating rather than being reversed. I hope that the Secretary of State will consider the examples set by some of his ministerial counterparts and will do what he can to reverse that trend. For example, he could encourage his opposite numbers in various parts of the EC to look at some of the developments taking place for road and rail vehicles in this country.
Developments are being undertaken in the private sector by companies such as Tiphook, whose piggy-back wagon, it believes, is capable of revolutionising the United Kingdom's continental road haulage network. It wants, not financial encouragement--it is not coming cap in hand for a subsidy from the Department--but, as I understand it, some degree of publicly expressed support. It also wants support within the EC for these newer methods of haulage, and for the Government to follow the example of other EC countries and reverse this country's apparently unique trend of transferring freight from the railways to the roads.
We are grateful for the Secretary of State's earlier comments, but we would still like to hear from him, or any other members of the entourage that he will no doubt take with him on Wednesday, of his determination to use, if necessary, his veto on some of these proposals. If the Secretary of State does that, he can be assured that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East and I will stand shoulder to shoulder with him, which should please him--[ Hon. Members :-- "Where is he?"] The Secretary of State will be relieved to know that my hon. Friend will shortly be returning to stand shoulder to shoulder with him--probably when I have finished the speech that I am making on his behalf. I hope that the Secretary of State will not weaken. We welcome his transformation into the tough and witty man he has become over the past few days. Long may that transformation continue, because it has our support.
Column 993time, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have the fullest support of everyone who lives in the part of the world which I represent.
We are debating a very important issue, at the centre of which is the quality of life. The order refers mainly to bridges but it will also affect small roads, villages, houses and the general quality of life in the rural areas of this country. The euphemism "local roads" is used, but they are really country lanes. If anyone thinks that they are suitable for 40-tonne vehicles carrying 40-tonne loads, he is wrong. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State--I know that he is capable of it--will make sure that his partners in the EC are put right on that issue.
I represent an area which is the principal source of the stone required for roads and buildings in the south--certainly the south-east--and know that heavy-vehicle traffic on country roads is essential and cannot be avoided. It has to travel on country roads before it can get near the major trunk routes. The numbers of movements past some of the small farms, villages and towns in my area are inevitable. One particular lorry route from the quarries in my constituency handles 600 movements a day, which cause an immense amount of damage, not only to bridges but to everything.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has my fullest support to ensure that the limitations on these heavy vehicles remains in place for as long as possible.
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro) : I, too, welcome the Secretary of State's clear statement that he will resist these European measures. A major factor in the demand for road upgrading is the perennial problem of heavy lorries. Although road haulage is often sold as cheap and efficient, the hidden expenses for taxpayers involved in supporting the moving of freight on the roads are considerable. The Audit Commission report on road maintenance stated that 50 per cent. of damage was caused by heavy goods vehicles with more than four axles. In Somerset, the cost of road maintenance has trebled in less than a decade. The Audit Commission also said that damage caused by lorries to roads costs £600 million a year. That does not take into account the grave damage that the Secretary of State described to bridges, buildings and under-road services.
Inquiries such as those conducted by Foster, Armitage and Wood examined the problems of heavy lorries, but most of their recommendations have not yet been implemented. I regret that the tendency has been to implement them half-heartedly, if at all. Document 4311/89 from the Commission claims that by 1996 a substantial part of the United Kingdom's road network will be ready to take heavier 40-tonne, 11.5 axle vehicles. In its explanation, the Commission largely concentrates on the conflict between keeping down road transport costs and the damage to roads. The more heavily a lorry operator loads his axles, the more goods he can transport at least expense--but the greater the expense to the public because of the increased costs of the maintenance and provision of roads adequate for these weights.
The Commission states :
"Recent studies in the USA and elsewhere have shown that increases in gross vehicle weight and axle weight can be justified in terms of overall benefit to the economy, in spite of the additional infrastructure costs."
Column 994The Commission sees these costs as moderate, but the increased costs of road building and maintenance have yet to be evaluated and it is clear that roads and motorways will have to be built and rebuilt to more expensive specifications to take account of the punishment they are likely to receive. I suspect that that is at the root of the Secretary of State's and the Government's unwillingness to accept what the EEC is saying.
I should like to take this further, and it is a shame that the Secretary of State did not. It is questionable whether the extra weights that the United Kingdom is being urged to comply with are necessary in the vast majority of cases. The road haulage industry has proliferated over the past few years to such an extent that many other aspects of the infrastructure of this country have been ignored. Railways come high on the list of such aspects. At the same time, the road system is crumbling under the pressure put on it by heavy lorries. I deplore this as an unnecessary use of resources and despoliation of the environment.
Since the Armitage report, some additional expenditure has been permitted in the form of constructing bypasses to alleviate the worst effects of the decision to allow an increase in the permitted weight to 38 tonnes on five axles, but I consider even the present situation--let alone that to which Europe wants us to move--deeply unsatisfactory. Design standards have proved inadequate to cope, and the damage attributed to these vehicles may be underestimated by as much as a factor of three. On motorways and heavily used roads the damage factor, as road designers call it, has more than doubled since 1970, and forecasts have suggested that that damage factor will treble and rise by as much as 340 per cent. by the year 2005.
Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockport, South) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the reasons for the problems to which he has pointed is that Department of Transport forecasts for road usage are usually painfully wrong, and that we need to move to a different system of forecasting? Furthermore, talking of motorways for the next century, does he agree that a motorway to the north-east of England is an urgent priority?
Mr. Taylor : I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that he agrees with me that underestimates certainly occur in respect of road links to the south-west. One reason for that is the Department of the Environment's failure to consider the effect of the traffic that is brought on to new roads. An obvious example of that is the A30, and the efforts of myself and other hon. Members to introduce a dual-carriage standard.
There may be certain operations where the Commission's "larger means fewer" rule applies. That said, it is important to acknowledge that new roads, as well as large vehicles, have made lorry-kilometres and tonne-kilometres by road much cheaper than they would be otherwise. In a sense, a few major road schemes have reinforced the problems and inconvenience caused to those living off those schemes, along routes to which lorries are directed after they have covered the longest part of their journey, if not the longest in terms of time.
The dominance of road transport over other forms of transport has been reinforced by the Government's policy of calculating the economic values of different schemes. It is clear that the public is dissatisfied with certain road developments and Government priorities. National
Column 995surveys on road traffic and the environment undertaken in the late 1970s showed that millions of people were disturbed by lorries in a variety of different ways. National studies have been carried out since then, and perhaps it is just as well for the road transport lobby that the Secretary of State's arguments cannot be reinforced by the findings of those studies when he goes to Europe. I do not doubt that lorries still account for a major part of the environmental problems that people experience, and that they are disliked as widely as ever.
If I drive from Truro to St. Austell in my own constituency, I find myself following heavy lorries through a series of tiny villages--Tresillian, with its hairpin, and another at Probus, and then down the hill to Grampound, where there are both speeding lorries descending, and others struggling to climb the hill, before reaching Sticker, and so on. That route almost defines the kind of problems that heavy lorries can cause.
Mr. Taylor : The hon. Gentleman is wrong. Clearly, he is not familiar with my constituency, because the route that I described runs from the west of Cornwall towards the direction of the china clay industry. No lorries transporting china clay would be found on the route that I described. The hon. Gentleman displays an ignorance of my part of the world that is not altogether surprising, but he would do better to resist the temptation to intervene.
I refer also to the problems of villages such as Treviscoe, at the heart of china clay country. That village recently experienced problems as a result of lorries transporting quarry materials for the new runway at RAF St. Mawgan in Newquay--not only all week but on Sundays, from as early as 6 o'clock in the morning. There may be some economic benefits for the area's industry, but I believe that the economic disbenefits to the village--90 per cent. of whose population probably work in that industry--probably outweigh them. It was certainly the villagers' unanimous opinion that a brake should be placed on that transport.
Last summer, I visited properties in the road that runs through the village of Mevagissey, in which floors are coming away from walls, and furniture moves across the floor because there is no banning of the kind for which the Act of the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) allows, and which has my support. In villages such as Mevagissey, the proper facilities for the transportation of heavy goods just do not exist. Underinvestment in the infrastructure allows such problems to continue.
The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) raised a question about the transport infrastructure for St. Austell and for the china clay district. The problem is that St. Austell, which is not only the largest town in the county but at the heart of its economy, is entirely cut off from the major road system. No road investment has been made in that area. That is partly because the grants system for that area has been removed. I was in St. Austell at the launch last week of a report by the Action 2000 Committee which pressed for the major road links that are needed. That report gave an illustration of how lorries have to negotiate
Column 996tiny country lanes and small towns. Without the infrastructure that I have mentioned, the Secretary of State is right to resist what Europe proposes and should go further and try to take heavier lorries out of many areas.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that problems are caused in his constituency and in most areas of the south -west by the continual closure and rundown of the railways and the loss of the possibility of rail freight taking heavy loads over long distances? Road haulage causes serious environmental damage and there is great pressure by the road haulage industry to have bigger and bigger lorries which will cause greater and greater damage to the environment.
Mr. Taylor : I accept that. I said that earlier in my speech but perhaps I should mention it again. The problem must be considered in a far more fundamental and broader way than Europe or, I regret to say, the Minister has looked at it. We must examine the entire infrastructure and look at how we can best meet the need of people for goods to get from one place to another. That is more important than the need of the road transport lobby to get goods moved cheaply.
If we looked properly at the overall environmental and economic costs of transport, we would see the need for far more emphasis being placed on railways and on building main trunk routes and facilities for offloading to smaller vehicles. Neither the European Commission nor the Minister place enough emphasis on those matters. We have much under-utilised transport infrastructure, particularly on the railways. That is a disgrace and is leading to many of the problems that I highlighted in my constituency.
The Democrats are well known to be committed to the maintenance and improvement of the transport infrastructure. I have no doubt that the ending of the United Kingdom derogation on lorry weights would benefit British business, but I am convinced that it would be of no benefit to the British people. No one could accuse me of being anti European and I am quite prepared, if I must, to accept petrol in litres, butter in kilogrammes or, indeed, kilometres--although I should prefer not to. The derogations are about more fundamental issues. They are about people's properties, the environment and the standard of life of people in many villages that still have to put up with heavy traffic. In many cases people have to put up with danger as well.
I regret that the Secretary of State did not go further in recognising that, in supporting greater investment in the railways and in evening up his attitude to investment in roads, as it is called, and what is called subsidy to the railways. Nevertheless, I support him in resisting what the European Commissioners are trying to do and hope that he is successful.
Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley) : It is already apparent that there is opposition to the Commission's proposal on the ground that at the Commission's behest we are asked to implement a significant change in our practice. I often have a great deal of sympathy for that attitude, but one needs to draw a distinction between cases in which there is a genuine Community interest and those in which there is not. In the latter category, I place many road safety
Column 997measures. It is quite unacceptable, for example, to propose directives to bring our provisions designed to deter drink-driving into line with those of our Community partners. In the case of lorry weights and dimensions, there is a genuine Community interest which cannot be denied. On this occasion, therefore, I would not side with the case which, I am sure, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) would have put if he had been here.
If we accept that point, we have to consider whether there is any overwhelming reason why we need a very great deal of time to fall into line with other European countries which have already accepted lorries of 40 tonnes and, indeed, more. It is worth going back to the decision that this House made in November 1982 to permit on our roads lorries of 38 tonnes, with their weight distributed over five axles, compared with lorries of up to 32.5 tonnes, which was the maximum until then.
Hon. Members will remember that the change that was made at that time incorporated one of the recommendations of the Armitage report on lorries, people and the environment. That report included many recommendations which have been implemented--in particular, new controls on height and length, a requirement for side guards and rear under-guards to bring about greater safety. New mud-spray protection has also been introduced.
Having studied carefully all the evidence at that time about the load on road surfaces and bridges, Professor Armitage and his colleagues recommended a maximum 40-tonne vehicle on five axles. I think it was well known at that time--the press recorded the fact--that the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell), was undecided between 38 and 40 tonnes. The decision to opt for 38 tonnes was ultimately made, not because it was thought that Professor Armitages's technical conclusions were wrong, but because it was felt that, in political terms, and in the context of public opinion, there was a cliff to be scaled. It was felt that the rise of 5.5 tonnes was acceptable, whereas one of 7.5 tonnes was not--and at that time it may well have been right. Hon. Members will recall that at that time the Government had a majority in this House of just over 40, and, despite the gravest forebodings of the Patronage Secretary, there was a majority of 63 in favour of 38 tonnes, on a vote which took place at 10 o'clock, in circumstances designed to ensure that the views of the House as a whole were fully expressed. Many subsequently asked why such caution had been demonstrated at that time.
Since 1982 we have had a chance to test some of the hypotheses that were set out in that debate, during which many were sceptical about the claim that heavier lorries, even though they were only marginally longer to accommodate a bigger cab, would mean fewer lorries on our roads. Hon. Members were not then assuaged by the argument put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford that, for each tonne of freight carried, the new five or six-axle requirement must mean much less damage, because 38 tonnes could be carried with the same average axle weight as the 32.5-tonne vehicle, involving the need for fewer vehicles. However, in fact, there are now very many fewer lorries on the roads than would have been the case if we had stayed at 32.5 tonnes.
Mr. Waller : I am asked how I know. I refer hon. Members to the Department of Transport statistical bulletin 88/44, which reveals that in 1987 the total was 7,800 fewer than would have been the case if we had had the lower limit.
Since 1987 there has been an unprecedented increase in the amount of goods carried by heavy lorries, and it would probably be no exaggeration to say that the saving in the number of lorries of essentially the same size as before is, by now, 10,000. That is why I claim, with some confidence, that the increase in lorry weights has been extremely friendly to the environment. Where we should be now if we had to accommodate all those extra lorries on our roads I shudder to think.
The environmental and economic factors that applied in 1982 are just as valid today, although we are talking about a much smaller weight difference. Freight movements continue to increase in number and scale. However much we would like to move traffic off the roads and on to the trains, there can be no doubt that something like 90 per cent. of all our inland freight will continue to move on the roads. Even if we were to increase the volume of goods carried by train by 50 per cent.--which I should like--there would still be a reduction of only 4 per cent. in the volume carried on the roads.
Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton) : I hope that my hon. Friend will start to take into account the effects that the Channel tunnel will have on the movement of freight off the roads and on to the railways, as those of us who support the tunnel hope, so that we may exploit the major intercontinental railway system.
Mr. Waller : I agree entirely. Indeed, I have just made that very point. But I go further : if we were to double the volume of goods carried on our trains--and I do not think that anyone believes that that would be possible--we would still have only an 8 per cent. decrease.
Mr. Waller : It would be 4 per cent. if it went up by 50 per cent. There would be an 8 per cent. decrease in the amount carried on the roads. We know that in one recent year there was more than an 8 per cent. increase in the amount of goods on the roads.
On this occasion we can categorically state that there will be no increase in vehicle size when the derogation ends. In effect, existing lorries will be able to carry a payload which is 2 tonnes greater. That will enable our operators to compete more effectively, and it will guarantee that fewer lorries will travel on our roads than would be the case if we had stuck with the 38-tonne limit. Therefore, environmental factors clearly point to an early uprating. In economic terms also, the case is strong. The increase in vehicle weights which took place on 1 May 1983 saved our industry and consumers about £250 million by 1986, and produced a saving of £60 million in road wear, to the benefit of the taxpayer. Taking a further step of two more tonnes would provide an additional saving of at least £76 million.
Mr. Waller : They certainly were not produced to me by the Road Haulage Association. They have been produced by the Road Transport Association. The Transport and General Workers Union has also been in favour of higher weight lorries on our roads. The arguments are put by many organisations.
Freight is a significant contributor to company costs. It has been pointed out that a 10 per cent. rise in freight costs leads to a 1 per cent. increase in average prices. When margins are tight and international competitiveness is vital, that could be the crucial factor.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out that, in any event, the bridge improvement programme on which the Government have embarked will be necessary to cope with existing 38-tonne lorries, regardless of whether we decided to move up at an early date.
As the Commission said, it makes nonsense to take into account bridges with a capacity of 7 tonnes. One county surveyor mentioned to me that he knew of a 38-tonne lorry which had gone over a bridge with a maximum limit of 7 tonnes without causing any apparent damage. We can assume that, to all intents and purposes, whether lorries of 38 or 40 tonnes use such bridges, it will not make a crucial difference. Therefore, the number of bridges that we need to consider is not so great. Bearing in mind the substantial benefit to industry and the environment, we could surely, if necessary, speed up the bridge programme. The return on investment could hardly be bettered. In my book, a one-off payment of £70 million to produce a clear return, which has been estimated at between £76 million and £200 million per annum, seems a pretty good deal.
Other considerations have to be taken into account. If we are seen to be dragged kicking and screaming into line with the rest of Europe the sovereignty issue will unnecessarily be brought into the argument, when, as I have already said, it need not properly apply in a case in which there is a genuine Community interest from which we and our partners can benefit.
Mr. Snape : The hon. Gentleman gave the House figures about the cost of the bridge-strengthening programme. The estimated cost of that programme is £600 million, is it not? The estimated benefit of the heavy lorries, which the hon. Gentleman is passionately advocating in the brief which he is reading so well from the Road Transport Association, means that we are paying all that for the benefit of £70 million. That is a ratio of almost 10 : 1. Is that decent economics?
Secondly, the figures relating to the cost of improving bridges depend on the number of bridges that one believes need to be improved, and that is one of the main arguments.
We should remember that arguments in the Council of Ministers involve trade -offs. If we hold out on this matter, we may have to be more malleable on something else. It is
Column 1000surely better that we should put our foot down somewhere where it really matters and demonstrate our Community commitment here, where our industry and environment can benefit from a relatively small concession of two tonnes.
Yes, there is a public relations argument to be won, but this time the case is a strong one because we can point to experience related to the environment and to the economic situation. We should accept a derogation to 1995-96, certainly no later, or, better still, move more quickly towards change, thus demonstrating that it is not the wicked European Commission which has driven us but our recognition that logic is on the side of economic and environmental benefit. Mr. Corbyn rose--
Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West) : I was not sure whether to make a short speech or a long intervention, but I decided in the end in favour of a short speech about just one bridge. The sad and salutary tale of the Severn bridge may be very instructive and supportive for the Secretary of State when he makes his case in Europe.
What we have seen with the Severn bridge is an example of a variant of the problem that Governments in the 1970s had with their incomes policies, that of wage drift. Bridges in this country tend to suffer from weight drift-- that is, the constant upward movement of the demands of the designers and users of lorries, coupled with those who operate the weighbridges not always doing so precisely. The maximum weight tends to go above the design weight of the bridge. There is also the overload factor of a fair proportion of the large lorries that we have on our road system : to use a rough figure, probably 10 per cent. of our lorries are running at more than their design weight.
What has happened with the Severn bridge? It was opened in 1966, and 16 years later it was starting to be shaken to its very foundations. It was unable to take the kind of vehicles that were then passing along it, because lorries were running in far greater numbers than had been anticipated and they were tending to run in convoy : they were also far heavier than had been anticipated. The bridge was then unable to cope with that amount of weight. Lorries in convoy do far more damage than lorries on their own. Lorries which have to stop on a bridge for any reason do far more damage than lorries that are moving. So we can picture a bridge that was designed to carry a certain amount of moving traffic. Suddenly the number of lorries, as a proportion of the total traffic, is doubled. Then we picture the traffic jams on that bridge, which leads to dead load around the main pillars of the bridge. Then suddenly the bridge has to be rebuilt.
The Severn bridge cost £8 million to build in the mid-1960s : it is now being strengthened at a cost of £33 million. Allowing for inflation, it is probably costing roughly the same today to rebuild and strengthen, to cope with exactly the kind of problem that the Secretary of State will be talking about for the generality of Great Britain next week.
Column 1001Bridge designers design bridges to carry a specific load. If the bridge has to be completely redesigned, it costs as much as it would to build the bridge all over again. This is the problem created by this constant upward drift on the part of the lorry manufacturers and designers and of the people who load and look after the lorries, particularly in the fairly "easy come, easy go" enforcement atmosphere that we have in this country compared with Germany. The plea that I make to the Secretary of State, for him to carry to Europe, is that everyone should learn from the example of the Severn bridge. That bridge, not long after it was opened and fully running, is almost falling down, and has to be rebuilt.
The only other solution for this country is to have bridgemasters. There are some countries where lorries are not allowed free access to bridges : they are hauled off the bridge and spaced out between 30 and 40 cars to make sure that they are never in convoy. They are never allowed on to the bridge in a traffic jam or in slow-moving traffic, because of this exponential wear and tear on the bridge and its foundations when three or four lorries are caught in a convoy near its main pillars.
What is the alternative? Will the Secretary of State have bridgemasters in this country as the only way of controlling the wear and tear? Would the road haulage industry like to see bridgemasters brought in to prevent the free access of lorries to bridges? That is probably totally unacceptable in Britain, but bridgemasters are found in exceptional circumstances here and there.
Mr. Corbyn : My hon. Friend is advancing an excellent argument on lorry weights. I ask him to reflect that the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) and others contend that 44-tonne lorries could have lower axle ratio weights. Surely that is irrelevant when we are dealing with the problems of the Severn bridge, for example, where the total weight of a vehicle, and often its dead weight, damages the construction.
Mr. Morgan : That is correct. In such circumstances the axle weight becomes far less significant than the dead load, especially around the main pillars of the bridge. My hon. Friend has raised an issue on which I have not placed sufficient emphasis. I ask the Minister to take the message to Europe that it is unacceptable that there should be a continuous upward poaching of limits by the road haulage industry, which imposes colossal problems on some of our major estuarial crossings. Let him consider the disappointment that it causes to all those who have been involved in trying to create new jobs in Wales since the great closures in the steel industry in the early 1980s.
The great selling point for Wales was its connection to the motorway system. When an industrialist comes to consider whether he would wish to accept the Government grants that are available to occupy an empty Welsh Development Agency factory, he stops at the Severn bridge, where he sees the traffic jams and the cones. He sees the massive scaffolding around the bridge as it is being reconstructed and he thinks, "This is not the region that I was told about ; it is only half connected to the national motorway system." This has proved one of the major disincentives for industry to move into south Wales. It is the result of the continuous poaching by the designers of lorries, which militates against the design of the Severn bridge and other estuarial crossings.
Column 1002When the Minister goes to Europe he must emphasise that a bridge must by its very nature adhere to its design, whereas the weight of lorries increases by a couple of per cent. a year. The increase in lorry weights must stop at some stage.
Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham) : Only a few months ago I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State whether he was under any pressure to increase lorry weights because of the movement towards harmonisation within the Community, or whether there was any desire on his part to do so. In both respects his answer was effectively no, and I am sure that that was a genuine response.
That makes me feel even more aggrieved, because somehow we have been effectively hijacked into an urgent, not a long-term, decision. Suddenly it has become a matter of urgency, before a Council meeting next week, that the House should come to a decision. That is grossly unfair, especially when we consider that many of us have been involved in an intensive debate for the past decade over whether we should agree to an increase in lorry weights.
Four years ago we arrived at a serious compromise. The result was the United Kingdom securing a derogation. That meant, in effect, a maximum lorry weight of 38 tonnes as opposed to the Community's 40 tonnes. No date was attached to the derogation, which was achieved after a long debate on what we thought was in the best interests of the country. It was settled that we should have a 38-tonne limit and 10.5 tonnes axle weight limit.
What has happened within a short period to persuade the Community to introduce a proposal that we should conform with the limits that apply in the rest of the Community? What sort of Community is it that tries to enforce upon a member state by diktat something that the United Kingdom deems to be against its interests? My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in October 1988 that he was not in favour of an increase in limits. Similarly, the House is not in favour of an increase. I should like the robust message to go forth from both sides of the House that it does not want a change in limits to be forced upon it. I hope that there will not be a Division. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be able to say next week to the Community that Britain believes that to be in the national interest, although there are arguments for and against the proposition that is now before us, until such time as we deem it right to accept a change in our national interest.
My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) has spoken in favour of a change in limits. There is a sense of de ja vu about that as no one changes his view. My hon. Friend was urging strongly for an increase in lorry weight some years ago, but we settled on a limit of 38 tonnes.
I accept, of course, that there is an argument in favour of a 40 tonnes, 44 tonnes, or 50 tonnes limit. There is an economic argument for carrying heavier and heavier weights. If we settle on the 40 tonne limit for which the Community is asking it will not stop there. Other Community members have internal weights of 44 tonnes or 50 tonnes.
I accept that the Freight Transport Association may argue that its members will benefit from an increase in lorry weights, but the House must judge the balance of argument. Many years ago the House considered the
Column 1003environmental effects and the road costs and decided that the balance of advantage lay with the 38 tonne limit. It was agreed that our roads and especially our bridges, of which there are 85,000, were not capable of taking heavy lorry weights. Who will tell the people that our roads and our country lanes are ready to carry heavier lorries? One could tell the county councils that they could impose lorry weights and width restrictions, but let them try to get those restrictions secured. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), who introduced the worthy Dykes Bill, knows all about this. It is wonderful to have lorry routes, but how many have we got? It will be many years before we can decide whether we are ready to accept much heavier lorries. We have been through all this before. Why has the matter suddenly arisen again? What good does it do the Community to force upon us something that we have decided, collectively, is not in our interests?
Currently I believe that we have veto rights on whether to increase the 38 tonne and 10.5 axle weight limits. My right hon. Friend should go to the Community and emphasise that that right should be open-ended and that until we choose, as and when, to try to change that limit to secure a commercial benefit which we might then deem right, it should remain a permanent or rather open-ended derogation. We have done it with the pint of milk, the pint of beer and the mile measurement.
I am told that at the Council meeting next week the Community might well say that on 2, 3 and 4 tonne axle weights, which are not subject to derogation, it can impose higher limits on us. We are entitled to further explanation about that. My right hon. Friend should not sacrifice our veto over the heaviest lorries and the heaviest axle weights for some short-term benefit which we might secure on the smaller vehicles. All we will gain on the deal will be one to three years. My right hon. Friend should keep the veto power because the one thing that matters to us is our right to ensure that the heaviest vehicles do not inflict the damage that we know they will inflict on our unsuitable roads.
Ultimately I am sure that in our lifetime--it may vary from Member to Member--we will have harmonisation. Whether that is achieved in this century or the next, which is not far away, should be a matter for our judgment. By doing so we are not doing down our competitors ; if anything we may be doing down ourselves. We are not putting impediments in the way of free trade as the same rules apply to European vehicles coming into this country as apply to British vehicles. By urging the retention of the 38- tonne limit as opposed to the 40-tonne limit we are not imposing a great burden on industry. My right hon. Friend has already explained to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry that any subsequent extra road costs could be offset by higher vehicle excise duties. It does not follow that there would be any net benefit to members of the FTA from increasing the limit.
I am not suggesting that we should hold on to our right to derogate for ever, but it should be in our power to decide if and when it would be in our interests to harmonise with other Community members.
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Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) : I want to add to the bipartisanship tonight and send our wishes to the Secretary of State when he goes to speak for Britain in Brussels. He is right. It has nothing to do with the fact that this year is European election year and that sometimes, in some quarters, it looks good to take on Brussels. The Secretary of State is doing this because it is right. It is right to let the Council know that we shall decide when and if British roads and bridges are ready to take the heavier loads. I want to make two small constituency points because many heavy lorries run through my constituency. The M6 motorway, which has miles of viaducts which are nothing more than a continuous bridge in a technical sense, runs through the heart of Birmingham. The viaducts have been badly damaged over the years and a fortune has had to be spent in continually keeping them in good repair. That is a small part of the cost involved and there would be an extra cost if the lorries became even heavier.
My second point concerns the time when the bridge strengthening programme is under way. The Birmingham container port is in my constituency. When hon. Members drive up the M6 through Birmingham, they may see containers stacked high on both sides of the road. It is the vast car park area of the container port. The heavy lorries carrying the containers cannot get from the motorway to the container port. There is a private tunnel under the M6 motorway which is technically a bridge. Heaven knows that what is needed is a direct access from the motorway to the container port. All the heavy lorries have to come off the motorway at Gravelly Hill, Spaghetti junction, or the Great Barr interchange and then travel on ordinary suburban roads, some of which have bridges which will need strengthening. When the planning is done for such container ports alongside motorways, we could spend some money in the next few years on the bridge strengthening programme to save much more money in the years to come. If we could get the lorries immediately off the motorway into the container port areas, there would be less damage to road surfaces, less danger and less damage to buildings in ordinary suburban roads. I make no apology for making essentially constituency points and they add weight to the arguments of the Secretary of State. I hope that when the planning is done for the expenditure on bridge strengthening, such practical points for saving money in the future can be taken into account.
Mr. Channon : I ask the leave of the House, but I think that I am entitled to speak now as it is my motion anyway. If I need the leave of the House, I shall ask for it. I do ask for it, but if the House says no, I shall not mind very much.
My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley in his powerful speech made the economic case for the 40-tonne lorry and the change that he thinks would be right. However, I am sure that he would agree that the majority of hon. Members do not take that view at this stage. There has been near unanimity that I should, next week, try to stand firm at the Council meeting and deal --