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Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, if the noble Baroness will allow me to intervene, I know that the paragraph did exactly that, but I understand that it is unusual for a committee report to record a discussion in that way. The fact that it was done and that the powers that be allowed it to be recorded must surely show that there was an unusual reason for the matter to be recorded like that.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I bow to the superior knowledge of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, which naturally exceeds mine on the usual habits of committees. I can only make my comments from the view of one who was there. I commend the Motion to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Bathing Water Revisited: ECC Report

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, the House will be aware that we debated both Motions together. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Bathing Water Revisited (Seventh Report, HL Paper 41).—(Baroness Park of Monmouth.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Road Signs

6.15 p.m.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, before the regulations governing road signs are relaxed, they will carry out assessments and research with regard to the potential environmental impact and confusion to road users as a result of the proliferation of road signs.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, today's convention demands scrupulous declarations of interest by Members of both Houses, and since the Question involves tourist signposting perhaps I may begin by confessing that I am involved in one of the largest tourist attractions in Great

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Britain. It is set in an area of outstanding natural beauty, the New Forest. I am President of the Southern Tourist Board and a member of the Heritage Committee of the British Tourist Authority.

The Question is deliberately designed to draw the attention of Parliament for the first time to proposed amendments to the traffic sign regulations which, if introduced as proposed, will, I believe, have a very detrimental long-term effect on our environment, being unmanageable and potentially confusing to touring motorists.

Britain is justly famous all over the world for its green and pleasant land and its historic towns and villages, largely uncluttered by a profusion of signs. For many decades, governments of all persuasions have made it their policy to keep our roads and particularly our countryside clear of a proliferation of signs. With the growth of tourism and leisure, this policy had to be altered, so in the 1980s the brown and white tourist signs were introduced, denoting a tourist attraction with symbols indicating their type because bona fide tourist attractions are visited by a large number of people who are unfamiliar with the area. The numerical criteria relating to the number of visitors to each site and other conditions have been generally accepted by the tourist industry as a valid limitation, as the stated purpose of signs is to provide directions to ease traffic flow not for advertising.

This system has worked very well with the tourist boards supervising compliance with criteria. The current policy already allows a large range of tourist establishments to be signed. They include theme parks, zoos, historic properties, museums and leisure complexes. Consequently the brown and white sign has a defined and recognised meaning. There have been some justifiable requests for a limited extension of the criteria to other types of destination which attract large numbers of tourists.

Now, as suggested by a circular from the Department of Transport, this successful scheme, which has won widespread public acceptance and confidence, is to be replaced by a virtually unregulated free-for-all. The new definition of an eligible establishment is proposed as any,

    "permanently established destination or facility which attracts or is used by visitors to an area, and which is open to the public without prior booking during its normal opening hours".

That description is so wide that it would cover not only all guesthouses and bed-and-breakfast establishments, but also every pub and restaurant—even shops if they chose to apply—and the department proposes a presumption in favour of approval. There are approximately 5,000 visitor attractions in England, many of which are not currently signed, but the number of premises that could potentially be signed under the new suggested definition could be well over 200,000.

So how would the physical requirements of locating and installing so many signs be met? Stranger still, it is suggested that establishments be permitted to supply and put up their own signs. That raises the question of who will maintain them and keep them up to date in future years.

Another problem is that the new widened definition of eligibility without any qualifying criteria will allow establishments to have a sign, even if their opening times are such that they may often be closed when visitors who

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follow the signs arrive. Surely it is wrong that signs should be a source of misinformation. Under existing criteria, attractions that have limited or seasonal opening periods below established levels must indicate that on their signs.

The total lack of nationally accepted criteria for the signposting of tourist attractions based on numerical justification, or quality and operational standards is surely unacceptable. Significantly it is a step which Scotland has refused to take; it will wisely continue to administer its signage through the Scottish Tourist Board. Wales will do likewise. It surely must be right, in line with the recent tourism policy statement of the Department of National Heritage, Competing with the Best, that tourism sign eligibility in England should comply with prevailing tourist board standards which are accepted by the industry, such as the "Visitors Charter" code of practice for attractions and the national grading and classification schemes for accommodation which the Heritage Secretary only recently pledged to strengthen.

There is no doubt that an appropriate broadening and flexibility of eligibility criteria would be welcomed, to permit signs for other types of permanent destination which attract large numbers of tourists and visitors from outside the area. If hotels, pubs, fast food establishments, supermarkets and picnic sites need and deserve further signs, could they not be known as tourist facility signs, and be in a different colour so as not to downgrade the credibility of the brown and white signs to proper tourist attractions?

Unfortunately there is nothing in the proposals to reflect the special requirements of areas such as national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty or the New Forest, in whose recently designated heritage area there are 38 hotels and 88 bed-and-breakfast establishments. In the county of Hampshire alone there are 2,000, all of which, it is suggested, should have a presumption in favour of a sign.

It is further proposed that local roads authorities may establish their own criteria. Yet surely signs must also be continuous and not differ between adjacent local authority areas. Most importantly, signs must be clear and reliable sources of information. The application of consistent conditions is needed. Signage policies must be comprehensive, and be devised in full collaboration with environmental and regional and national tourist interests.

There is no evidence that the issue of sign proliferation has been evaluated, either in terms of physical requirements, information need, or, in my view most importantly, environmental impact. As the proposals stand there is a real risk that large numbers of signs could damage the very environment that tourists want to see, and that they could confuse rather than assist.

The proposed proliferation of signage will undoubtedly bring about a devaluation of the existing brown and white signs, and will have a detrimental effect on visitor attractions that serve high volume need, through their signs becoming visually insignificant. If so many establishments are to be signed, either in a cluster or all on one post, the result will surely be self-defeating.

The House may wonder why this radical new policy has not received wider publicity. For reasons that are unclear—I refrain from saying "sinister"—the

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consultative paper and the draft orders were issued just before Easter with little over a month allowed for representations. Very few local authorities or amenity bodies have had time to consider the paper. Indeed, one local authority told me that it did not even have time to put it to the relevant committee.

Surely eligibility for signage must continue to depend on establishments adopting nationally agreed codes of practice and minimum standards—and minimum numbers should continue to be accepted by the Department of Transport as preconditions for signage, especially on motorways.

I am sure that everybody will agree that the object of signs is to inform and direct. They must be accurate, clear and reliable. If there are no standards, there will be chaos. So what is the rush? I plead with the Government tonight to carry out further consultation to achieve nationally agreed criteria, to come to a sensible agreement with regard to the definition of tourist attractions relevant to tourist facilities, and to delay implementation of any proposals until such time as a proper assessment is made of the undoubted damage to our countryside, towns and villages. It seems inconceivable that the Government would choose to ignore the strong representations by such bodies as the Association of County Councils, the tourist boards, motoring organisations, RoSPA and the CPRE, which have a long history of fighting against the proliferation of signs.

I have considerable sympathy with my noble friend who will answer this Question this evening. He will be valiantly representing the Department of Transport, which over the years has traditionally been in the forefront of preventing unnecessary signs on Britain's roads. To defend such a complete capitulation to the proposed free-for-all must be very painful for many in his Ministry. It must be especially cruel, since the idea for these far-reaching changes comes not from the Department of Transport but, ironically, from the Department of National Heritage—set up, as it presumably was, to protect our heritage. It should have known better.

This Government's general record will be judged by history, and there will inevitably be a difference of opinion as to their successes and failures. The proposed deregulation will, if enacted, be virtually impossible to reverse. One thing that I would have thought no government would wish to hand down is a bitter legacy of polluting this country with tens of thousands of brown and white signs, hence ruining our green and pleasant land.

I shall leave the last word to Ogden Nash, who said:

    "I think that I shall never see

    A billboard lovely as a tree.

    Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,

    I'll never see a tree at all"!

6.26 p.m.

Lord Chorley: My Lords, we are all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, for tabling this Question. We all know the considerable expertise and experience that he brings to the subject. Like him, I must begin by declaring an interest as chairman of the National Trust. The National Trust could also be considered a tourist organisation. We have over 270,000 hectares—or in plain

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English 600,000 acres—of land, and associated with it, relevant to tonight's discussion, 190 houses of historic interest, 114 gardens, 62 landscape parks, and so on, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Therefore the "white on brown" signs are certainly useful to us and to our 10 million plus visitors.

Along with English Heritage, the National Trust currently enjoys the special dispensation of not having to consult the local tourist board for approval that our properties should be regarded as tourist attractions in order to qualify for "white on brown" tourism signs. The trust has for many years used its own oak leaf logo on these signs; it has become widely recognised across the country. We have been involved in the Department of Transport's consultation process on this difficult subject for over four years.

With regard to the present proposals, the National Trust, as an organisation responsible under Act of Parliament for landscape conservation, is deeply concerned about the proposed dramatic expansion in the eligibility criteria. The noble Lord, Lord Montagu, listed them: cinemas; hotels; B&Bs; restaurants; retail establishments, and so on. We, too, have no doubt that the ensuing proliferation of signs will have a dramatic and detrimental effect on the appearance of our countryside.

For example, the Department of Transport's circular of 3rd April states:

    "Local authorities now have"—

I assume this means that it "would have"—

    "much more flexibility to consider applications. In response to last year's consultation national qualifying criteria (such as minimum visitor numbers) have been abolished. Other qualifying criteria imposed by Circular Roads 1/91, such as only allowing signs from the nearest A or B road, and requiring attractions to be open for one year, have also been abolished. The Department expects that under the proposed new arrangements all reasonable requests for signs will normally be met".

This proliferation will be especially serious in designated areas such as national parks and AONBs, as the noble Lord mentioned, but it would also be deplorable in the open landscape as a whole. The chief planning officer of the Lake District Planning Board has commented that,

    "visitors to the area both from this country and abroad frequently remark on how attractive the Lake District is because of the absence of unnecessary signs. Inevitably that will change if the proposed amendments go ahead and it is not inconceivable, for example, to envisage twenty or more signs on the Crook Road to Bowness advertising the presence of hotels, pubs, caravan parks, camp sites and bed and breakfast establishments. The cumulative effect over the whole of the Park would be devastating".

As someone who has his home in the Lake District, all I can say is "Hear, hear". He knows what he is talking about. I think that it would be quite appalling.

It should be a matter of pride that, thanks to sensible controls, our countryside has hitherto not been disfigured by the plethora of notices and signs which confront the visitor in many overseas countries.

If we are to enter a world of visual free-for-all, to use the noble Lord's phrase—because that is what it seems to amount to—the only controlling bodies will be individual highway authorities. Surely it would be wise to make the erection of those signs subject to the normal planning process as well.

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We consider that the proposed liberalisation of signing is a passport to declining standards of design and taste. The removal of proper vetting standards and restrictions is in our view certain to lead to inconsistency and, in many cases, shoddy and inappropriate signs. Moreover, the prospect of plans for the grouping of establishments on a single sign is not encouraging. Already many places bear a multiplicity of signs of different shapes, sizes, colours and significance, to the confusion of the motorist or visitor, rather than to clarification. To make an already cluttered situation worse is a short-sighted and unwise policy.

We particularly regret the removal of tourist boards from the approval process. The tourist boards have accepted some responsibility for promoting environmental objectives as well as those of tourism—a principle also supported by the Government. They are better placed than the highway authorities to insist on some degree of quality and consistency—and this surely is a case where national consistency is important.

The trust is further concerned about the proposed definition of a "tourist attraction" as one which is,

    "open to the public without prior booking during its normal opening hours."

The trust maintains a number of properties where such visiting patterns are not practicable but where it is still important to ensure that adequate signing is provided.

One of the worst aspects of our urban environment as we approach the millennium is visual clutter in our streets. The proliferation of signs, of instructions, or mandatory injunctions is particularly intrusive and offensive. Perhaps they may be necessary in our towns but, for heaven's sake, let us not compound the situation by allowing this awful contagion to spread unnecessarily to our wonderful countryside.

What the department is proposing seems to me to cut right across, for example, the good work it is increasingly doing to harmonise and design our roads into the landscape. I refer, for example, to its excellent publication The Good Roads Guide published in 1992. Incidentally, it has a whole section on road signs, which I would not have thought was consistent with the proposed policy. What I ask myself is: what does the Department of the Environment think of all this? What is the point of trying to protect our fine countryside from unsightly development if, at a stroke, the essential regulations which control signs in the countryside are so diluted as to make them ineffectual. I submit that that is what the proposals will lead to. I beg the Minister to think again.

6.33 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth: My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, I should declare an interest in that I am a vice-president of RoSPA. I am also on the public policy committee of the Royal Automobile Club.

At the outset, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Montagu and, like the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, remind your Lordships of the immense amount of work that over many years my noble friend has put into the business of tourism, in the promotion of stately homes, and the heritage generally. I doubt whether many Members of your Lordships' House know more about the subject than he does.

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I appreciate the detailed points that have already been made and share those sentiments—but I think that I share them probably to a lesser degree than my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, made clear in their contributions. I give a qualified welcome to the measure because I am basically one who supports deregulation, and this is part of that process.

I share with my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu a sense of misgiving in that the letter from the Department of Transport, starting off the consultation process, is dated 3rd April when the closing date for submissions was 5th May. As has been said, that is a very short response time for the 126 consultees named in the annex to that letter. I have seen a number of the submissions—I shall quote from one or two later. As I said, I am a little worried about that aspect.

I was also a little alarmed when I saw that the draft regulations are dated 29th March. My noble friend the Minister shakes his head, but I have a copy of the draft regulations dated 29th March. I shall be happy afterwards to let my noble friend see it. One might assume that the decision had already been made. But enough about that because the statutory instrument—

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