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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen): My Lords, perhaps I can help my noble friend. When I reply to the debate I shall be happy to go into this in a little more detail, but we must be clear that the statutory instrument has not been laid. The draft statutory instrument has been consulted upon.
Lord Lucas of Chilworth: My Lords, I did not suggest that it had been laid. What I said was that there is a draft statutory instrumentI have a copy of itwhich is dated 29th March. That is some few days before the invitation to consult went out. One could draw a sinister conclusion, if one so wished.
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend and apologise for intervening again at this stage, but perhaps it might clarify the situation. The point is that that is is what is consulted upon. I should not like the House to get the impression that the consultation is in any way pre-empted.
Lord Lucas of Chilworth: My Lords, I am not going to argue the pitch and toss of that one. Of course, I accept what my noble friend says. In fact, I thought that we were going to consult on the draft circular on tourist signing. All that I am suggesting is that a draft instrument dated 29th March was available whereas the invitation to consult is dated 3rd April, and with that invitation comes the draft circular on tourist signing, which is the matter about which the consultation was to take place. I have spent far too much time on that aspect, but I thought that it was right to make that small point. Perhaps my noble friend can tell us, out of those 126 consultees, how many submissions have been made to date. Most of the submissions that I have seen express a number of serious reservations. All of them express the fear about the proliferation of signing and the relaxed criteria which have been mentioned.
If the decision to grant a sign is to lay with the local highway authority, I have no quarrel with that. They are eminently suitable people. But they will have a delicate balancing act to perform between the genuine tourist need; the understandable desire of those providing tourist facilities to make tourists aware of them, and the third aspect, to which my noble friend Lord Montagu referred, that of the commercial, the hard-nosed greed element.
"The Society strongly disagrees with the Department's recommendation to group establishments on a single sign. Bolting new signs to existing sign arrays is rarely good practice without considerable modification".
The Freight Transport Association, the RAC and the Automobile Association all emphasise the danger that more signs and more directions will bring to road users. There are good reasons for that. We must make sure that, if we are to add new signs, they do what they are meant to do. At the same time, we must look at existing signs and see whether or not we can get rid of some of them. The proliferation of signing will be a real hazard.
I should like the Government to expand on the draft circular and issue guidelines so that there can be a consistency of approach across the country. Above all, as the RAC said in its submission, road safety must be the paramount consideration in the erection of any new signings.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, in adding my tribute to my noble friend Lord Montagu for raising this matter, I wish to underline his immense experience and the contribution he has made to the whole of the world about which we are talking today. I am sure that it will be recognised by everyone.
As chairman of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, I must declare my interest. But if those on the opposite Benches will excuse me, I should like to put this matter into a political context and talk primarily to the Members of my own party, particularly my noble friend who is to reply, and remind them of what the Conservative Party stands for. It is totally relevant to this proposal.
The central role of the state is to protect the citizen; to protect the employee; to protect householders; to protect consumers; to protect investors; and, more recently, it has been increasingly recognised, to protect the environment. That is one of the main roles of the state in the context of Tory philosophy. Having said thatand on this point I may not wholly receive the agreement of all Members of the party oppositeI am an enthusiastic deregulator. I do not believe that there should be any unnecessary regulation. I am well aware that regulations can grow into pernicious little empires which hassle other people.
But this proposal is peculiarly ill-founded. I hope that the Government recognise that the countryside is an important part of our environment. In this country we can be extremely proud of our success, particularly in comparison with other countries, in the way in which we protect our countryside. England is still extremely beautiful. Its protection is rooted firmly in the planning system.
I have no difficulty or hesitation in paying tribute to the Labour Party and the Labour GovernmentI hope my noble friend is not looking too astonished and surprisedof 1945 to 1951, which laid the foundation of the planning system which has enabled our countryside to survive in the way it has. It is a system which has since been refined. But we must be extremely careful before we interfere in a way that leads us to take a backwards step. I particularly regret that the noble Lord, Lord Barber, is not present this evening. He authorised me to say that he very much agrees with my opposition to this proposal.
I want to make another slightly political point. I am aware, because my noble friend Lord Astor wrote it in a letter, that my honourable friend the Member for Harwich, Mr. Sproat, is the person responsible for the proposal. But may I remind the Government of the considerable difficulty my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding had, as Secretary of State for the Environment in the early 1980s, when he put forward some tentative proposalsI do not blame his integrity in putting them forward, though I may question his judgmentto mess about with the green belt? He had to withdraw them in confusion. That is a lesson the Government should have learnt.
These proposals will be thoroughly provocative to many people on whom the Government should depend. What particularly worries me, though it is supposed to be a consultative document and, like other noble Lords, I deplore the unnecessarily short period of consultation that has been given, is that in writing to Mr. Ian Bruce, MP, on this subject, my noble friend Lord Astor concluded,
I hope that the Government are not prejudging this issue. I hope that the consultation is genuine. I have a lot of time for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport and have had the opportunity of raising this matter with him at a meeting in this building. He made it clear that if the reaction against the proposal was as I said I felt it would be, then the Government would take action accordingly. I hope that that will be the case.
The idea behind the proposal appears to be to put policy in the hands of local authorities and allow them to decide what signs there should be. We know that local authorities themselves do not want that. Their reaction is in general against the change put forward by the Government. I do not believe that it is fair to trust local authorities to withstand local planning pressures; that is, applications for signs that may be thoroughly undesirable. Nor do I believe that what the Government put forward is consistent with what they have said in other areas. For example, in Planning Policy Guidance Note 21 the Government supported their tourism task force's document Maintaining the Balance published in 1991.
My right honourable friend and my MP, Mr. Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environmentfor whom I have the highest regardin a paper published last year spoke of the need to improve our surroundings and to conserve and enhance the environment of town and country. The document to which he provided the introduction said that the design and use of roads and the impact of parking signs and roadside furniture all affected the quality of an area. He even went on to say that local people could identify surplus signs that might usefully be removed.
I believe that there is much to be done in the opposite direction to that set out in these proposals. I mentioned to my noble friend yesterday that I wished to raise two points. He may say that they are not wholly relevant to these regulations, but they are certainly relevant to the spirit of them. I take the example of a road I know well: the A.12 Witham bypass. In that rather attractive part of Essex there is a plethora of large hoardings along the side of the A.12 road, the hedge having been cut down to reveal them. I am told that they result from a dispute between Braintree District Council and Essex County Council. That may not matter very much, but it is illustrative of the kind of thing which we do not want and which can happen, even under the present regulations, when the matter of signing and advertising is left wholly to local authorities.
Those who have already heard of these regulationsthey are relatively few in numberhave almost universally reacted angrily to them. But I suggest that that anger is as nothing to what will happen if the countryside begins to be despoiled in the way we know has occurred in other countries. One of the painful rules of politics is that you may not intend to give the wrong impression or to do something, but perception is reality. I believe that it is extremely unfortunate that the Government have even brought forward these proposals.
Lord Broadbridge: My Lords, I too would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, for bringing forward this important matter this evening. I suppose that most of us, together with members of our families and friends, spend a lot of time driving through unfamiliar territory. I have no sense of direction and no bump of locality and so I am permanently bewildered and rely a great deal on signs.
In principle, I am in favour of some liberalisation, but very much provided that certain elephant traps along the road to this desirable result are avoided. Road signs have been with us in Britain since the Roman occupation, but they have become crucial because of the increasing speed and particularly the exponential increase in the volume of
The first area in which the current proposals may be thought to be deficient is that of eligibility for signing. The definition of a visitor attraction is imprecise and will cause considerable confusion as regards the type of attraction that may be eligible for signs. The presently proposed definition is likely to lead to signs for anything and everything, as several noble Lords have said already. I believe that that is called information overload.
In March my wife and I were driven extensively around Dublin. We saw for ourselves the results of too much information. Having to read a long list at some speed in heavy traffic puts the driver in an extremely dangerous situation of inattention to other vehicles, particularly cyclists. Surely, after listing essentials such as city centres, railway stations, hospitals and the like, the criterion in most areas should be a relationship to the popularity of the attraction or facility. It is hard cheese on less visited attractions, but I believe that they should in their advertisements, literature and related material make plain to visitors how they can be reached. In this way, forests of signs, as can be seen in the Republic of Ireland, will be avoided, satisfying both aesthetic and safety considerations.
But the essential step in all this is first to make a plan and to decide such questions at that stage as to whether an attraction is signed at all, with the onus on the attraction to make representations, how early on it is to be signed, if that is the case, and so on. An exception perhaps in lightly trafficked areas may be remote or awkward destinations, such as hotels, inns, camping sites and the like, where no danger of proliferation, and hence confusion, prevails.
Common sense seems to be the best aid, perhaps guided by traffic statistics. People and organisations should be given some idea of how soon they may expect a sign or signs to be erected, on which the circular is silent, with a suitable explanation if their application is refused. The consultation circular is notably silent on the environmental impact of signs. I have a strong personal preference for placing signs high up and making them of durable materials. Why high up? Perhaps my preference springs from living in the republic of Islington. We live in the age of the graffiti artist. While it is a matter of balance, from an environmental point of view I prefer to see a pristine sign well raised up than a shabby, overwritten one
The use of symbols is self-evidently useful in space saving and legibility to those who hurry past, provided that the department authorises all symbols and they are nationally coherent. There are already many such examples: British Rail and Underground station logos, H for hospitals, the outline of a building for an historic house and so on. Others may usefully be introduced after research. The general road traffic signage that we have been familiar with for years relies almost entirely on symbols alone, alas often much too close together. There is an argument for the spacing out of roadside information, especially with the night driver in mind.
There must be exceptions for perhaps less common signs, such as the words "side winds" which appear under a windsock on motorways. The most intriguing one that I have come across on this theme is a sign beside the Suez Canal, where words really are necessary. It reads "Please dip your headlights to oncoming shipping". Colour also has its part to play. I believe that the habit, or policy, that has grown up of signing subsidiary destinations in brown and white is a good one. It is an easy visual separation to make from the more important road traffic management signs, which are mainly coloured black and/or red on a white background.
In conclusion, I believe in some liberalisation provided a first step is the construction of a comprehensive signing plan. In this way we shall, it is to be hoped, avoid confusion, a reduction in the quality of information, and forests of signs leading to environmental degradation and traffic hazard. Relying on the chaotic alternative might lead to the action summarised by the last words of a short story by the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock:
Lord Mountevans: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu for the opportunity to discuss deregulation of tourism signposting. I find it slightly saddening that, while strongly supporting deregulation, as many of us do, and indeed as much of the tourism industry does, that tourism industry, in which I declare an interest, shares many of the concerns expressed all round the House this evening.
I welcome the fact that the range of tourism businesses allowed to apply for white on brown signs is being widened. Of course tourism attractions and facilities should be given every opportunity to promote their products. But the present criteria, requiring a specified volume of visitors, tourist board vetting and local highway authority administration, have, as my noble friend Lord Montagu reminded us, proved a little
On the one hand, tourists, British and foreign, regard these signs as a seal of approval, a good housekeeping endorsement, an indication that the product or facility fulfils certain quality criteria. But if we go for blanket deregulation as presently proposed, it seems that ability to pay for signposting would become the only criterion for any business applying for a sign in England. Suitability or relevance to visitors would go by the board. The number of signs we couldeven wouldcome across would become limitless and, far from being helpful, would detract from the environment which tourists want to experience, could certainly be confusing and could, very importantly to me, be detrimental to road safety.
We should, of course, be going for some measure of deregulation in this field. But may I suggest a number of criteria which I hope will be taken into account before an order eventually comes before Parliament.
First, with regard to minimum quality criteria, facilities granted signs should in future, as now, meet visitor rather than purely local needs, as well as meeting statutory tourist board standards and codes of practice. Secondly, I would very much hope that there would be a Britain-wide and consistent approach to signage, even though we are discussing only England and perhaps Wales tonight. Although tonight's Question deals only with those two countries, may I pay tribute to the Scottish concept of grouping relevant signs together. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, touched on that point. I also pay tribute to a modest fingerpost which is at the bottom of Bridge Street as one goes into Parliament Squareso modest that many noble Lords may not have noticed it. But it draws attention to all the major attractionsthey are national attractionsin this neighbourhood which the tourist may wish to visit. In their ways both the Scottish and the Westminster fingerposts are examples of best practice and should not be overlooked in our future consultation. They are appropriate to visitor needs as well as to environmental ones in the areas in which they are sited.
Thirdly, I should like to see authorities guided at a national level. I appreciate that we are discussing a DoT subject tonight, but I feel that we need something akin to a PPG as to the planning issues. Beyond that I would like to see consultation with both facility providers and the tourist boards.
Fourthly, I would remind the Department of Transport that there is already a compendium of tourism symbols published by the British Tourist Authority and evolved by it over many years. It has the agreement of the English Tourist Board, the Scottish Tourist Board, the Wales Tourist Board, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and the Countryside Commission and promotes symbolsor pictogramswhich also enjoy the endorsement of the British Standards Institution and the ISO. As we are talking considerably of an international business, I believe that international standards should be followed.
I have expressed a number of my concerns. I have touched on the environment, on the quality of attractions, on safety and on suitability. But my real concern is that, in going for total deregulation, we are
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, for opening this debate. I agree strongly with the view of other noble Lords that a proliferation of signs along country roads or within towns is not desirable either on environmental or on safety grounds. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, seemed to be veering away at one point from his very natural and deep concern for safety but later in his speech he emphasised very forcefully the requirements of safety, so I do not feel that I need repeat all the excellent points that he made.
Surely the Government do not wish England to follow in the steps of the United States and, more recently, of France where every small town is surrounded by forests of signs which totally obscure such things as street names and direction signs put up to assist travellers in moving through or around the town. We cannot wish to encourage that. We have heard from noble Lords who have spoken with knowledge of the national parks. A large part of the county from which I come is covered by areas of outstanding natural beauty or outstanding landscape value. We all share with the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, the feeling that we do not wish these beautiful parts of our country to be despoiled by signs.
How does the proposed approach serve the Government's countryside policy? Why has the Department of Transport apparently abandoned its former opposition to a proliferation of signs on or near roads? I am disturbed by the presumption that local authorities will grant all reasonable requests for new signs which, combined with the relaxed criteria for determining which organisations can make such requests, involves the danger that the protective approach to the countryside adopted by many local authorities, including my own, an approach enthusiastically endorsed by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, will be swamped and overcome.
On the other hand, local authorities and the national parks have a proper interest in the maintenance of the local economy. That is true even in rural areas. Problems can arise when, for example, local shops, pubs or tea shops, which have had a modest tourist trade over a long period, are bypassed by a new road. One thinks also of good but smaller tourist attractions which cannot meet the visitor numbers required by current legislation but which nevertheless have a more than purely local interest. For example, I, as a resident, have an interest in trying to get to a large
A properly developed and nationally authorised system of pictorial signs or symbols would also assist local authorities who wish to establish such a lower hierarchy of signage to places of local interest. It would very much reduce the amount of space that any such new signs would take up. One can imagine a pink sign, which is not a colour used by the Department of Transport. It could have on it a teacup, a windmill, or whatever, located where one of the excellent brown signs we have all learnt to follow would normally stand.
I do not believe that the Government should do what they propose. Some relaxation of the current criteria, however, might avoid the sort of conflict to which a noble Lord referredthat is to say, that which applies to Braintree and Essex County Council. As I understood the reference, that is precisely the situation where the local district council wishes to encourage the local economy, which is one of the duties laid on it. The county council says, "You cannot do that; you cannot put up those signs along the road because that does not agree with our policy or national policy". So the signs are put in a private field along the hedgerow. It is precisely that sort of proliferation I am anxious to avoid by allowing local authorities greater freedom to, first, determine what sort of local places of interest should be signed and, secondly, to rigidly control the type of sign which is put up. We cannot have masses of different signs whether on one or 15 sticks. There is no difference with 15 signs on one stick because they are just as confusing, particularly if they are all prepared in different ways. For example, there may be the logo of the little craft shop on one and a copy of the local pub sign on another. Such an arrangement of signs would be very difficult for anyone to follow and extremely distracting from the point of view of safety.
I hope that the Minister will consider allowing local authorities to combine both their role as supporter of the local economy and as protector of the countryside and of road safety by instituting further discussions as to how one can lay down nationally agreed but reasonably flexible rules for a second rank of tourist signing. I see the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, nodding his head gently in my direction. That might prove to be acceptable to a wide number of people.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I, like other Members of this House, join those who have already congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, on initiating this important debate. It may be that the Minister feels a little set upon. There has been not a word of commendation for what the Government are seeking to do, at least as far as the detail is concerned. What emerges from this debate is that this House and everybody who has spoken will be expecting from the Minister an assurance that the consultation period, which is much too short, will be extended and that the Government will think seriously about the draft statutory instrument which has been published, if not laid.
I can understand why the Government wanted to consult about this. We have here a massive document of several hundred pages and full of detail. Why did the Government not say more specifically that this was a consultation document? They should have said so. However, maybe that is not an important point because in his intervention the Minister said that this is a consultation document. Let us have an assurance from the Minister tonight that the Government are in fact entering into these consultations in a thoroughly bona fide way.
I want to know why the consultation period was designated as one month. Was that reasonable in the circumstances? Why the rush? If there is some need for this very substantial changeand the burden of proof rests fairly and squarely on the Government herewhy do they have to limit the consultation period to one month? The Government have to discharge the assertion that there is an overly bureaucratic system currently in force. We had all this during the debates on the deregulation Bill. Nobody wants unnecessary bureaucracy. One wants to sweep aside unnecessary red tape.
The main charge which has been made in the course of this debate is that there is a real fear, not simply on the part of individuals, but on the part of reputable organisations dealing with tourism, the environment and safety, that the situation that could emerge under the Government's proposals could lead to a serious degradation of environmental and safety standards which would impact badly on tourism. Those are charges which are not lightly laid.
The noble Viscount is a thoroughly reasonable Minister whom we all like and admire. But we shall like and admire him that much more if he makes a positive response to the criticisms that have been made that he will discuss with his colleaguesthis is not one of his responsibilitiesways and means of ensuring that the process of consultation will be real and that the period will be extended. Perhaps he will also be kind enough to say who actually supports the proposals. Most people have said in their responses that they want some relaxation of the regulations, and that is as far as they go. Then the criticisms really come with great force.
Far from making the situation easier for tourists and drivers, it will be much more confusing if deregulation were to take full effect. Is the Minister satisfied that the application procedures required, and the criteria set out, are in any sense adequate? What are the guidelines to be inserted here? What is the key information that will be required? Does he believe that there should be nationally defined common criteria? What would be the situation if adjoining highway authorities were to adopt different criteria? Those are the questions, with the others that have been put during the debate, with which the Minister must deal.
How does all this stand alongside our system of planning control? I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for the remarks he made about the Labour Government of 1945-51 and the impetus they gave to proper planning procedures. I was interested in his philosophic meanderings on the subject of the Conservative Party. I suppose it needs something like that. It does not have much going for it at the moment, and perhaps it should refer to the noble Lord for further advice. I am not sure that would do it much good either.
The debate has shown that there is great disquiet about this situation on all sides of the House. I hope that the Minister will tell his Secretary of State that we are not satisfied with what the Government have produced.
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Montagu for raising this important subject and for giving us the benefit of his considerable experience in the tourism field. I shall explain in more detail the proposals which have been put forward, but I should like to start by answering a number of criticisms made by noble Lords about the consultation exercise. I can give a categorical assurance that this is not a fait accompli; the decisions have not been made; the consultation exercise is an entirely bona fide one; and the responses to that consultation exercise, and indeed to the sentiments expressed in your Lordships' House this evening, will be fully taken into account.
That having been said, I was also pleased to hear the general recognition of the value of deregulation and the feeling that a relaxation of the current prescriptive rules is due. There has been a considerable difference on the question of degree. As ever, we must try to seek the correct balance. There has been a considerable thrust for this type of deregulation from a number of sectors in the tourism industry. That is worth pointing out to balance the counter-arguments which have been expressed strongly this evening.
The question asked by my noble friend refers to the regulations governing road signs and the consequences of sign proliferation in general. I believe noble Lords have generally accepted that this was prompted by our current proposals for a relaxation of the policy on signing tourist destinations and facilities. I should like to emphasise that our proposals relate only to extending the use of white and brown traffic signs to a wider range of destinations and facilities.
Under the Road Traffic Regulation Act, the design of all traffic signs must conform with regulations made jointly by the Secretaries of State for Transport, Wales and Scotland or be specially authorised by the Secretary of State. The placing of individual signs is the responsibility of the relevant highway authority. All local highway authorities have a statutory duty to ensure that signs are safe and to have regard to the effect of particular signs on local amenity. It is important to note that the existing regulations do not place any limit on the number of traffic signs that can be erected for any purpose. That is left to the decision of the local highway authority in the light of local road conditions.
We have discussed safety. My noble friend Lord Lucas and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, commented on that issue in particular. Again, it is worth recognising that the 1994 regulations give local highway authorities a great deal of flexibility in the detailed design of direction signs. In particular, there is no restriction on the type of destination that can be named on black and white local direction signs. In other words, the statutory provision for controlling sign proliferation is the general requirement in the Road Traffic Regulation Act for local highway authorities to ensure that signs are safe and to have, as I said, regard to local amenity. That is the control that is used at the moment to stop sign proliferation, and it will continue to be the control used to stop sign proliferation. The regulations are of course supplemented by Department of Transport guidance and advice.
The effects of the draft statutory instrumentI apologise to my noble friend for interrupting him at an early stage in the debate, but I must emphasise that this is a draft statutory instrumentare to extend the range of destinations that can be signed with white and brown signs and the range of symbols that can be included on tourist facility signs and to reintroduce the use of white and brown signs to indicate the facilities available in bypassed communities. An issue that has not been mentioned this evening is the value of indicating facilities that are available in villages or small towns that have been bypassed. We are increasingly seeing smaller conurbations being bypassed to relieve traffic pressures on them.
As the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, said, the definition of a tourist attraction eligible for white and brown signs would be amended under the proposals to remove the requirement for tourist board recognition and to remove the prohibition on using white and brown signs for establishments engaged primarily in retailing and catering. The arguments put forward against amending the traffic signs regulations fall into two rather different categories. The first is the argument that allowing the use of these signs for a wider range of establishments
Our proposals emphasise the need to ensure the safety of particular signs rather than to consider applications on the basis of inflexible general assumptions. There is no reason to suppose that the use of white and brown signs will be less safe, or more damaging to the environment, than black and white signs. The use of white and brown signs allows drivers to identify at a glance the types of destination being signed. Research suggests that drivers are likely to look for details on white and brown signs only if they are looking for tourist information. In other words, the message put across is that the white and brown sign is tourist information and not for general directional purposes. That is an important point when considering the question of the overload of information on the driver.
Also, when we consulted last year on the principle of deregulation, we received representations that the provision of clear and well-designed traffic signs could do more to help traffic and local businesses in a safe and environmentally acceptable way than the many, often unofficial, directional advertisements found on hoardings or parked vehicles in fields beside the road.
That was the point my noble friend Lord Marlesford was making when he expressed his concern about garage signs, for instance, in fields and possibly illegal signs erected on the highway.
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