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Time and no-motion studies
WHAT endears Mr Fred Mulley most to the road transport industry is that he is no ball of fire determined to emblazon his name on the Statute Book whatever the consequences. His most welcome comment at the annual dinner of the Freight Transport Association last week was that the industry deserved a breathing space.
He added that only a very rash politician would declare "unilaterally that we had reached the end of legislation in this field". He could hardly have said less. His admirers will be disappointed if they do not have a long spell of comparative quiet under his benevolent patronage and that of his own patron, Mr Anthony Crosland.
Not that Mr Mulley's political opponents will let him earn his Ministerial salary in peace. They believe in keeping him on his Parliamentary toes, sometimes with odd results. Humorists whose aim is to parody the politicians must find their task made more difficult by the fact that the politicians will often do the job so much better themselves.
THE following interchange at question time in the House of Commons the other day provides a good example: Mr William Price asked the Minister of Transport what was the total expenditure on road building between 1965 and 1969, inclusive; and what was the total for the period 1960 to 1965, inclusive.
Mr Mulley: For the five years up to March, 1970, expenditure in England totalled £1,180m and for the preceding five financial years, £501m.
Mr Price: Is that not a remarkable set of figures? Does it not demolish once and for all the myth put round by the Tories and their associates in the motor organizations that in some way this Government have cut back road building?
Mr Mulley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. (Interruption) I should have thought that anyone who travelled round the country would have seen the evidence with their eyes and would have discounted the propaganda that certain organizations are putting out. Mr Michael Heseltine: lam sure the House will agree that the Minister answered his own Question extremely well.
Mr Price: On a point of order.
Mr Speaker: Order. I regret to have to take points of order during Question Time.
Mr Price: A serious suggestion has been made—that in some way the Minister answered his own Question. Can you advise me how I can refute a lie?
Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must withdraw the word "lie."
Mr Heifer: Why? The hon. Gentleman said it.
Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must withdraw the word "lie". It is not in order to accuse an hon. Member of telling a lie. . . .
There was a good deal more in the same strain. In the course of further exchanges Mr Mulley made what he described as a "serious" confession. Until the question was put down, he said, it had never occurred to him to get the sums done and he was very impressed when he saw the figures. He agreed with Mr Heseltine that plans on which roads were built were produced many years before the roads themselves; but, he continued, "there is a great difference between drawing a line on a map and organizing and finding the money for the building of roads."
Clearly both of the major political parties would like to claim credit for spending the money. Road-building is an approved item of expenditure like housing and education. One cannot have too much of it.
Where the roads ought to be built is a different subject. The struggle over the road development plans of the Greater London Council will continue in spite of the poor showing of the Homes before Roads candidates in the recent local elections. The paradoxical situation is reached where everybody would like more money to be spent on roads provided they are sited somewhere else.
LTHOUGH the public inquiry is hold ing events back a little, Mr Mulley may yet have to reach a decision on London's roads. In other controversial fields there are all kinds of other devices for postponement. Fashionable for some time has been the cost-benefit study. This was the incantation that Mr Mulley used in another recent Parliamentary answer to exorcise the troublesome proposal for increasing the maximum permitted weights of lorries.
The subject might be quietly dropped were it not for the extraordinary number of socalled amenity organizations that have sprung to arms to oppose it. Mr Mulley seems to like them no more than he likes the interests supposedly dedicated to the promotion of the heavier lorry at all costs and no benefits.
There were some people, he said at the FTA dinner, who would ban the internal combustion engine, or at least its commercial use, by an emotive phrase like "noisy and smelly monsters". At the other extreme were those who judged the issues entirely in terms of "simple operating economies and ton-mile costs with no regard to the intangible factors involved—pollution, road congestion, safety, amenity and working conditions".
Both extreme views are wrong in Mr Mulley's opinion. To the Minister in the middle they arc also uncomfortable and it was a good idea to adopt from the Royal Institute of British Architects the suggestion of a cost-benefit analysis, expecially as the RIBA wants it to be "objective" and at the same time to be financed by the vehicle manufacturers. We should all be pleased if somebody else could be made to pay for the investigations we demanded. It is a simple matter of your cost and our benefit.
HERE are other advantages. In the first place, as Mr Mulley with endearing simplicity told the House of Commons, the setting up of the study explains "why the matter is taking time". In addition—or at least this is the suspicion that may arise— a cost-benefit study can often be made to produce whatever result is required. It was Mr Miley himself who pointed out that so many of the relevant factors were "intangible".
It seems neither to have occurred to Mrs Barbara Castle nor to Mr Mulley that a cost-benefit study would have been appropriate, for example, to operators' licensing, to the reduction in permitted driving hours or to the licensing of transport managers. Road safety, which is only one of several "intangible factors" where heavier vehicles are concerned, was, as Mr Mulley told the FTA, the "single basic objective" of the Transport Act.
Mrs Castle was personally and substantially involved in this piece of legislation. To have suggested a cost-benefit study or any other form of public or private inquiry would have been answered with the contempt that it possibly deserved. Nobody even dared to hint that there might be an advantage in examining the good and bad effects of that other previous massive transport statute, the Transport Act of 1947.
It is not clear what the relationship will be between the cost-benefit study on heavier vehicles and the working party that has been considering the subject for some little time. Yet another working party has now been formed to examine the problem of lorry .parks. The intention is, in Mr Mulley's phrase, to make a detailed assessment of their "economic viability," which is presumably a different thing from their cost benefit.
The distinction need not cause much searching of hearts or of dictionaries. The amenity bloodhounds will soon be on the scent when they learn of the proposal to disfigure England's green and pleasant land with enormous and unsightly lorry parks. The way will be open for yet another costbenefit study which will make it possible to keep the problem on ice for a few more years.