Surprise choice for transport

This was the headline in a back number of a trade magazine that recently came to our attention. So who was this choice, why the surprise, and when was he or she chosen for transport?

Not in May 2010, when Philip Hammond MP, who had been Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury in opposition, became Secretary of State for Transport in the present government, and when Norman Baker MP, whose interests are said to be civil liberties and environment, became Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Regional and Local Transport). In fact, we have to go back four decades to the general election of 1970, and to an article in Commercial Motor Magazine of 26 June of that year to find the cryptic headline and the answers to our questions.

The article began:

“The Prime Minister’s choice of John Peyton as Minister of Transport is a surprise appointment.

Although a former chairman of the Conservative backbench MPs’ transport committee, Mr Peyton’s preoccupations in recent years have been the coal and steel industries.

His only incursion into the transport field which can immediately be recalled was his sponsorship in 1962 of a Bill to amend the road vehicle licensing laws to enable a group of people to legally hire a taxi to take them to work …”

Mr Peyton however had a pivotal role in creating today’s measurement muddle – it was he who accepted Transport Ministry officials’ advice that the changeover of road traffic signs should be postponed. Later in 1972 , there was a Ministerial statement which said that “the Government had no alternative date in mind” for the changeover of road signs. This is perhaps the first example of a lack of joined-up government policy on measurement units involving the UK Department for Transport (DfT).

Mr Peyton’s lack of vision in 1972 is disappointing but perhaps understandable, given the absence at that time of obvious progress with the post-war metric transition, either in the UK or around the world. For example:

  • UK chemist shops and pharmacies had changed to dispensing medicines in metric measures in 1968, and grains, scruples and drachms had been consigned to history. This change could easily have escaped most people’s attention.
  • The construction industry had begun to design new projects in metric in 1969, but few of these would have seen the light of day three years later.
  • Most UK manufacturing industries, including the motor industry, were users of pound inch units, as were shipyards and the aerospace industry.
  • There were still forty or so non-metric countries around the world, including most Commonwealth countries.
  • The Apollo program (1963-75), which had sent men to the Moon from Cape Kennedy (with inch spanners) was still fresh in people’s minds.

Forty years on, there has been a dramatic change:

  • Our shopping basket has gone metric, from packaging of groceries to the weighing of loose fruit and veg. And much else in the high streets and retail parks, from carpets to kitchens, is also described or priced in metric measures.
  • The successful metric transition of the UK construction industry has enabled our architects and design engineers to establish a major presence in world markets.
  • Our motor industry, now dominated by foreign-owned firms such as BMW, Honda and Toyota, is metric and a major UK employer and exporter.
  • Shipbuilding, which was slow to adopt metric measures, has become a shadow of its former self.
  • Our aerospace industry is dominated by Airbus maker EADS, which now rivals Boeing.
  • Fewer than 5 countries around the world have not adopted metric as their primary system of measurement.
  • The US Space Shuttle has been taken out of service, and astronauts now travel to and from the international space station in a Russian-built Soyuz rockets, widely considered the world’s safest, most cost-effective human space flight system.

So do Peyton’s successors today take a different view on the matter of joined-up government policy on measurement units? You might expect so, but you would be wrong.

In June 2010, when a proposal for dual marking of height and width restrictions came before Philip Hammond, he said:

“Today I am scrapping Labour’s plans to force councils to spend £2 million changing road signs to include metric measurements.”

In fact, this change would have saved money, and Hammond’s decision appears both irrational and perverse.

And then Norman Baker. when replying to an enquiry forwarded to him by an MP from a constituent, said only last week:

“ … there are no plans to change the law to allow the conversion of traffic signs in Great Britain to metric measurements.”

So it would seem that the ghost of that surprise choice, Mr Peyton, lives on at the DfT, influencing its policy on joined-up government in relation to measurement units. Indeed, it has been said that there are now only three domains in the world not committed to a metric transition: Burma, Liberia and the UK DfT.

And the United States? The USA has been committed since the mid 1970s to the transition from US customary to metric units for most purposes. But it is also committed to the freedom of key players to do nothing, thereby demonstrating once again the futility of this approach – see the Metric Views article on the 1862 Select Committee report.

The Commercial Motor article of June 1970 concluded by saying that Mr Peyton would draw a salary of £8500 as Minister of Transport. So there is at least one thing that has changed at the Transport Department over the past forty years.

10 thoughts on “Surprise choice for transport”

  1. While I hold no brief for the DfT I don’t think we should blame them entirely for the 1970 decision to postpone indefinitely the metrication of road signs. John Peyton, Minister for Transport Industries, was actually under pressure from backbench MPs in his own Party – notably Kenneth Warren (who had asked the Parliamentary Question) and John Page. Unfortunately, Ted Heath (then Prime Minister), despite his pro-European credentials, took no interest in the issue, and allowed a relatively junior minister effectively to scupper Government policy. The previous Labour Government had set a target of 1973 for converting speed limits, but it appears that the DfT were well behind with preparations. Research at the National Archives has revealed that DfT civil servants seriously discussed whether the 30 MPH speed limit should be converted to 48 km/h (or “KPH” as they put it)! The lack of commitment and serious preparation within the DfT provided cover for what was essentially a political decision to appease the Little Englanders in the Conservative Party and their tabloid cheerleaders. Does this sound familiar?


  2. Serious question, apart from the obvious fact of changing the speed limits from 30 mph to 50km/h, is there more of a sticking point in the legality of increasing the limit from 48 km/h to 50 km/h?

    From your above article: – And then Norman Baker. when replying to an enquiry forwarded to him by an MP from a constituent, said only last week:
    “ … there are no plans to change the law to allow the conversion of traffic signs in Great Britain to metric measurements.”

    In July of this year I also got a reply from my local MP on this matter, quoting the views of DfT. “… Having looked into the issue of road signs for you, I understand that ministers have no plans to adopt the kilometre as the unit of distance on roads in the UK. The Department states that to do so would require the metrication of all traffic signs indicating speed as well as distance, for which diverting funding from high priority areas is not considered justifiable, or indeed desirable. …”
    The last three words are significant I feel.


  3. “The Department states that to do so would require the metrication of all traffic signs indicating speed as well as distance, for which diverting funding from high priority areas is not considered justifiable, or indeed desirable. …”

    Interesting to note the stated need for speed as well as distance signs to make a difference! Also that change to metric is not high priority.

    Burma use traditional measurements, in daily use, that can be expressed by S I equivalents, as well as British Imperial units. However their government has moved towards adopting the S I units as well as Malaysia in that region for economic reasons since 2008.

    Liberia was established by citizens of the United States, as a colony for former slaves. Between 1821 and 1847, by a combination of purchase and conquest, American “Societies” developed the colony “Liberia”. On July 26, 1847, it declared its independence. As a country it does share US customary units of measure.

    The National Bureau of Standards (NBS) made the metric system its standard back in 1964. Since then United States Customary Units have been pegged to the S I Unites. At present we know a metre is divided into 1 000 mm. What most people do not think about is that 1 yard is defined as 914.4 mm, 1 foot is 304.8 mm and an inch is 25.4 mm.
    Both the US and UK have to consider and re think their status towards Metrication not only Burma and Liberia but Jamaica and other West Indies Islands.

    “Every country is somewhere in this process of going metric, some much further along than others.”
    Source and further information:


  4. Since then, there has been little progress toward the objective of converting road signs. In 1989, the UK Government secured a derogation permitting the UK to “fix a date” for this conversion, but there was no indication of what that date might be nor even of when the date would be fixed. Indeed, in response to the publication of “Metric signs ahead” in 2006, the DfT made it clear that it had no plans carry out its obligation, which a spokesperson described as “a waste of taxpayers’ money”.


  5. @BrianAC
    In the US, the Federal government allows speed limits to be set in Customary or metric (although no State uses metric). However the Feds require a Customary speed limit to be a multiple of 5 MPH; a metric limit a multiple of 10 km/h. Therefore conversion can’t be exact. it must be rounded up or down according to this convention. A study may be required to determine which direction it should round. The US has a convention in speed studies that if the 85 %-tile driver exceeds the speed limit, it is set too low and is basically a speed trap for revenue.

    @Ed the Yank
    The US fixed Customary measure to metric standards in 1893 by the Mendenhall Order (slightly different values than today). In 1958, the US participated in a conference of 6 English speaking nations to commonize the relationships for mass and length; the US adopted the agreed (modern) values by law, July 1, 1959, per the Federal Register. I believe the UK used them earlier but formally adopted them 1963/4. The value adopted as common was proposed by our neighbor to the north, Canada, and roughly split the difference between US and UK former values.


  6. Looks like we might have a potential ally.
    The new Transport Secretary wants another review of road signage to remove clutter.

    War on road clutter: Forest of ugly, confusing and potentially dangerous signs to be axed

    Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin claims new signs ‘spring up like weeds’
    Too much information – which is often contradictory – could make accidents more likely
    Campaign to Protect Rural England wants new rules to make it easier to have fewer, smaller signs

    By Ray Massey, Transport Editor

    PUBLISHED: 12:48, 13 November 2012 | UPDATED: 02:43, 14 November 2012

    Comments (192)

    Unnecessary signs which clutter up the roads are to be scrapped.

    They are an ugly, confusing and potentially dangerous blot on the landscape, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said yesterday.

    His promise to sweep them away was welcomed by the Campaign to Protect Rural England and motoring groups including the AA. The CPRE said the focus until now had been on the forest of road signs in urban areas, but the countryside was also being blighted.
    Motoring groups have welcomed plans to rid British roadsides of unnecessary signs

    Motoring groups have welcomed plans to rid British roadsides of unnecessary signs
    Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin will warn that some signs are actually making driving more dangerous. Here are several contradictory and confusing signs on a road in Surrey

    Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin will warn that some signs are actually making driving more dangerous. Here are several contradictory and confusing signs on a road in Surrey

    Ridiculous examples spotted include signs declaring Sign Not In Use and Lane Closed To Ease Congestion.


    Mr McLoughlin, who was speaking at a conference in London organised by the CPRE, said: ‘Too many country roads carry a reminder of how insensitive planners can be to aesthetics.

    ‘Ugly and unnecessary signs clutter up the network. New signs seem to sprout like weeds, without any apparent consideration of what’s already there. Often what we’re left with is not just a blot on the landscape. It’s confusing and potentially dangerous too.

    ‘There are those ‘‘temporary’’ yellow signs saying New Road Layout Ahead that are left to rot for years. Near me in Derbyshire there’s an ugly big sign by a beautiful medieval church that just says: No Footpath. It’s on a small country lane. Of course there isn’t a path. We don’t need a huge sign to tell us that. So I’m determined to do more to sort this out.’
    Two Give Way signs
    Confusing road signs

    Ministers want an end to duplicate, unnecessary signs and those which give drivers conflicting or confusing information

    Mr McLoughlin said a Government review last year had relaxed rules that used to insist on two signs by the road when one would do. Now it was working on revised traffic signs regulations.

    He insisted: ‘The combined effect of these changes will be to give authorities and designers much greater freedom to simplify and use fewer signs at country junctions.

    ‘And I want to make sure that they use it. So my message to highways engineers is: If in doubt, don’t do it. Save your money for something that really matters.’
    The Campaign to Protect Rural England says there is no need for TWO signs pointing towards Stonehenge when the historic site is clearly visible from the A303

    The Campaign to Protect Rural England says there is no need for TWO signs pointing towards Stonehenge when the historic site is clearly visible from the A303
    Examples of confusing signs include this one, when the sign appears to contradict the road ahead

    Examples of confusing signs include this one, when the sign appears to contradict the road ahead

    A CPRE spokesman said: ‘Signage clutter builds up over time without anyone taking responsibility for removing unnecessary signs. Not only does it disfigure the countryside, it also distracts drivers and entails long-term maintenance costs.’

    AA spokesman Paul Watters said: ‘This is long overdue. There’s far too much clutter and it needs tackling.’

    Mr McLoughlin also said the Government was committed to pressing on with the controversial £32billion HS2 high-speed rail plan from London to the Midlands and onwards to the North despite widespread opposition.

    But to mitigate any disruption to rural dwellers on the route he said an independent design panel of experts in architecture, engineering, town planning and transport will look at areas of concern such as stations, bridges and viaducts.

    Has anyone ever worked out how long it takes to read a plethora of signs by the roadside and look for the sign that tells you which lane/junction you need when travelling at say 40 mph? Quite a time I would think so no wonder there are so many accidents and confused drivers taking the wrong lane or missing their junction. Has anyone ever tried to drive from south London to the south west (ie westcountry) across London? It’s a nightmare! Trying to get into the right lane when you don’t know which way you are going because you haven’t had time to stop and read the signs because they are in different places at the side of the road and the traffic flow is too fast and too busy to take your eyes off the road is nigh impossible and should you dare to try to change lanes the traffic behind you let’s you know you are an idiot to even consider it. Hence I unded up actually in Victoria Station and then down by Harrods!! Aaaarrrrrgh!

    Then there are the signs giving you ‘Advance Notice…’ but you havent time to read them and what you have read means you have taken your eyes off the road for quite a long time!

    These signs are put up by car-hating, lefty, council traffic planners with control freak dispositions. What do you expect?

    When I was a kid, I always liked to imagine that the sign “Heavy Plant Crossing” meant a rather obese oak tree struggling across the road, dragging its root behind it. We have bright yellow signs near us that say “right turners give way to oncoming traffic.” A shame that so many motorists never bother to read that though, and they just plough through, regardless.

    Report abuse

    Best one I’ve seen is a man riding a duck going into Porthcawl South Wales ….what does that one mean ????? – melvinolotus , cardiff, United Kingdom, 14/11/2012 12:17——I really hope that you don’t mean that—-the man is drawn on, on the back of the duck on the sign 🙂

    Jolly good. Then they can start on all the awful illegal signs that spring up everywhere and are left for months on end cluttering up the place. eg: barn dance/bingo night/Christmas fayre/firework display/feed the lambs/discount warehouse/cafe/new homes/pick your own/The Red Lion/30 today/boot sale/jumble sale etcetera etcetera. Get rid of them.


  7. Don’t get too excited. Transport Secretaries tend to last only for about a year before they’re shuffled off somewhere else.


  8. Aren’t they all surprises?
    I am still reeling from Earnest (on ‘yer bike) Marples.
    But then, maybe that is what we need now, a minister for transport that owns a road traffic signs company, that has a vested interest in changing all the countries road traffic signs.
    (Marples owned a road and bridge construction company, strangely did very well too. A time of massive road expansion in UK).
    I can see no other way we will get the metrication job done.


  9. The real problem with the UK’s metrication program was that “costs were to be borne where they fell”. The engineering industry were fast off the mark – 21 screw thread (Whitworth, BA etc) were replaced with just 7 thread sizes (and a huge reduction on inventory), the stationery industry were able to half their product range by replacing quarto and foolscap paper with A4 paper. Both sectors pocketed their profits and continue to do so. The market stalls had a different problem – they had to pay to have their scale-pans converted from imperial to metric, but saw no profit in doing that – in fact selling bananas at 25p per lb looked more attractive than selling them at 55p per kg. Finally the DfT wriggled out of their commitments to convert road signs by pleading poverty.
    No wonder things are in such a mess – a total lack of leadership from a government who appear to be more interested in the polls than in good government.


  10. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the Beeching report, which resulted in the closure of a large part of Britain’s railway network and which has been the subject of much unfavourable criticism ever since. Invariably it is Dr Richard Beeching, later Baron Beeching, who receives most of the blame, but we should remember that politicians were in on the action too, in particular Ernest Marples MP. He was the Minister of Transport who recruited Beeching to the advisory group reporting on the finances of the British Transport Commission, who invited him to become the first chairman of the British Railways Board, and who provided enthusiastic support for his proposals, without which they would not have been adopted.

    For much of the past forty years, it has been transport ministers from Peyton onwards, rather the “Dr Beechings” at the Department for Transport, who have been willing to take the credit or blame for the UK road traffic sign fiasco. But I think the real situation has resembled two drunks, that is ministers and officials, leaning against each other as they stagger along and relying on each other for support.


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