§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Sir G. Hennessy.]
§ 11.0 p.m.
§ Mr. TOWNEND
I desire the indulgence of the House while I raise, briefly, a matter which I submitted at Question Time a few days ago to the Postmaster-General. On that occasion, I asked the right hon. Gentleman if he had conferred with the local authority at Sale in regard to the objections they took to the action his Department had taken in the matter of the post office there, and in answer he indicated that the representations made by the local authority had been fully considered by his Department. I want to suggest that quite unintentionally the 173 answer given by the right hon. Gentleman did not fully agree with the facts. Perhaps he has not the same information as I have, because I feel confident that had he had this information there is not the slightest doubt that the very definite attitude he has taken would have been considerably softened. The facts are these. Some 12 months ago a rumour got abroad that the Post Office proposed to transfer the post office at Sale across the highway, where at present it stands; and at once a certain contingency arose in the mind of the urban district council which they felt should be brought to the notice of the right hon. Gentleman's Department. They, therefore, got in touch with the district office in Manchester, and desired to be allowed to submit their opinions in respect of this change. They were informed—it is now about 12 months ago—that at that time there was no need for them to submit the information which they desired to place before the Post Office authorities.
That is the point that I desire to emphasise now. A couple of months later, having heard nothing from the Department, they repeated their desire that a deputation should see the Minister, and were amazed to discover, without having been given the opportunity they desired, that the right hon. Gentleman's Department had come to a decision without full knowledge of the local circumstances of the case, and had acquired, for the purposes of extension, a building on a site of the highway opposite to that on which the present Post Office stands—a property known as Abbotsford. This seemed to the local authority to be rather unusual action—I put it no further than that—in view of what they desired to submit to the Postmaster-General. The position is not quite as simple as it appears. The highway upon which the Post Office stands is a very important one. It leads from the thickly populated industrial area of South-East Lancashire to the Cheshire Plain and the North Wales district, which are very largely the recreation ground, particularly during week-ends, of that highly industrialised area. When I say that each Saturday and Sunday, when the largest volume of traffic passes, at least 20,000 fast moving motor vehicles go over that highway, the House can understand the risk that is 174 involved in asking the population of Sale, numbering something like 18,000, to cross the road to obtain the postal facilities of the district. One can quite appreciate the apprehension——
§ Notice taken that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members being present——
§ Mr. TOWNEND
As I was saying, the highway along which this traffic passes is the highway which the Postmaster-General desires the population of Sale to traverse, for the purpose of getting postal facilities. There is a further point which I desire to emphasise. The site of the present post office is practically face to face with the proposed site of the new post office and on either side of the proposed site lies a district constituting what is locally known as "the death trap." When I inform the Postmaster-General that on every day of the year there is an accident resulting in injury or death as a result of the heavy motor traffic at this point, he may begin to understand the apprehensions of the local authority. Up to now, despite repeated applications, he has declined to receive a deputation. It is true that Sale is growing, and that the growth of the district has been on the Sale side of the highway; and if there was no alternative to the existing post office arrangement, except that proposed by the right hon. Gentleman, of course there would be nothing further to be said. But there are two other suggestions which the right hon. Gentleman ought to consider. When I submitted this matter to the Noble Lord, the Assistant Postmaster-General, he appeared to be impressed by the facts which I brought to his notice and he seemed to feel that even though a decision had been taken there was a case for reconsideration of the matter.
I suggested as one alternative an extension of the property which the Post Office at present possesses there—an alternative which I believe lies within the power of the Postmaster-General. There is also a site known as the Claremont Road site, which has been suggested to the right hon. Gentleman's Department either by myself or in correspondence by the Sale local authority. The Claremont Road site is still available, and, although it might cost a little more money, it ought to be considered. The reply from the Post Office to our 175 suggestion indicates that the site might involve an additional £3,000 for extended cables. Surely, if a decision has to be made, as between an expenditure of £3,000 and the highly increased risk to life and limb involved in the present proposal, the right hon. Gentleman will not show any hesitation. I am sure he is not hard-hearted and that he is fully alive to the rights of the population in that district; and I am confident that if he were to ask this House for £3,000 to meet this increased expenditure and to enable him to reconsider this decision, it would be readily granted. It is the question of the possible risk to life and limb involved in this change and that question only, which has prompted the local authority all along to ask the right hon. Gentleman to receive a deputation.
I still feel that before a decision of such importance to an area like Sale is made, before their postal facilities and amenities are in any way varied, the very least that the right hon. Gentleman ought to do is to receive a deputation from them. After all, they know the local circumstances and requirements, and neither they nor I have up to now been able to see why he has refused to give an opportunity for them to meet him and lay before him in a full way what I have endeavoured to submit tonight. I ask the right hon. Gentleman, before he agrees to this change, which is bound to be a calamity, as they believe, to the people of the Sale district, to reconsider the decision of his Department and prevent what they believe to be something that is dangerous and to a large extent rendering postal facilities even more inaccessible than they have been hitherto.
§ The POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Sir William Mitchell-Thomson)
I do not complain either that the hon. Gentleman has raised the question or of the manner in which he has addressed himself to the subject, but there are a few more facts connected with this matter than those which the hon. Member has so far indicated. Sale, as the House probably knows, is a very busy and populous area near Manchester. It is served by a number of town sub-office post offices and by one main post office. The lease of the main post office buildings runs out in 176 1931, and the first question which we had to consider was whether anything could be done by way of altering or extending the existing premises. My advisers found, on going into that matter, that it was impracticable and, if practicable, undesirable. It was undesirable, because even with any extension which could be made of those premises they could never be made fully satisfactory for our purposes to cope with the needs of the growing population. It was impracticable because a renewal of the lease was indeed somewhat doubtful and the price asked for a renewal or a sale was extremely high.
It was necessary to provide fresh premises, because we want to erect in Sale, or in the Sale area, a new telephone exchange to serve the needs of that district when it is converted to the automatic system, and, as Manchester itself is due to be converted to the automatic system in 1931, it was clearly very desirable that the sub-exchanges round Manchester, the satellite exchanges, as they are called, should, so far as practicable, be also converted at about the same date. Therefore, we were very anxious to have premises available in 1931 with an automatic telephone exchange ready equipped there. In 1926, therefore, we began to consider the question of alternative sites, and after considering a number of them, they boiled themselves down to two. There is one site with a house and some grounds known as Abbotsford, to which the hon. Member has referred, and there is another site, which he called the Claremont Road site, but which I know as the School Road site. I imagine they are one and the same.
The facts are that in February, 1927, the Sale Traders' Association made representations to the Postmaster-Surveyor of Manchester, the head postal authority in that area, in favour of the site in School Road. In March, 1927, the urban council made similar representations. These were considered and weighed by the Postmaster of Manchester, who is a competent authority in a matter of this kind and these dimensions. A decision was taken in April, 1927, that on every ground the site of Abbotsford was preferable. Treasury authority was asked for the Abbotsford site in May, 1927, and the purchase was forthwith completed.
§ Mr. TOWNEND
Between the request in March of the Sale Urban District Council for a deputation to be received, and the decision in April of the right hon. Gentleman, was any communication sent by his Department to the Sale Urban District Council that that deputation should be received?
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
Not, that I am aware of. All I am aware of are the representations that were made by the Traders' Association and by the urban district council in February and March, and I was presented with a situation under which the site had been authorised and had been acquired. I should exceedingly regret if it be thought either by the Traders' Association or the urban district council that I had been guilty of any discourtesy in not seeing them. The fact is, that the Sale Traders' letter of February stated in full detail their claims in favour of the School Road site. The urban district council adopted and endorsed the claims made by the Sale Traders' Association. These were all fully considered by the competent authority at the time. Further than that, up to this time no considerations other than those urged in that letter have ever been put forward by anybody.
I will proceed to look at these considerations and the House will then see what they were. It is said that objection is taken to the site of Abbotsford. When I came to look into the question myself, I perceived at once what the real ground of objection was, and I will tell the House. Abbotsford is situated, not in Sale, but in the adjacent borough of Ashton-upon-Mersey. It is true that it is only just in the adjacent borough, because it is only just across the road, but the real objection is that the site of this post office happens to be in Ashton. I am all for civic pride, but in matters of public convenience, what matters is convenience and not locality.
The hon. Gentleman goes on to say that the road is dangerous to cross, and that there are 18,000 people in Sale. He might have added that Sale Urban District Council and the Traders' Association said there were 8,000 people in Ashton. I agree that this is a busy road, but not all the inhabitants of Sale are going to use this particular post office. Sale is already extremely well provided. On the contrary, you have got to remember that, 178 if the road be dangerous for Sale people to cross, it is equally dangerous for Ashton people to cross, and I am informed—and my local people have been carefully into this—that at least as many people from Ashton as from Sale will use this particular post office. That is really what matters. Let me add a word or two in support of the decision that was taken, and, I think, perfectly rightly, in favour of the site at Abbotsford. The postmaster there has reported strongly in favour of this site.
In the first place, it was really a matter of urgency to get possession of a site in order that we might begin with the arrangements for the erection of a telephone exchange. On the Abbotsford site we could get vacant possession; on the other site in School Road we could not get vacant possession. The hon. Member has said something about the price of the School Road site. I say nothing about that, but I will say that the price of the Abbotsford site was extremely reasonable, and it is one of the rare instances I have known where the Inland Revenue valuation coincided with the price that the owner was asking. In the third place, there is a great deal more space at Abbotsford for our purposes. In the fourth place, from the point of view of a telephone centre, and it was for telephone purposes we principally required it, it is a much more convenient and practicable site. The difference in the initial costs between the two sites is, as the hon. Gentleman said, something like £3,000, that is £3,000 in favour of the Abbotsford site as against the School Road site. I have not the slightest doubt that the decision taken was perfectly right. I am very sorry that the Sale Council and the Sale Traders' Association should disagree, but, after all, in all these matters I have to be guided by our officers.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
I understood they did disagree, and that they still think that the School Road site is preferable to the site the Post Office has actually acquired. The only attitude I have taken up is that all I am concerned to do is to secure the best property at the lowest possible price for the public convenience, and that I believe I have done. If in doing so I have run counter 179 to the views of those in the locality, all I can say is that I have to judge, and, after all, I have to take the responsibility and judge to the best of my ability what the public interest is. I am perfectly convinced that in view of all the circumstances we have done perfectly right from the public point of view in acquiring this particular site.
§ Mr. E. BROWN
I think the decision of the right hon. Gentleman on this question 180 is right, but it is a very material point from the point of view of the traders. I know the district, and the great bulk of the shops in the area are on the Sale side, and not on the Ashton side; and that would give force to the representations which have been made, if my memory serves me right.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-three Minutes after Eleven o'Clock