HC Deb 01 February 1945 vol 407 cc1729-40

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Buchan-Hepburn.]

4.35 p.m.

Mr. Ivor Thomas (Keighley)

If hon. Members wonder why I should be raising the question of a by-pass road through the city of Hereford, let me say that it is not due to a misprint, but to the fact that my home is in Hereford and that I have a natural interest in preserving the amenities of that ancient city. I am, indeed, a citizen of no mean city, but it would be a great deal meaner if the Minister of War Transport had his way. He proposes to drive through the city of Hereford a road that he describes, with a fine disregard for logic and the English language, as an "internal by-pass road." It would cross the River Wye within a hundred yards of the existing 15th-century bridge, and would greatly impair the view of the cathedral and bridge from the river, and the fine stretch of the River Wye from the present bridge.

These views are among the loveliest in England. I do not claim that the view of the river and cathedral at Hereford has the sublimity of Lincoln, or the majesty of Durham, but it is perfect in its kind, surmounted, as it is, by the mouldering grandeur of the square tower of the cathedral. This proposal would seriously impair that view for future generations. As one who feels some responsibility for preserving this view for those generations, I feel it my duty to raise the matter in the House now, while there is still time for action. For, although the Minister's hand is raised to despoil, he has not as yet achieved any physical destruction, and, apparently, this proposal can still be reconsidered. I want very much to urge upon the Parliamentary Secretary that it should be abandoned, for I can see no argument in favour and innumerable arguments against. In fact, the only argument in favour of it that I have heard in Hereford is that it would take the cost of maintaining several of the city streets off the rates, and put it on to the national funds. That, of course, is not an argument which should have any weight.

I raised this matter in a Parliamentary Question on 24th January and received a sympathetic reply from the Parliamentary Secretary which I would like to examine in detail. My hon. Friend said that the existing trunk road through the city of Hereford is narrow and congested, and cannot be widened. There, I agree with him, and that will probably be the only point of agreement. This lovely bridge, coming down from the Middle Ages, is certainly narrow and congested, and I do not propose to dispute—no sensible person would—the need for another route. My hon. Friend proceeded: There is comparatively little through traffic and the by-pass road outside the city would not, therefore, meet the need. I must say, as a local resident, that I cannot agree with that argument. Hereford is not normally a great centre of traffic. Its population is now swollen by the needs of war, but in peace time it was a rather lovely, sleepy market town and no great centre of traffic. It does lie on the main road from South Wales to the North of England and on that from South Wales to Birmingham, and I should have thought, on the evidence of my own eyes, that there was a great deal of through traffic passing through Hereford and that there is occasion for a real bypass road, which would not go through the city. The Parliamentary Secretary proceeded: For this reason, the County Highways Committee and the Town Council are considering an alternative route immediately outside the city wall, with a new bridge over the river Wye. I think that was a little disingenuous, because what has happened is that the Minister of Transport has proposed this bridge and submitted it to the City Council and the County Council. The County Council, I regret to say, have approved the scheme, but they have no responsibility for the area in which the changes are proposed. The City Council have not, as yet at any rate, approved the scheme, and I trust they will never do so. They have had a discussion on it, but the discussion was deferred. The appearance of the bridge was not even discussed at that meeting and that is the fundamental aspect of the matter to which I wish to refer. The Minister went on: I am assured that this plan would not spoil the views of the river or of the cathedral, and that it would open up a better view of the city wall structure. The Committee and the Council also hope to preserve a portion of the ancient ditch. This was in answer to certain objections which I had made beforehand, and I had better explain, at this point, a little more precisely what the proposal is. It is proposed that this internal by-pass road should diverge from the Abergavenny-Hereford Road, should cross the Wye within 100 yards of the existing bridge, and then pass into the City of Hereford along the side of the ancient ditch, and run very close to the thirteenth century stone wall, which is built against the face of the Saxon earth-work of A.D. 1055. The greater part of this ancient ditch would disappear, and that does not appear to be contested by the Minister. In the view of the archaeological experts whom I have consulted, the ancient wall would tumble down through the vibration of the traffic.

These are not unimportant questions. In this age we should preserve everything we possibly can that has come down to us from the distant past. The influence of our ancient parish churches and castles upon the stability of our national character is something which cannot be under-estimated and I should be no party to destroying anything that comes down to us from these distant ages. But the preservation of the ancient ditch and the stone wall are relatively small matters compared with this superb view of the cathedral and of the river from the bridge. It is not a matter that requires an expert in road transport for its assessment.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport (Mr. Noel-Baker)

Will my hon. Friend explain how the view of the cathedral from the bridge is affected?

Mr. Thomas

Because it is obviously more difficult to see the cathedral in its proper perspective, if you have two bridges instead of one, especially as one of these is sure to be some horrible concrete monstrosity such as we see in profusion nowadays. The view of the bridge, the Bishop's Palace and the cathedral and surrounding houses is at present almost perfect. If a new bridge were added it would obviously disturb the proportions of that view and would make it physically much more difficult to see. In order to get the view, it would be necessary to go much further back than is now the case.

Mr. Noel-Baker

The view from the bridge itself?

Mr. Thomas

I am speaking of the view from the towing-path and the river, and adjacent fields, which certainly would be very seriously disturbed by such a proposal as this. Conversely, I do not think that the Minister would deny that the long stretch of the River Wye, one of our most magnificent rivers, is bound to be spoilt by a second bridge in such close proximity to the first. The Minister went on to say: The scheme is still in a preliminary stage, and the advice of the Royal Fine Art Commission will be obtained before it is adopted."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th January, 1945; Vol. 407, c. 824.] This is good news and perhaps he will be able to give us their views to-day. At any rate the scheme is in a state where it is possible to make amendments and to preserve the present amenities of Hereford. If this road were absolutely necessary, and if there were no alternative, it might have to be regretfully accepted. I doubt even then whether I should be prepared to be a party to it, but a much stronger case could be made out for it; but that is not the case.

There is at least one excellent alternative, and possibly two other sites, for this by-pass road. One has been proposed by the Woolhope Club, which is a very famous club of Herefordshire naturalists. It has been put forth in some detail by its Secretary, Mr. George Marshall, himself a great antiquarian. It proposes that the by-pass road should be a real by-pass road, running on the outskirts of Hereford, and that it should diverge a little earlier from the Abergavenny-Hereford Road and should cross the River Wye higher up, near an existing railway bridge, in a position where it would not impair the view of the cathedral or the converse view of the river. It would then run very close to the line of the railway. I can see no reason why that should not be carried out unless the Ministry is tied to some doctrinaire view of the width of by-pass roads. I hope at any rate that if there is some convincing reason why this scheme should not be adopted, we shall hear it to-night. That suggestion is in effect for a by-pass road to the West of Hereford. There is also a suggestion for a road East of the existing Wye Bridge. I believe that there are very good alternative sites for such a by-pass.

There is one final consideration which I wish to urge. These alternatives are very much cheaper than the proposal of the Ministry of Transport. Clearly, if a large number of houses have to be pulled down in the middle of a city, the cost is going to be very much greater than the cost of a by-pass driven through open fields. The cost of the Ministry's proposed road would indeed be very great to-day. One item alone entailing the pulling down of a church would cost at least £30,000.

Mr. Noel-Baker

That is an error.

Mr. Thomas

It seems clear from the maps that that would be the case. I should be happy to be assured that it is not so, but, in any case, the cost of a road to be driven through a city is obviously much greater than one constructed outside. It was the proud boast of Pericles that the ancient Athenians were lovers of beauty without extravagance. I hope that the Ministry of Transport will not earn the reputation of being extravagant destroyers of beauty.

4.48 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport (Mr. Noel-Baker)

I must start by making an: apology to my hon. Friend on a point which he has not raised but which, I think, I ought to explain. The terms of the answer, which was a written answer, were a little unfortunate and might have led my hon. Friend or the House to think that this scheme had been drawn up by the local authority. Of course that was not so. It is a trunk road. The responsibility rests entirely with my Ministry. The scheme is ours; we plan, we decide and we pay. If my answer did not make that wholly plain, I apologise, and it was my mistake. But that is my only apology. I am not going to apologise to my hon. Friend for the plan itself. As at present advised, I think it a good plan and a much better one than the others of which he has spoken and much more calculated to serve the true interests of Hereford.

It is plain—and I do not think that my hon. Friend will dispute it—that something must be done about the traffic on the existing trunk road through Hereford. That trunk road enters from the south by a bridge across the Wye which was built in 1490 and is scheduled as an ancient monument and has a carriage way of 19 feet 8 inches. It is a magnificent bridge which it is vital to preserve exactly as it is, but it is a bottle-neck for modern traffic. The trunk road proceeds right through the heart of the city, through narrow streets, which are also shopping streets, and it goes very close to the west-end of the cathedral. It has four sharp right-angle turns, which, with heavy, big vehicles, inevitably cause congestion. It is the worst possible route for large through traffic, and especially for the heavy vehicles which, with the great noise and vibration which they cause, are so common on our roads to-day. The traffic problem was bad enough before the war. It will become much worse in the next two or three decades, with the great increase in the number of motor vehicles to which we must inevitably look forward. Something has to be done. What shall be done?

My hon. Friend said that there ought to be a by-pass for through traffic. Yes, we may some day need a by-pass for through traffic; but if so it will have to be not, I think, on Mr. George Marshall's line, but much further out. But, according to our investigations, there is not the volume of through traffic on this route to justify, or nearly to justify, the construction of such a wide-flung by-pass now. The great bulk of traffic on this road is produced by the large number of vehicles converging into Hereford. The amount of traffic which passes through Hereford without stopping there—which would, in fact, use a wide-flung by-pass—is very small indeed. We believe that it would not, if it were constructed, carry a large volume of traffic. We believe that it would do very little indeed to help the solution of the congestion problem in the centre of Hereford. Secondly, there is another plan, that of widening the existing road.

Mr. Thomas

The problem of congestion in Hereford now is very acute. But Hereford now has a population three times as great as in peace-time. It will presumably revert to its peace-time population after the war. This congestion is almost entirely due to military, and in particular Air Force, traffic.

Mr. Noel-Baker

I should be surprised to learn that the total traffic of Hereford to-day is greater than in peace-time. There are very few places in this country about which that can be said. Does my hon. Friend seriously suggest that there is more traffic to-day than in peace-time?

Mr. Thomas

Yes, much more.

Mr. Noel-Baker

It is very rare throughout the country. But, even in peace- time, there is a problem which must be dealt with. I hope that my hon. Friend now agrees with me that you cannot widen this many-angled, tortuous road through the centre of Hereford. To do so would be vandalism, to say the least. I do not think anybody would want to do it. Certainly we do not.

Thirdly, there is the proposal by the Woolhope Naturalists Field Club, drawn up by that eminent authority, Mr. George Marshall. That scheme has merits; but it has some difficulties too. There are real engineering difficulties. I do not want to exaggerate it, but it would be running parallel to the railway, as Mr. Marshall proposes, and there would be the problem of passing very close to the railway station. That is not so easy as it sounds. It would be serious on a road with heavy traffic. There is the problem of the stockyard. Again, some solution for that would have to be found. I think that that, again, is not at all straightforward. Much more serious, there are real planning difficulties. My hon. Friend repeated that Mr. Marshall, or the Club, at one time said that this should be a real by-pass, a motorway, and my hon. Friend said just now that it would be on the outskirts of Hereford. There is one sense in which that is true; another in which it is not. If it is a real by-pass, if it is a motor road, it is restricted to motor traffic, and access to it is cut off. The through traffic goes right through, and traffic does not pass across it. In other words, it would bisect the ancient city of Hereford, separating it from all that lies to the west of the railway line—and a good deal of Hereford is there. It would bisect Hereford into two parts. That is a real planning difficulty.

Mr. Thomas

Mr. Marshall certainly asked for a motorway. I am not myself necessarily advocating a motorway. I do not care whether it is a motorway or an ordinary road, so long as it does not destroy the beauties of Hereford.

Mr. Noel-Baker

It depends on what is meant. If they were thinking of a bypass, they ought to make it a motor-way. But on this line, parallel to the railway, it would not attract the great mass of the vehicles which now go into the centre of Hereford. It would be too far away. If I am right in thinking that the great bulk of the traffic is not through traffic but is traffic coming to Hereford. what is wanted in order to relieve these narrow shopping streets is something which the people will use because it brings them nearer to their destinations. As at present advised we think that our line is much more likely to do that. I am speaking on the information which I have. It may turn out not to be correct, but I think it is. Our divisional road engineer has succeeded in making it plain to Mr. Marshall that some of the objections which he and the Club originally saw to our proposal did not hold good. There is the question of St. Nicholas Church. We shall not pull it down. The line does not touch it. It remains perfectly exempt, and with adequate margins form the new road which we propose. We shall not do anything to spoil the view of the Cathedral—not in the least. We certainly shall not do anything, as was at one time asserted, to spoil the views of the Wall. We shall open them out. I do not think it can be maintained that the vibration will bring the Wall tumbling down. There is to be a 30 ft. margin. We can replace the ancient Sally Walk around Hereford. I hope it will be done. I think this proposal will greatly add to the amenities of Hereford and make the ancient walk more what it ought to be for the citizens of Hereford, a great feature of their city.

The plan has been unanimously approved by the Highways and Bridges Committee of the County Council. I am told that there is no objection from the Hereford City Council. My hon. Friend says that that is not a final decision. So far as I have had reports, there was no substantive objection brought forward in the discussion, though perhaps I am not fully informed. In any case, we have consulted the Inspector of Ancient Monuments of the Ministry of Works about the Wall and the Ditch; and we have his opinion that there would be no objection to our plan if the application already made for the scheduling of the Wall and the Ditch were to be carried through, and they were to be scheduled as ancient monuments. Our scheme is not a by-pass. I do not know where my hon. Friend got his phrase "internal by-pass"—not from us, I think. It is what we describe as "a relief." We do not accept his view that our bridge will be a monstrosity. I think that if he had been able to visit some of our recent bridges about the country con- structed in the last 10 or 15 years, or had even seen the photographs, which we had in a Committee Room upstairs last year, of some of the many bridges which have been constructed—which, of course, always have the approval of the Royal Fine Art Commission—he would say that they are among the best which have been constructed in England in all the centuries since bridges have been built.

This scheme—our exact scheme—has been strongly supported by an eminent authority, Mr. George Cadbury, who has written a special pamphlet about the preservation of the amenities of Hereford. I have it here and I have no doubt that my hon. Friend is familiar with it. If he consults that pamphlet he will find a long explanation of why our scheme is right. There are photographs, and pages describing the purposes in view. I will not weary the House with a long citation, but will give this quotation: The best way of dealing with this will be to agree to the Ministry of Transport's proposals and build a new bridge just above the present one and to form a wide new traffic boulevard along the west wall of the city. I feel sure that if I were to consult with my hon. Friend on the spot, with competent authorities, I could convert him to the view that our scheme is the best, but I do not want to ask him to accept conversion this afternoon. I only want to assure him that this is, as I said in answer to his Parliamentary question, at a preliminary stage. No one is committed to it. It is a tentative plan.

If we go on with it, of course we shall go through our normal procedure. Under Section 13 of the Trunk Road Act, 1934, my Noble Friend has the power to supersede a section of an existing trunk road and to construct a new one instead. That is what we are doing. If he does that, however, then on the demand of the county council he must hold a local public inquiry at which objections can be put forward, alternative proposals put up, the whole thing ventilated and every grievance heard.

In fact, whether the county council ask for it or not, it is the normal practice of my Noble Friend—not perhaps in every case, but in very nearly every case, and in every important case—to carry out such a local public inquiry. When he holds it, he puts in charge of it some perfectly independent person, perhaps a member of the Bar, certainly not an official of the Ministry. My Noble Friend always listens very closely to the advice and report which the independent inquirer may present. We are not wedded to this scheme. If it turns out to be wrong, if anyone can show us that it is bad, that there is a better scheme, we shall very gladly accept that better scheme instead.

I would like to end by making this offer to my hon. Friend—he can take it if he likes, as a formal pledge. Before any-think else whatever is done, I will ask my Chief Road Engineer, Mr. Lyddon, to go down to Hereford, and have an informal conference with all concerned, in order to ventilate and discuss every aspect of this proposal, and to see whether some agreed proposal cannot be found.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Two Minutes after Five o'Clock.