HC Deb 02 July 1953 vol 517 cc713-24

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

10.1 p.m.

Mr. A. G. Bottomley (Rochester and Chatham)

Some of my colleagues have asked me, "Why are you raising the subject of the by-pass road tonight?" Obviously they have in mind that there is a fine road leading out of London, but what apparently they do not know is that the only town it does not by-pass is Rochester, as many of them find to their cost when they make the journey down to the Kentish area. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), when Home Secretary, was late for an important engagement on one occasion through being held up outside the City of Rochester for one and a half hours due to the congestion of the traffic.

I make no apology for keeping the Minister tonight because, although this Rochester by-pass road was suggested as long ago as 1923, this is the first time the matter has been raised in debate in the House. It is true that questions have been put. I myself have put many to the Minister and although I should be wrong if I said he gave me satisfaction, equally it would be untrue to say that the Minister has not been reasonable. Indeed, he himself suggested recently that I might bring along a deputation of the interested Members of Parliament, representatives of Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham councils, representatives from the Medway Chamber of Commerce and from the Medway Trades Council and the local branch of the National Farmers' Union. I want to stake the claim or express the hope that, if possibly they want to come along again later to see the Minister, he will afford us the facility he was so ready to give us before.

The by-pass road has been suggested many times. If we go back to the original occasion I think it is true to say that the traffic then was much lighter than it is today. I will give one or two figures to support the contention. In August, 1925, the average number of vehicles passing through that part of Rochester which causes the greatest difficulty was 7,950 vehicles a day. Ten years later the number rose to 17,621 vehicles and in 1938 it was 20,693 vehicles. This year there was a census in March, when the average total going through daily was 15,812. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will agree that that was at the period when the licensing numbers were lowest, and I think we could reasonably add 50 per cent. to that total.

This number of vehicles passes over one section of the road which is 17 ft. 6 ins. wide. There is no alternative route. It is difficult to repair the roads, and the repairing of mains and the laying of cables is a most difficult job. Several Ministers have had to face criticism from constituents and from myself when they have been engaged upon doing important work concerned with the need to defend our country.

In normal times there are long delays and I can assure the Minister that there great inconvenience is caused. The local bus service is disorganised, workers arrive late with a consequent loss of pay in some cases, and certainly a loss in production. They also arrive home late, which is not good for family life. The housewives themselves suffer. I have had many letters and I will quote a sentence or two from one of them. This housewife says: It has become sheer torture to go shopping in Strood on a Saturday morning. It is hopeless to wait for a bus and one is forced to climb Strood Hill loaded with shopping. Crossing the road is almost attempting suicide. Friday evenings are almost as bad. Local conditions, therefore, justify this by-pass road. I should like, however, to extend the justification, not only because of local conditions, but because the whole of the county wants the road. It does not need me to advertise on behalf of other Members their delightful constituencies, but in Kent there are some of the most delightful seaside resorts in the country. People go there once, find that there is the great traffic delay, and do not go a second time. And so we should like the opportunity of feeding the coastal towns with a satisfactory run of customers.

To turn to my own constituency, Rochester has its wonderful Cathedral, its Castle and its Dickens associations. We could have many visitors if we had a different line of communication. Last year's Mayor of Rochester went on a tour of the world to see the other Rochesters. He did a good service for the country, particularly as many dollar visitors have come here. At the moment, he has staying with him two dollar visitors. One is a chief of police. I can imagine him going back home and saying, "Yes, go to Rochester," but instead of telling people to come for all the wonderful scenery, he is more likely to tell them to come to see the biggest traffic bottleneck in the world.

In addition to the county and local interest, the area has a vital national interest. Everybody would admit at once that Chatham Dockyard is of great importance. Therefore, in the interests of strategy, there should be free communication, with as little hindrance as possible. There is in the area a garrison town, which may require the rapid movement of troops. There is an airfield, whose ground personnel may at given times have to be moved about very rapidly. Because it is a target area, there must be proper facilities for the Civil Defence personnel to do their work properly; and then there is the important question of supplies. I served in that part of the world during the last war and we had hurriedly to make emergency erections to meet contingencies of the kind which could involve a breakdown in time of war. What I suggest is that we put the matter right now and not have to make emergency arrangements in due course.

From a national point of view, I should have thought that a better road would afford an enormous saving of fuel. It would prevent the wear and tear of vehicles and would mean a considerable saving in time and manpower. We know, because of the terrible accident that we had in the Chatham area, there would be fewer accidents and fewer opportunities for traffic to clash. Pedestrians certainly would not have to take the risks that they take today.

Everybody agrees—there is no difference of opinion, I gather, between local authorities, the county and the Ministry—that the road is a necessity. Over a period of 30 years several schemes have been prepared, but they have had to be changed because the land has been used either for housing or for an aerodrome. On another occasion, there were difficulties because it could not be decided whether there should be a bridge across the Medway or a tunnel underneath. The Rochester City Council has a fundamental grievance, because in 1937 they said they would widen their roads but the Ministry of Transport asked them not to do so in case their action prejudiced the by-pass road. The Ministry, therefore, are to some extent entirely responsible for the delays which occur in the city today. We want an end to this uncertainty. Amongst the consequential problems, housing development, both corporation building and private enterprise, is held up.

I should like to quote one other letter from the many that I have received from constituents. This man writes: I purchased a parcel of land in 1948 upon which to build a dwelling, having been married in 1947. In 1951 a building licence was refused because the Ministry of Transport had by then altered the proposed route of the Medway by-pass. My land was affected. After expensive legal negotiations, permission was granted to build further back on the plot. Building is now in progress. Some of the further part of my land will be requisitioned by the new by-pass road. The exact amount cannot be ascertained until the work of building the by-pass is in hand. Can you imagine what a quandary that puts me in? There are many cases like that.

In those circumstances, private builders cannot be persuaded to build and corporation building is also held up. In addition, the local authorities are unable to define a plan which would ensure security of tenure for commerce. It does not need me to tell the Parliamentary Secretary that that means a loss of rateable value that we can ill afford to lose if we are to develop this city and the town of Chatham. I know the Minister will tell me that plans are well ahead for trunk roads and that what holds up progress is the national capital investment programme. One-tenth of our national income is spent on operating vehicles on our roads. I think that the roads are part of our industrial equipment. They help poduction and help to reduce the cost of living. Therefore, unless we give serious attention to the problem of the roads, particularly to roads of this kind, we shall not be helping our economy, but rather damaging it in a way we can ill afford at this time.

Farmers have made complaints and the Parliamentary Secretary has written to me on the matter. I have had an opportunity of seeing the farmers. They are completely dissatisfied and say that farming suffers because of the failure of the Ministry to say positively where the by-pass is to be. The Minister has power under the Trunk Roads Act, 1946, and the Special Roads Act, 1949, to define once and for all where the by-pass is to be. I appeal to him in the interests of my constituents and in the national interest to do so.

10.12 p.m.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

I am most grateful to the right hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bottomley) for leaving me a few moments this evening to speak on this matter, because it is a matter which concerns my constituents in Gillingham just as much as his. I am sure my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary feels a little uncomfortable. It is not very often that a Minister is attacked from the front and the rear at the same time. He should be thankful that tonight the right hon. Member and I are both holding our fire somewhat.

That does not mean that we are not completely united in this matter, which affects the welfare of our towns. I might serve notice on my hon. Friend that just because we are very moderate in the manner in which we approach this matter this evening it means that, unless he assures us that something will be done and the matter pursued energetically, at some future date—perhaps not very far ahead—we shall attack far more vigorously, and the attack from the rear will be as vigorous as that from the front.

I do ask my hon. Friend if when he is considering direct negotiations with the local authorities he will bear in mind what the right hon. Member has suggested. The three local authorities of the Medway towns—I speak particularly of my town—should have an opportunity of presenting their case and we, the Members of Parliament, should also have an opportunity of being present when any negotions are carried out. Of course, I am not feeling very unhappy about the unfortunate experience of the right hon. Gentleman the former Home Secretary being delayed in Strood High Street, because the probability is that he was coming to my constituency to cause me trouble at the last Election.

We had a most graphic example of the terrific congestion which can happen there when one of the constructing towers which we often saw when we had tramways was being used in Strood High Street; I waited there for just on an hour to go through. The chaos created when road repairs are undertaken in that street has to be seen to be believed.

In my constituency the same difficulties apply in Rainham, where the street is also very narrow. We have this wide road, A.2, leading into two bottlenecks. It is an absolute menace and danger to the people of the Medway towns, and they are particularly concerned about it at week-ends. People wishing to get to the coast dash down the A.2 road only to be brought up sharp in Strood and Rainham. The parents of children in these places live in fear and trembling every week-end.

I know that my hon. Friend and the present Government are not completely to blame, and neither was the last Government. It was only in 1946 that this road became a trunk road and the responsibility of the Ministry of Transport. This is an undertaking of great magnitude. It represents 25 miles of road by-passing Strood, Rochester, Chatham, Gillingham, Sittingbourne and Faversham and includes a bridge over the Medway or a tunnel under it.

I ask my hon. Friend to consider whether it would be more desirable to construct a tunnel than a bridge in view of the presence of the dockyard and the fact that a bridge would afford an excellent target if, unhappily, we were again involved in a war. Such a road would also take up desirable agricultural land with consequent objections from the farmers involved. I do not deny that the last Government pursued this matter energetically, but the official inquiries and surveys must have been prolonged and difficult. I should like to know if they are now completed and whether the line of the road has been determined. If it has not, may we be assured that it will be determined in the near future?

It may be said that the cost is enormous. But why not make a start on the part which would ease the congestion of traffic into and out of the vital Medway area? It is vital that lines of communication to the dockyard should be kept open if that area is to preserve its strategic importance in times of emergency. I ask my hon. Friend to give serious consideration to these matters, and I hope that he will be able to give us a favourable reply tonight.

10.19 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Gurney Braithwaite)

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bottomley) has provided me with this opportunity of explaining the present position regarding this by-pass more fully than was possible in answering Questions across the Floor of the House. I am well aware that there is a great deal of anxiety locally about this matter, and I hope that in the 10 minutes at my disposal I shall be able to say something to assuage those feelings. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) for a speech which was helpful rather than hostile on this occasion. I think it will be most useful if I begin by giving a brief history of the planning of the line of this by-pass.

This is a proposed diversion of the present trunk road, A.2, which goes from London to Dover via Rochester and Canterbury to by-pass the Medway towns Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham, and also Sittingbourne and Faversham further east. The whole scheme, as my hon. Friend told us a moment ago, involves some 25 miles of new road. The Ministry pushed ahead with this scheme immediately before the war and even then encountered particular difficulties near Rochester and Chatham because of the desirability of avoiding interference at that time with the operations of Messrs. Short Bros., who were engaged in the construction of flying boats, an important defence work. This made it difficult at that time to find the most suitable crossing of the Medway. The proposal was being considered then on the basis of a series of loops by-passing the various towns and villages, and reconnecting with A.2.

On the conclusion of the war, Messrs. Short Brothers moved away from the area, and it then became apparent that, in view among other things of the various other prospects of development in this area, it would be desirable to find a complete by-pass line from west of the Medway towns to east of Faversham, linking up with both the route A.2 and with the coastal road A.299. This involved a better crossing of the Medway from the engineering point of view, in that it did not have to be accommodated to the aircraft operations of which I spoke a moment ago.

Naturally, this matter needed careful investigation, both because of the industrial developments associated with the towns and general planning interests, and because of the agricultural lands which would necessarily be affected. I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate that the engineering questions, including as they do the provision of a Medway Bridge which will exceed 1,500 ft. in length, and many other bridges and viaducts, necessarily take a long time to work out, particularly when they have to be fitted in with the factors which I have already deployed to the House and which are particularly acute in this area.

I cannot count the number of occasions since I have had the honour to occupy my present office when, on Monday afternoons at Question time, I have explained to the House that, in view of the present financial difficulties of the country, expenditure on roads would have to be kept to a minimum. I must try to fit this particular scheme into that picture. The full scheme will cost about £4½ million at present prices, and it is for that reason as I am sure hon. Members will appreciate on both sides of the House that we have to regard this as a long-term project. Hon. and right hon. Gentlemen, and also my hon. Friend behind me, are not alone in presenting this kind of problem. I saw sitting opposite me not long ago one of my colleagues in the representation of the City of Bristol, where the inner circuit road is urgently required if the city is to derive certain revenues which would be of very great value to us.

Mr. Burden

May I impress upon my hon. Friend that this is an immediate necessity, because of the strategic value it would have?

Mr. Braithwaite

My hon. Friend has rather anticipated my point. The longer I stay at the Ministry of Transport the more I become convinced, that, with the exception of yourself, Mr. Speaker, the other 623 of my colleagues have unique problems, when it comes to the question of roads.

Mr. Bottomley

Have they all been waiting for 30 years?

Mr. Braithwaite

We are confronted with the problem of Staines, about which we have heard a very great deal from both sides of the House. In the West Country, not far from the city of Bristol, the people who desire to proceed to the West, quite apart from going to the beautiful country of Exmoor and Devon, are faced with the bottleneck at Bridgwater, which has been causing acute discomfort. Until a moment ago there were two hon. Members from Scotland sitting opposite me. I was sure they were there with a watching brief in case I should say something friendly to the hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham in which case they would have leapt to their feet and asked me: "What about the Forth Bridge?"

Miss Margaret Herbison (Lanarkshire, North)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Braithwaite

I did not see the hon. Lady.

It is always a matter of great anxiety to my right hon. Friend in carrying out planning for the lines of new roads which affect so many interests to try to investigate them fully and select proposals which, so far as possible, satisfy them. Indeed, the planning job for the Ministry of Transport all over the country has been a huge one, and in the last two years the calls for defence needs upon the resources of skilled manpower, as well as the necessity to economise in expense, have meant, not only under us but under our predecessors, a slowing down in the pace of the planning which we should have liked to have achieved.

We have, however, worked out the main outline of future roads for development plans, even though in some instances only in diagram form; and this has been a major operation the success of which cannot be said to be invalidated by the fact that in some instances, such as the present one, final proposals have not yet been settled. Despite my right hon. Friend's desire to be as accommodating as possible to the wishes of local interested parties, hard engineering facts in addition to the main requirements of laying down a new road at all mean that we cannot be as flexible as many laymen may naturally hope, and indeed as we ourselves often wish.

To find the best line is a very difficult matter, but my right hon. Friend asks me to say that he hopes that this is now within sight of solution in this case. As I have already indicated to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Rochester and Chatham in my answer on 16th March this year, we expect to have our proposals ready by the autumn and to publish them in the form of the necessary Statutory Instrument by the end of the year.

Let me say at once—we must anticipate this trouble which is bound to come up at us—that of course no line can avoid damaging somebody and there will be bound to be objections, at any rate from some farming interests. As the House will be aware, the statutory procedure provides full opportunity for these to be heard through the machinery of a public inquiry. Only after that public inquiry, and only after a full hearing of objections shall we be in the position to go ahead with making the necessary Statutory Instrument. I cannot, of course, anticipate how long this process may take.

I can, however, assure the right hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham and the House that my right hon. Friend is fully alive to the desirability of this road, but I cannot, of course, give any forecast of when it will be possible for it to be constructed. I only wish that I could give the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham a more encouraging and direct answer than that tonight. But I must be honest with them and say that until the financial conditions of the country improve this is one of the many desirable schemes on which we can do some of the preliminary planning—and we are pushing ahead with that— but which must await fulfilment until the necessary funds are forthcoming. But this undertaking I can give—that at all stages there will be full consultation with the local authorities who will be affected.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Ten o'clock.