HC Deb 02 July 1954 vol 529 cc1752-8

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

3.58 p.m.

Mr. John Grimston (St. Albans)

It is becoming something of a habit of mine to find myself fortunate in the ballot for the Adjournment debate about this time of the year, and generally on a Friday, and I am also in the habit of raising on these occasions the question of the roads in and around the City of St. Albans, for which I have the privilege of sitting. These debates have generally developed into cosy chats between the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and myself, and I have always had a sympathetic hearing and have received a soft answer. That is what I expect today, although I am sure that the Minister himself would be as keen on the proposition of the improvement of the roads as is any other hon. Member.

I do not think that the remarks that I shall make will be so much for the ears of the Minister of Transport or the Parliamentary Secretary as, perhaps, for the ears of the Treasury, because the real difficulty in the way of improving our road system is the fearful cost of building new roads. Any sensible Administration must, of course, phase the amount of money to be spent according to the state of the national pocket, and must see we do not overstrain our resources, because that would be the easiest way of all to worsen the chaos which already exists on some of our roads.

I am very much encouraged by two things. Firstly, the Minister himself has made an exception to his rule that he will not see delegations from local authorities regarding the improvement of their roads, and has made an exception in the case of the St. Albans City Council.

It being Four o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Grimston

The Minister is making this exception, and is to see a deputation from the council in a few days' time. I would say how much that gesture is appreciated, because it shows that the importance of bettering traffic congestion in the city is understood at the highest level. In his very first set of major road improvements, the Minister has agreed to construct two by-passes, one from Markyate and one at Loughton both on the A.5 road which passes through St. Albans and which is a major cause of the congestion there.

The Parliamentary Secretary must be accustomed by now to listening to hon. Members making representations to him on this subject. I want to try to use no exaggerated phrases, but simply to state the case as I and my local authority see it. The major cause of the difficulty about which we complain is that the A.5 and A.6 roads cross one another in St. Albans. Those two roads are the main arteries which carry all the heavy industrial traffic between London and Birmingham, the Midlands, Liverpool, Manchester and the North-West Coast. Traffic is liable to be held up there for half an hour at a time, in the centre of the city.

Most of the A.5 road is already three-track, which means that the traffic approaching the city from both directions comes along at moderate speed. When it reaches the city it meets only two-line traffic. This is bound to build up a tremendous traffic jam, which I have often seen for two miles on either side of the city at times of heavy traffic. A reference is made in the Report of the National Road Transport Federation to the point where these two roads cross. The Report says: This point is reputed to carry the greatest number of vehicles with the greatest tonnage of any one spot in the world. I have tried to check the authority for that statement, but must frankly tell the House that I have been unable to find any check to bear it out. I have asked the Ministry whether it can do so, but they have no figures based on weight. I do not believe the statement would have been made by such a body as the National Road Transport Federation which went into the matter in great detail without there being something behind it. The spot is at the very least heavily congested and something ought to be done at the earliest possible moment to relieve it.

The Markyate by-pass further up the road only carries part of the traffic that goes through St. Albans. That a by-pass is necessary at Markyate indicates the need for doing something about the St. Albans part of the road, and that this problem is recognised by the Minister. There is no alternative to a by-pass. I am not one of those people who advocate wholesale road construction, certainly not in the interests of further road safety. It seems to me that when a bypass is built in order, presumably, to help traffic get through more easily, and, at the same time to make for greater safety on the road, the casualties go up. Particularly was that so in the case of the Barnet by-pass. The death rate on that road in the summer months is a perfectly horrifying figure.

Therefore, I do not think that the problem is solved by the construction of hundreds of vast new trunk roads. I think that the proper thing to do is to spend more money on selective improvements along the lines which the Ministry are now pursuing, by constructing lay-bys in order to prevent lorries from parking in the fairway of the road, so to speak, and thus facilitating traffic going through, by improved lighting and by providing drivers with a good view of the road for a long distance ahead so that they can get warnings of on coming traffic, and by improving the radius of corners, and so on.

Where those things are not possible—and St. Albans is one place where they are not possible—then I think that the by-pass is the only possible alternative. Palliatives of this kind are not possible in St. Albans for various reasons, partly because of the size of the town, partly because of the line of the road and partly because of the unique Roman city which exists there, and the Cathedral, and so on. Therefore, I do not think that there is any way out of building a by-pass, and I am regretfully forced back to the line that palliatives will never do the job.

Expensive though these by-passes are, there are in this case two unusual points. The first is that part of the road is already built, and is at the moment not being loaded to anything like the capacity for which it was built. The original North Orbital road was a wrong conception of the way traffic works around London, and it was built of course, before the last war. A part of that road is to be used as a section of the by-pass round St. Albans. There we have a capital asset which is very much under-used at the moment, but which would come into full use if we spent the remaining sum of money on it. In addition, we should then get full value for the money already spent.

It is most unusual too, I believe, to have a problem of this kind aggravated as much as it is by the policy of decentralising and rehousing the London population in the country. St. Albans is an expanded town. We have next door to it the new towns of Hemel Hempstead and Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield, all of which have been pushed ahead with very great speed and urgency. But their communications have not been pushed ahead with the same speed. We have really reached the position of a 20th century planned development in a place which is being serviced by a mixture of a Roman road and some country lanes. That does not make much sense, and it is a sufficiently unusual occurrence for the Minister to be able to make the point with force to those who sanction or have the power to sanction, or otherwise, a development of this kind.

It is easy to say that the cost of such a road would soon be recouped by the saving in time, tyres, petrol, and so on. I am quite certain that it would, but the difficulty is that the people who would save the money would not be the people who paid for the road in the first place. If the Treasury can visualise getting its money back quickly, then, I think, there will be less difficulty in getting it to spend the money.

There are ways of financing these costs, but I think it would be out of order to discuss them in an Adjournment debate, so I will not attempt to do so. I feel that the question of finance, which is the obvious difficulty here, could be overcome if we took the view that roads of this kind can and should be made self-supporting, at least for a period.

Perhaps I may just recapitulate for a moment what the unusual features of this case are. The proximity of the new towns has very much aggravated the problem. The two main goods traffic arteries between the ports of London and Liverpool, and between the manufacturing centres of London and the Midlands cross in the town and all their heavy goods go through the town. The line of the by-pass has long been agreed and part of the road to be used is already built. There is no sensible alternative to building a by-pass and I think that all parties would agree that it is really urgent to proceed with such development.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give us at least a date on which work can begin, or if that is not possible will give us assurance that this project will be started before any other comparable project is sanctioned.

4.11 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Hugh Molson)

I was gratified when my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. J. Grimston) said that when he made representations to me about the road problems of his constituency he always obtained a soft and friendly answer, although I was not so pleased when he went on to imply that that was as far as the result went. Certainly, when he states his case as moderately and persuasively as he has done this afternoon it is only natural that he should receive a sympathetic reply.

If my hon. Friend is asking us to admit the need for this road then he is indeed knocking at an open door. We fully admit the need for a by-pass on a large scale around St. Albans. That has been recognised for a long time. As my hon. Friend has said both the busy industrial roads, A.5 and A.6, meet in St. Albans, and no one who has done any motoring in the Midlands at all is ignorant of the appalling congestion that frequently exists in that city.

As long as 1939 orders were made under the Trunk Roads Act, 1936, fixing the lines of the proposed by-passes for London Colney, St. Albans, and Harpenden, and similarly at Elstree, St. Albans and Redbourn. The line of the London Colney section now requires some slight modification but, generally speaking, what was decided upon before the war will be carried out as soon as we can find the money and the resources to do it.

Since the war we have had the passing of the Special Roads Act, 1949. The purpose of that Act was to provide a procedure by means of which special roads—in most cases motor roads—could be constructed suitable for modern long-distance traffic, and with very little access from each side in order that the traffic should not be interfered with, as has so often been the case, unfortunately, with the by-passes built at an earlier time. It is now our intention to make a scheme under the Special Roads Act in order that the by-passes which were designed then should form part of the special motor road from London to Yorkshire.

Therefore, I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that not only is it our intention to provide the by-pass for which he has asked; it is also our intention to provide a specially good and speedy road under the Special Roads Act, 1949. We are at present spending about £420,000 in this financial year on the A.5 between St. Albans and Weedon. I hope that my hon. Friend will feel that even though we are unable to undertake this large-scale work at the present time, what can be done in a more modest way to improve the road is being done.

My hon. Friend asked that I should not confine myself to promising good things for the future, but that I should indicate a time and a date. That, I am afraid, I am unable to do. My hon. Friend knows that the programme of construction for the first three years of the programme announced on 8th December last year has already been published. I am sorry that his road is not included in that three year programme.

My right hon. Friend has undertaken to receive a deputation from the St. Albans City Council on Tuesday next in connection with this matter. I cannot believe that the City fathers will be able to plead the case for this road improvement more persuasively and eloquently than my hon. Friend has done.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

They might as well cancel the appointment then.

Mr. Molson

Although that may be so, the city councillors will be addressing my right hon. Friend upon whom the final responsibility in this matter rests. I will undertake to pass on to my right hon. Friend all that my hon. Friend has said this afternoon. It is impossible for us to hold out any probability that it will be possible to undertake this extremely large-scale and costly work at present. My right hon. Friend is subject to pressure from many parts of the country, and this is only one of the roads in Great Britain which are very much congested at present and where we are most anxious to carry out large-scale improvements. We are, however, fully aware of the urgent need for something to be done, and I can undertake that as soon as it is possible to include this in the programme, it will be so included.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

May I make a brief suggestion which might help the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. J. Grimston) and enable the Parliamentary Secretary to go some way to meet the request that has been made and which, apparently, is to be repeated on Tuesday next. It is this. If he could divert some of the money which, in my opinion, is being needlessly spent on zebra crossings, he might in that way be able to find the wherewithal to satisfy the request made by the hon. Member for St. Albans.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Nineteen Minutes past Four o'Clock.