HC Deb 14 May 1959 vol 605 cc1557-68

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

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

I am very grateful for this opportunity to raise a subject of great interest in my constituency and, indeed, in the west of England as a whole—roads in the West Country. At the end of December I had the honour to lead a deputation of chairmen of works committees and highway committees of the six western county councils to see my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport. That deputation was received by my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation in the unavoidable absence of my right hon. Friend through illness, and I take this opportunity now of thanking my hon. Friend for the courtesy and charm with which, as usual, he was good enough to receive us.

In a letter which an official at his Ministry wrote to the clerks to the county councils a little time afterwards, it was said: The Minister regrets that he can only endorse what Mr. Nugent said—that he realised that the line of policy being pursued by this Department "— that is to say, the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation— at present bore somewhat hardly on many parts of the country, including the South-west. That is unquestionably so. My purpose in speaking on this subject tonight is to place on record the facts about our difficulties and special problems: to ensure, so far as possible, that the Minister understands our situation and our point of view, and to assure for ourselves a place in the queue of priorities should there be a change of policy and a greater allocation, as we hope there will be in due time, for roads. In my judgment, we have an excellent Minister, very ably supported by his Parliamentary Secretary, and my object now, as much as anything else, is to strengthen the arm of my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend should there be an opportunity for them to press their case more strongly with the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The trunk roads from London to the West are quite inadequate for the traffic they have to carry. Queues up to 10 to 15 miles long are commonplace in summer on roads like A.30 and A.303. At many points there are bottlenecks, and the carriageways are quite inadequate. It has become a joke told by travellers now that it is no use getting up to travel during the night because all one does is to catch up with the residue of the day before's traffic.

The other approach roads to the West are inadequate. To take A.38 as an example, there are many places where the carriageway is no wider than 20 ft., which is absurd in this modern day. Our local roads are inadequate. On the county roads of Cornwall, there are over 200 places where there are water fords of one kind or another. In Devon, there are some roads which, at peak times, carry as many as 18,000 vehicles a day but which are, in places, too narrow for two buses to pass. There is one place where the carriageway is no wider than 11 ft. 7 ins. One can sometimes, not only in the summer, take as long as twenty minutes to cross a town the size of Taunton.

I could give a thousand more examples of the inadequacy of our trunk roads and our local roads and smaller roads if time allowed. The clearest indication of the defective state of our roads in the West is given by the factߞI believe that my hon. Friend knows this very well—that they are not up to the Ministry's own standards.

It is sometimes suggested that the West is England's backwater. It is suggested that there are very few people living there and that what we do in the West is unimportant. Therefore, so it is said, our roads do not matter. Nothing could be further from the truth. The population of our six western counties is now nearly 3½ million. Vehicle registrations there are as high as they are in most places in England. It is true that we live in many small towns, but I believe that speedy transport and reasonable communications are as essential to small factories—perhaps the only industries in the towns where they are situated—as to larger towns. I completely refuse to accept that our manufactures in the west of England are one whit less important than the manufactures of some of the other, perhaps, larger towns in Great Britain.

We have our large towns and our cities, too. There are Plymouth and Bristol, and there are substantial concentrations of industry in the West Country. We have our large docks, factories, quarries and mines, including coal mines. Many of our towns are important administrative centres. Taunton, in my constituency, is a good example. We do other things besides work in factories.

Agriculture, I suggest, is a tremendously important industry in the economy of the country as a whole. The three most westerly counties alone produce milk products of one kind or another to a total value of over £350 million per annum. This is industry on a very large scale and I refuse to believe that the production of food is one whit less important than the production of manufactured goods. We can do without refrigerators, but we cannot do without our daily bread. We in the three Western Counties produce 15 per cent. of all the milk consumed in this country, 10 per cent. of the pig meat and 5 per cent. of the beef. I could give many other examples.

In sum, the West is no backwater. It is a busy, active community, doing important work for the country as a whole. Another service which we provide is tourist facilities which we make available to people who wish to visit us for holidays and to see the beauties of Exmoor, of the Cotswolds and other parts. Approximately 4 million people visit the West Country each year as tourists. Half of them come by car and about 15 per cent. by coach. I believe that industrial output in this country would not be so great if there were not opportunities for work- ing people to come to the West Country for a jolly good holiday and to forget their work for a while.

We must not assume that this is only a matter of local importance. The tourist facilities which we offer are important from the national point of view as well. The chambers of trade are launching a "Come-to-the-West" campaign, and we hope that tourists who come to England from abroad to do the circuit of Edinburgh, Stratford-upon-Avon and London, thinking that they will see the whole of England, will be attracted to see a part of England which is as typical as any other and which is more beautiful than many others. I hope that it is not supposed that it is only our sometimes unseasonable climate which drives people to take Continental holidays. I believe that often it is the unsatisfactory state of the roads.

I should now like to turn to the human side of the picture. It is essential to provide adequate roads where they are the only means of communication. My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will be well aware of the situation which we face in the West Country in connection with the closing of branch railway lines. Very often in the West Country roads are the only means of communication.

It is also essential to provide adequate roads when the accident rates are high. In 1957, in the West Country as a whole 10,000 people were injured and 183 killed. In 1958, in the County of Somerset, there were 6,520 accidents, 79 people were killed and 2,980 injured. These figures are too high.

To take a particular example, on the road passing through Long Ashton, a three-mile stretch of road, there are seventy-one accidents a year, which is higher for a short stretch like that than almost anywhere else in the country. This is certainly very much higher than the national average of most other countries. On the 50-mile stretch of the A.38 road which goes through Somerset, there is one accident per mile per month. Bad roads bear a heavy share of responsibility for this state of affairs.

By any standard, the roads in the West Country are narrow, winding and often unsafe. Having regard to the limited amount of money available for expenditure on roads, we accept that there must be priorities. We are happy to see the great industrial areas given priority. That must be right. But, if we cannot have our motorways for twenty years or so, it is reasonable that we should obtain an increasing amount of money to spend on improvements.

What is the position? Of the forty-eight English counties, Somerset comes fortieth in the cost per mile of maintenance of and minor improvements to roads. That state of affairs is typical of the other counties in the South-West. My hon. Friend will know that major improvements are of particular interest to us because of our special difficulties in the widening of roads and the lack of verges. What might be minor improvements in other counties are major improvements in the West. The amount of money available for expenditure on major improvements has recently been severely cut. As I have said, we have sent a deputation to see my right hon. Friend to discuss the matter. The City of Bristol sent a similar deputation only a short time ago.

The present state of affairs has caused a certain amount of dislocation and made planning difficult. To some extent it has been a disencouragement to the many excellent men who are chairmen of our works and highways committees and to our county surveyors who are anxious to discharge their responsibilities in an effective and efficient manner. The counties are ready to do their part. In Somerset, for example, this year we have provided £57,000 over the amount necessary to match the Ministry grants. I am advised that the county would be willing to spend approximately four times that amount of money on roads if we were to have the additional money from the Ministry. Roads are the only one of our county services which is not expanding.

The improvements in main roads which we have effected—for some work is going on—cannot cope with the present rate of traffic increase. Schemes for classified roads of any magnitude which we have in mind have at present to remain on the shelf. Yet—this is the point which makes us unhappy—the amount of money required is tiny compared with the national need. If we in the West Country were granted an extra £250,000, I think that much of the present unhappiness would disappear.

I wish to be more particular with regard to Somerset. It is a good thing to see so many hon. Members representing constituencies in the West Country present this evening, and it may be that they will wish to particularise about their own interests. What do we want today for Somerset? With regard to minor maintenance and improvement of roads for this year, 1959–60, we asked to have work authorised to the total amount of £260,000 in order to improve services, improve visibility, make new footpaths, give better drainage and to go in for a few medium-size widening schemes. We have been permitted to spend something like half that amount only, and I hope that the sum may be increased. We suggest that for county roads there should be an increase of 15 per cent. over what has been allocated.

Of the trunk roads, in 1959–60 we shall only widen Monmouth Street in Bridgwater, despite the fact that there is a crying need to improve the A.303, the A.4 and the A.38, to mention only three roads. Regarding county roads, this year we are happy to say that we shall be undertaking five schemes and believe that we could usefully spend another £250,000 on Congersbury and Locking and Hinsley Hill, outside Bristol. Large improvements would include by-passes and large bridge reconstructions which will cost over £50,000. No large trunk road improvements will be carried out this year, nor large improvements to county roads, although there are many schemes we wish to put in hand, including the Taunton relief road, the Long Ashton bypass and improvements to the A.34 and the Yeovil relief road.

It is not surprising that many people, and not only partisans of road construction, are asking whether we have our priorities right in the matter of road improvements. We spend large sums of money on railways which have been covered by protective legislation over the years, so much so that the canals of England are largely disused. But we spend comparatively little on roads. It must be very difficult for my right hon. Friend to hold the balance aright, but I cannot help feeling that it may well be that at present the balance is not correct.

A motorway going west from Bristol is not in the current programme, and it seems doubtful whether it will appear in the programme for the next four years. We have to consider whether we should take some action to build that motorway ourselves, either by making arrangements to raise a loan or, alternatively, by introducing a system of toll roads, on the principle that if one wishes to travel first-class one should pay first-class. There are strong arguments against both suggestions, as I am aware, but I put them forward because I believe it is much better to propose something practical and to try to get something done than to leave matters alone and connive at the present unsatisfactory state of affairs. If we could have a motor road, it would help industry and bring increased prosperity to the West Country. I hope we shall make a certain amount of progress in the future.

I would not want my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to think we are ungrateful for what is being done at the moment. There are many of us in this House who have seen the exciting plans there are in Birmingham, exciting plans for motorways in other parts of the country, and we realise that much more is being spent on roads than ever before in this country's history. That is fine. It is a very good thing. We congratulate my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend upon that, but we know that the Minister is to carry out a review of the allocation of funds in the next month or so, and we hope that he will agree that we have a good case for special consideration. We feel our need is urgent, and we hope that he will give us the green light to get on with the work which is urgently calling to be tackled.

10.25 p.m.

Mr. W. A. Wilkins (Bristol, South)

I am most pleased, even though it is only for one moment, to have the opportunity to support the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) in the plea which he has made to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary tonight—though I must remind him that I did my best to stop him coming here in what was a very good fight.

Mr. du Cann

Hear, hear.

Mr. Wilkins

Perhaps we who represent constituencies in the West Country have been a little too lenient with the Ministry of Transport. We have not badgered the Ministry. We certainly have not badgered it as hon. Members have who represent other parts of the country, and I think it is the result of that that we have not had that allocation of funds for road improvements in the West that we ought to have.

I want to concentrate attention on the Bristol area. We have been to the Ministry and failed, although I would not withhold my need of praise for the Minister for what he thus done, because I think he has succeeded in getting more from the Chancellor of the Exchequer than any of his predecessors. I hope that he will be able to persuade the Chancellor to let him have some more money to make the improvements for which we are asking.

The hon. Member for Taunton was too modest to mention the town which he represents, except, perhaps, in an indirect way. It is quite true that now we have this road improvement at Bridgewater and it will facilitate the movement of traffic so that it will be a little easier than it was before, but it still remains a fact that on entering Taunton one runs into a real bottleneck that holds one up for an hour, or two hours, even, at the height of the summer season. There is need for some further improvement in the Taunton area.

I hope that the hon. Member will agree with me when I say that I believe the greatest need is in the County of Devon. One can get down as far as Devon fairly comfortably, but when one gets into Devon one really does start to run into traffic trouble, especially making one's way along those winding roads. I suppose that if we were to take the bends out of them they would lose some of their charm, but it would facilitate travel. The difficulties are great at all times, but especially in the summer season on the road to Launceston, though in Cornwall one is able to move with a certain amount of facility, with far more than one is able to in Devon. I do not know whom we congratulate upon that, whether it is the county council or not.

One of the chief problems among West Country roads—and I thank the hon. Member for raising it—is the main road to Weston-super-Mare, which one feels when one starts to drive out of Bristol and to go down through Long Ashton. There was an improvement scheme, I believe, which has temporarily been shelved, to cross the river farther down at Templecombe. This might dispose of the need for any major improvement, for the moment at any rate, on the Long Ashton road, and at the same time it would catch up with the Bridgwater Road.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary has listened to the pleas put to him tonight and that he will try to persuade the Minister that there is such a place as the West Country and that it matters just as much as the north-east of England or the north-west of England, and I hope that something will be done to help us.

10.29 p.m.

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

I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) on his good fortune in securing the Adjournment tonight and on the ability with which he has used it to advocate the case for road improvements in Somerset, in particular, and in the South-West, in general.

Let me assure him that I do not think that the South-West is a sleepy backwater. Indeed, I was born in Devonshire myself, and I should, therefore, deny most heartily anything of the kind. I well know the narrow lanes of Devon and Somerset, and although our road programme is going ahead rapidly and we are rapidly improving our roads, I think that for a long time yet there will be a good many winding lanes in Devon. Somerset and Cornwall, so that the beauties we all admire will be there for some time to come and, I hope, for ever.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on presenting his case once more. He referred to the occasion last December when he brought a delegation—an unusually large one of some 20 Members of Parliament representing six counties—to make out the case for the South-West, and very ably he did it. He has made a further plea tonight that the needs of the South-West shall be kept before us.

The Government's policy with regard to the road programme is, as has been stated on many occasions—though, perhaps, I should state it again tonightߞto give absolute top priority to our five main projects. Those are well known, and, in the main, serve our industrial centres, connecting the Midlands to London, to South Wales; connecting Lancashire to the Midlands and to London, connecting the North to the South, and connecting London to the West.

The South Wales radial is in our five main projects. The first part of it will start this year, with the Maidenhead bypass, being built to motorway standards. The second part—the Slough by-pass—will be authorised next year, linking on to the Maidenhead by-pass, and we have now started investigating the next part of the radial, from Chiswick to Slough, with the very interesting suggestion of an overhead road over the Great West Road which will carry it across the factory area to reach the country beyond. Preparations are now going ahead for the other end of the radial—the Severn Bridge approaches and the Severn Bridge itself —so that connection with the West is very much alive. But, of course, the connection with South Wales has a higher priority than has the South-West itself, of which my hon. Friend has been principally speaking.

Our view has been that, although, of course, there is industry—and important industry—in the South-West, we must nevertheless give priority to the area where industry is heaviest—in the Mid lands. Indeed, it is on the prosperity there that no doubt a large number of the tourists to the South-West depend who come and take their holidays in that delightful part of the world. So we feel it right not only to give priority to these five main projects, but to endeavour to complete them as quickly as possible so that the nation will receive the benefit of the new roads as quickly as it can be done.

It is a common experience—and, indeed, the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins) referred to one part of it when he said that he brought a delegation to see my right hon. Friend and myself to plead the case for Bristol—for representations to be made from various parts of the country. There are 61 counties in the country, and many county boroughs, and from time to time most of them seem to find their way here to tell us that there is something they would like. On the other hand, I had the rare experience the other day of an urban district in the West Country coming to tell us that it did not want a bye-pass. I said that it was an interesting change because, as a rule, they come to ask for one.

I therefore make the point to my hon. Friend that there are many others waiting in the queue, but we stick to our view that this is in the national interest. It would have been easier, politically, to have spread the work out thin all over the country, but in terms of the nation's economic interest it would have been completely the reverse of the best because, instead of getting a number of major roads completed quickly, which would give great industrial and economic benefit, we would have just a little bit here and a little bit there all over the place. Although that would have been popular in the neighbourhood, the nation's economy would not have benefited to the same extent.

So we have stuck rigidly to this policy and we intend to pursue it. But it does mean, as my hon. Friend rightly said, that there is a reduction in the amount of work that the South-West is able to do this year compared with last year. That is because these major schemes of building motorways are now in full swing and, therefore, require an even greater share of our money than they were using last year and the year before. I recognise how disappointing this is for the county surveyors and county councils concerned, but it is inevitable.

My hon. Friend said that the amount of money for maintenance and minor improvement work ought to be increased by 15 per cent., but I hope he will take note of the fact that the total for the South-West this year of £2,835,000 is 9 per cent. more than they got in 1958–59 and, therefore, goes some way towards meeting what he would like to have.

He mentioned the Taunton relief road, and I have full details of that. I assure him that it is ever before our minds.

May I thank my hon. Friend for presenting in a clear and moderate manner the case for road improvements in the South-West? We appreciate—I do particularly—the farming importance of the area, especially in Somerset, and the importance of tourism. Both those need good roads to connect the South-West with the rest of the country. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing once again to our notice not only the facts but the strong feelings behind them. At present, strong though these needs are, I am afraid they must take second place.

But the South-West is not forgotten. There is some evidence of this in the fact that we have just allocated an additional £93,000 to the South-West which, with the county contribution, will make about £150,000, because we found in the last month that we had a little bit of elbow room which we did not expect, and so the South-West got a substantial slice of it—not quite as much as the quarter of a million that my hon. Friend would like but, at least, it shows that that part of the country is not forgotten.

The turn of the South-West will come not in this phase but in the next one. We are now spending £55 million this year on new roads and major improvements in England and Wales. It is, as my hon. Friend has rightly said, the biggest road programme that has even been undertaken in this country. We intend to go on. We expect to spend £65 million next year, and this will settle down to art least £60 million a year. Who can say What will come in the future? With an excellent Government like this, which really builds roads, there is a prospect that we might spend even more. If we are able to do so, undoubtedly the South-West will be very near our hearts and will have a good slice of what is going. But in this phase and in the national interest, I am afraid they will have to take their turn.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for recognising so handsomely that they could not come into this phase. Burt let me assure them that they are not for-gotten. They will come in the next phase and they will be just as generously treated when the time comes. I hope my hon. Friend will go back to that delightful part of the countryside over Whitsun and bring some comfort to his many supporters there. He has put forward a good case for them, and it has been well received.

Incidentally, I shall be in the South-West myself during the Whitsun Recess—I might even find myself in that part of the world that you represent yourself, Mr. Speaker—so I shall get some personal evidence of what new roads are required there. I hope that my hon. Friend will go away reassured that the Government have the case well before them.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-one minutes to Eleven o'clock.