HC Deb 16 March 1960 vol 619 cc1441-50

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

10.24 p.m.

Mr. Martin McLaren (Bristol, North-West)

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise the subject of the Inner Circuit Road at Bristol, and I shall try to show that this is not only a constituency point but one that raises wider issues which apply in other places also.

Put quite simply, we in Bristol wish to construct the proposed new section called stage 3 of this road running from St. James' Barton to Wellington Road. The only difficulty is who should foot the bill. In major road improvements of this kind, there is a partnership between local authorities and the central Government by which local authorities pay a quarter of the cost and the central Government are asked, by way of Government grant, to find the remaining three-quarters. Bristol Corporation is fully prepared to pay its quarter share out of its rate fund. We are asking that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport should authorise a Government grant for the balance. I shall try to show why we want this road and why we ought to have it.

One thing that experts on traffic in large cities agree about is that an inner circuit road is needed. Only in the last few days we have heard that the Minister was opening the first section of a similar inner circuit road in Birmingham. Also, in the last few days, we have heard that a similar kind of project was planned for Glasgow. Nowhere is such a road more needed than in a city like Bristol, which has a lovely circular heart consisting of a maze of narrow streets, the plan of which has been handed down from medieval days. The traffic situation in Bristol is also complicated by our two rivers, the Avon and the Frome, and the Floating Harbour which winds through the middle of the city, with too few bridges, some of which have to be raised to allow ships to pass. We have to deal with and disperse all the heavy traffic which goes to and from our flourishing docks.

As is well known, Bristol suffered very severe bombing during the war, and much reconstruction has been necessary. This road will help the development of this part of the city. So far, £179,000 has been spent on the acquisition of land and adjoining development, but little benefit has yet been received from the expenditure of that sum.

This Inner Circuit road is not new. It was started over twenty years ago, before the war, but no circle is any good until it is complete. We are asking for this new extension to make our circle perfect and to relieve traffic congestion over a large area. Bristol is a bottleneck between the Midlands and the South-West, and this improvement will be of much more than local benefit.

We have been told about a new motorway between Birmingham and Bristol. I should like to quote from something that the Parliamentary Secretary said when opening the New Ferry by-pass on 30th November last. He said: It is no good having fine new fast roads up and down the country only for them to end in appalling bottlenecks and congestion in our towns and cities. How right he was. He was right to emphasise the importance of major works for the relief of urban traffic congestion, and that is why we must complete our Inner Circuit Road.

Let us remember a paragraph in the Gracious Speech at the beginning of this Session: In order to develop a sound system of communications throughout the country, My Government will press forward with their policy of building new highways and improving existing roads. That is what we want to see happening —a little more pressing forward and less hanging back.

We had a previous scheme of a similar kind which was put forward in 1958 but which was never accepted by the Minister, and this one has not yet been accepted. We know the official line, that the money which is available must be used for building motor roads, improving the main industrial routes of the country and eliminating the black spots which have high accident rates. But all that presupposes that the Minister can determine scientifically and accurately the order of priorities. I am not sure that that is always so.

The other day I was sent a printed lecture about traffic which I thought was an excellent lecture. There was one point in it which I thought came very close to our present subject. It was the Henry Spurrier Lecture delivered before the Institute of Transport. One short extract from it which I should like to quote says: You may ask, how is it decided whether a widening scheme in Newcastle is more urgent than a new bridge in, say, Bristol, or whether a large scheme costing £500,000 is more worth doing than ten schemes costing £50,000 each. There is no absolute answer, nor can there be until a really accurate method of measuring the economic justification of improvements is evolved. I heartily agree with those words. The interesting thing is that the author of that lecture was Sir James Dunnett, the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, so we have it, as it were, straight from the horse's mouth. I think that more attention might perhaps be paid to local opinion as to which schemes are thought to be the best.

It is sometimes argued in the Ministry that because one has received the benefit of other improvements in the same area one is ruled out and must keep quiet for a little while. That surely is a fallacy, because each scheme should be treated on its merits.

Perhaps in the end my right hon. Friend may find that he needs more money, because what is undoubtedly happening at the moment is that Government spending in this direction does not keep pace with the capacity of the civil engineering industry nor with the desire of the local authorities to pay their share and to undertake their own local developments.

Our road expenditure, if measured as a percentage of gross national product, is far less than that of the United States and less, too, than that of Italy, Western Germany, France or Belgium. I understand that it is at this time of the year that the programme for the future financial year is usually mapped out. I hope that the arguments that I have tried to put on the merits of this Inner Circuit Road will help our project to be better understood and that my right hon. Friend will decide to authorise the project for grant.

10.34 p.m.

Mr. Stan Awbery (Bristol, Central)

The question of the Inner Circuit Road in Bristol has been agitating the minds of the people of the city and of the councillors for a considerable time. We have been urging the Minister to do something to complete this road. Deputations have come to London from Bristol to interview the Minister and to put before him the need for completing the road, but nothing has been done.

Since May. of last year I have put down four Questions to the Minister asking him to give urgent attention to the question of this road. The Chamber of Commerce has written to him a very long letter explaining the need for the completion of the road. It points out that many business people have purchased land in that area because they were given to understand that a circuit road would be completed within a reasonable time. The road has not been completed. The result is that these people are losing a considerable amount of money, and they are asking the Minister to give his attention to this problem so that they will be able to get on with their legitimate business when the road is completed.

On 6th May last year I put down a Question to the Minister pointing out to him that the non-completion of this road was causing a loss of revenue to Bristol, and asking him to give urgent consideration to the matter, so that the area could be developed as a central shopping area. Nothing was done. I hope that the Minister will do more tonight than undertake to give the matter urgent consideration; I hope that he will give an indication that the Government are prepared to contribute the 75 per cent. of the cost of the scheme asked for by the local authority. As it indicated to him, about two years ago, the council is prepared to pay 25 per cent. of the cost, and it has called upon the Government to provide the other 75 per cent.

On 2nd December last year I put down another Question to the Minister, pointing out that the manufacturers and business people of Bristol were suffering considerable hardships because of the delay in dealing with this problem. I got no satisfaction. The Minister said that the Bristol Corporation was the highway authority for the road, and he knew that it was anxious to get on with the job, but the part of the scheme already completed, in respect of which the Government had made a 75 per cent. grant, was essential, whereas the remaining part was not. I submit that the unfinished part is just as essential as that part which has been finished. If part of a circular road is incomplete it nullifies the whole effect.

On 16th December I again raised the matter. The Chamber of Commerce has seen me and has sent letters to me and to the Minister indicating what was required and urging him to remove the bottleneck now existing in the city by completing the work. On 3rd February I returned to the subject. I have submitted Questions to him on four occasions, the Chamber of Commerce has written to him, and two deputations have seen him. I want the Minister to regard this as an urgent matter, and to give an undertaking tonight that he will see that the job is put in hand.

10.40 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. McLaren) on his foresight in having raised this subject tonight, and to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Hopkins) has also shown an interest in the matter. I refrained from taking part in the agitation on this subject in the last Parliament, but I feel now that the time has come when this vital service should be provided for Bristol. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give us a favourable reply this evening.

10.41 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Hay)

Tonight I am surrounded by hon. Members from Bristol. Although not all of them have spoken, I think it is clear from the speeches to which we have listened that there is strong feeling about the Inner Circuit Road in Bristol. This debate, which necessarily must be brief, takes place against the background of the Civil Estimates which were published yesterday and which show the amounts we are to spend on roads in the forthcoming financial year. They show a rise of £114 million in the funds for roads. In all £62.7 million is to be spent on trunk roads, including the motorways, and £38.9 million on the classified roads, a total for new construction and major and minor improvements and for maintenance of £101.6 million. Including various miscellaneous services, the total we shall spend on roads in this coming year is £105.6 million.

The scheme in Bristol is one of the classified road schemes. In the coming year we propose to spend £38.9 million on classified roads of all kinds, £14.5 million will be on new construction and major improvements and £232 million on maintenance and minor improvements. This reflects the Minister's policy of priorities for our road system and as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. McLaren) said, this consists first of giving priority to the motorways, secondly to directing what funds we can to the improvement of the industrial roads of the country, thirdly to relieve traffic congestion and delay, both in the cities and in the country and finally to trying to clean up the accident black spots.

Even the amount of money we are talking about now, over £100 million to be spent on roads in one year, is not enough to do all that we should like to do, or to do it as quickly as we should wish. With the particular task I have in the Government I find that every highway authority in the country has its desirable scheme and all of them would like to have their schemes attended to at once. I think it is obvious that we cannot do it all at once. It will take some time to clear many of these schemes, but we will do the best we can.

Before turning to the problem of Bristol may I dispose of some of the illusions about the system by which we make grants for the improvement of classified roads and say something about the basis on which they are fixed. There is a fairly widespread idea that the Ministry of Transport "allocates" a certain amount of grant money to highway authorities each year for major improvements schemes in the same way as it does for maintenance work, and that if the grants in one year for one authority amount to less than for the previous year it means that the "programme" of the local authority has somehow been "cut". These notions have gained a lot of currency, particularly in the southwest of England and have persisted in spite of repeated corrections by my right hon. Friend's predecessor, by my predecessor and by the Ministry generally.

A programme in this false sense does not exist. There is no such thing as a geographical allocation of money for this purpose. Our system is to choose the most urgently needed schemes on their merits, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West said, wherever they happen to be. This means that in one year one authority may get several schemes and in the next year few or perhaps none.

A partial exception are the small schemes costing less than £25,000. These schemes are numerous and their priority claims are difficult to compare. By and large, highway authorities receive grants for these schemes at more regular levels within whatever sum is set aside each year for this category.

So long as the demand for schemes by highway authorities exceeds the supply of grant money available this national priority system is inescapable if funds are to be spent in the most effective way. To local eyes it may seem that the omission of some scheme or other from the programme is inexplicable, but it means only that elsewhere there are schemes even more urgent which must be tackled first.

Another phrase which is often misused or misunderstood is "fair share". A local authority may complain that it does not get what it calls its fair share of major improvements. We ourselves avoid using this expression because it can easily be, and often is, taken to mean, like the word "allocation", some standard proportion of the funds available, or the issue of funds on some kind of rota system to highway authorities. There is no such system. Our only criterion is and must be to choose each year those schemes which are most urgent, irrespective of their geographical location.

May I now come to the situation in Bristol? To put the matter in perspective, I must remind the House that since 1956 we have made a number of grants to Bristol. Nearly £500,000 has been given in this way. The actual figure is £472,000. Already in the programme there are two schemes—the Feeder Road bridge and the Passage Road scheme which is part of the Filton by pass substitute. The Feeder Road bridge scheme will involve a grant of £21,000 and the Passage Road scheme a giant of £53,000. In addition, we have spent and given by way of grant £95,000 for the Inner Circuit Road, stages 1 and 2, to which the hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Awbery) referred, which were completed by 1958.

Bristol has asked us to approve stage 3 of the Inner Circuit Road and to put it in our programme. If we accept the estimates and figures, the amount of grant is in the order of £305,000. Bristol has a number of other schemes in hand, and two in particular are large ones. There is the Cumberland Basin scheme which would cost us as grant £1.7 million and the Bedminster Bridge improvement which would cost in grant £323,000. These, together with the Inner Circuit Road, stage 3, are parts of a programme which the Bristol Corporation has put forward and which will take five years to complete. I must say frankly that many other highway authorities are equally ambitious and many of them are equally impatient.

Mr. Awbery

Does the Minister realise that there is a difference between the three schemes, that there are two separate schemes and this scheme, on which thousands of pounds have already been spent, but we cannot use it because we cannot complete that circle? I am asking that the circle should be completed.

Mr. Hay

I am coming to that. I am merely saying that we have already had intimation from Bristol that it would like to do these three big schemes in a five-year period—Cumberland Basin, Bedminster Bridge and the third stage of the Inner Circuit Road. Many other highway authorities are often importunate and impatient because we cannot give them the money as quickly as we would like, but I would underline as strongly as I can that this year we have only £14½ million available for new construction and major improvements on classified roads in the whole of England and Wales. That means that we have to be rather strict about the priorities that we observe.

We are now in process of reviewing our programme for 1960–61 and we are shortly starting a review of the programme for the following year 1961–62. As a result of our review of the present programme, it may be possible to include a few more schemes than we had thought. Inevitably when one establishes a programme some schemes fall out because they are not quite ready and that means that we may have more money available for new schemes. I am glad to be able to tell the House that the Bristol Inner Circuit Road, stage 3, comes into this category. I can tell my hon Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport expects to be able to make a grant for stage 3 of the road in the next financial year which starts in April. I think that was what hon. Members who have taken part in the debate have asked for.

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

We have been asking for it for twelve months.

Mr. Hay

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is pleased that we have been able to find the money for this. It has not been an easy task.

The long patience that Bristol has shown has at last been rewarded. We are delighted, because we want to see the scheme carried out as much as anybody else. However, I must emphasise this. I must somehow protect my flank. The reason why we are putting this scheme into our programme, if all goes well, is that we consider it to be a sufficiently urgent scheme. I would not like the idea to get around that any hon. Member who happens to have a pet road scheme that his local authority wants to put in the programme has only to initiate an Adjournment debate and I will necessarily be in a position to stand at the Dispatch Box and give the same answer. Certainly we feel that this is a scheme which on its merits, as my hon. Friend said, deserves to go into the programme if it is possible to do it. We shall be able to do that in the coming financial year.

10.51 p.m.

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

It is a poor heart that never rejoices, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) and all the other hon. Members representing Bristol constituencies would wish to express thanks to the Minister for his reconsideration of this matter and what I think we may regard as a satisfactory promise for the near future.

I have been interested in this problem for a very long time. We have made many representations and visits to Ministries. I believe that this is a wise decision, despite the fact that it happens to apply to my city. My reason for believing that is that, although we are engaged on a very large trunk road programme throughout the country, it still remains a fact that it increases the congestion which arises in cities and towns through which the traffic has to pass.

When this road is completed it will be a considerable help in carrying the north-south and north-south-west traffic which is almost obliged to pass through Bristol. Therefore, the statement made by the Parliamentary Secretary will be welcomed by all hon. Members who represent Bristol constituencies. I am sure that the Chamber of Commerce and the City Council would expect us to express their gratitude also for the Minister's reconsideration and the promise that he has made to us for the future.

10.53 p.m.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)

In the few moments remaining in the debate, may I add my thanks to those of other hon. Members for the welcome response we have had today? It will be much appreciated. It will make a big difference. We are encouraged to go on with the Bedminster Bridge duplication and the Cumberland Basin scheme, and we shall be coming back in the hope that with the pressure, not of our numbers, but the pressure that comes from the strength of our case, we shall carry the Parliamentary Secretary and his right hon. Friend forward into the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Eleven o'clock.