HC Deb 03 December 1962 vol 668 cc1099-108

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

11.25 p.m.

Mr. Charles A. Howell (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I want to turn from the deaf to the dead. During the whole of my adult life so far, I have been closely connected with and interested in transport, and I wholeheartedly welcomed the decision to go over to motorways. I have kept in close touch with the building of the M.1, the subject of this debate. I must make it clear that I have no constituency interest, other than the fact that my constituency is connected at one end of the road. I recall an hon. Member almost claiming such an interest recently when the Minister was answering a Question, but he was told that Northampton, the place in question, was only adjacent to, and not actually on the M.1.

Almost everyone north of London has to take an interest in this motorway, and I was so interested in it that, along with other hon. Members, I accepted an invitation, before it was built, to go over the fields in a helicopter to see the layout. I quite accepted what the Minister had said in one part of his Press statement, that the conception and design of the M.1 were everything for which one could ask, but I was worried about the specification.

To my questions I received, not doubtful answers but the adamant statement that everything would be perfectly all right. In fact, we were shown a film in the House, and invited to ask questions afterwards. I asked how the surface would stand up to the traffic, and what was the anticipated cost of repairs. The contractors told me that in the next fifteen years the cost of repairs would be negligible. Strangely enough, although I do not use the M.1 very frequently, every time I come down it to London I find repairs going on.

As the repairs went on, my worry increased, so I put a Question to the Minister in the hope of an Answer that would allay my disquiet. There were drops in the road almost like subsidence, and great cracks. One could see the driver in front jumping almost a foot into the air. My Question was answered on 1st August, the Minister saying that the cost of repairs up to then was £59,000, with an anticipated future cost of £¼ million. I think that such a sum can go quite a long way, but I accepted that reply as being genuine, and that nothing had been kept up the Minister's sleeve.

I did not expect that the Minister of Transport would answer this debate—that is one of the things that the Parliamentary Secretary has to stand in for on all occasions—but, quite frankly, I would rather see the hon. Gentleman here, because I do not think that he would try to hoodwink me or the House.

I cannot say that for his right hon. Friend. I trust everybody until somebody deceives me. The Minister has deceived the House on a previous occasion and has boasted about it. He said of his Pink Zone that he had fooled the House, the country and the motorists.

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

indicated dissent.

Mr. Howell

The Parliamentary Secretary shakes his head, but I think that I am right in saying that the Minister had a tremendous amount of publicity for what he said about the Pink Zone only last Christmas. When I saw the Press announcement, the Minister had given me no prior notice of it. Yet, approximately one month after the reply given to me, the announcement was to the effect that £1½ million had to be spent on 13 miles of the M.1 in Bedfordshire. I think, and I wrote to tell the Minister so subsequently, that if there was a mistake in the figures he had given me then, out of courtesy, he ought to have told the House and told me that further investigation had shown that the repairs required were much greater. But the Minister tried to get out of it.

Mr. Hay

indicated dissent.

Mr. Howell

I am not attacking the Minister himself, but 'the system he employs. He simply said that my Question merely asked about the surface repairs. Unless something goes wrong with the surface there can be nothing wrong with the hard core underneath. If the hard core has gone, the only effect that the human eye can see is on the surface. I defy the Minister, or even the Parliamentary Secretary, to get at the hard core of any road without 'having to disturb the surface.

This is really shocking. My telephone hardly stopped ringing on the day of this announcement, because apparently all the Press, the B.B.C. and the I.T.V. tied the £.1½ million with the Question I asked and the Answer I received a month earlier. Various people from various newspapers told me that an admission had been made that a calculated risk had been taken and that someone somewhere along the line had been compelled to accept a lower specification on the ground of economy. This is a point we ought to have cleared up, as I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary agrees.

Three people or parties of people are concerned with this. First, the public see the name of the firm who built the road. I shall not mention any names or give any publicity to newspapers or anybody else. It is only fair for me to say and for the Parliamentary Secretary to agree with me if I am right, as I think I must be, that with a consulting engineer on the job there can be no question that the firm who built the road, whose name everybody saw along the road, built it correctly to the specification for which it tendered.

Mr. Hay

indicated assent.

Mr. Howell

It is absolutely paramount that I should say that. I have no criticism whatever of those who built the road.

I was repeatedly asked whether I thought there had been any "fiddling." I said that if there had been, two parties must have been concerned in it—the people who built the road and whoever supervised the building, that is, the supervising engineer. I do not think that either, with the status they have in the country, could afford to do that. I gladly place that or record now.

I said that it seemed to me that somewhere a specification less perfect than could have been desired must have been tabled, a specification to which the contractors tendered. According to the newspapers—they may have been trying to draw me—it was admitted that the original specification had been reduced. I have some reason for believing that to be the case, although I think that the responsibility would be in the Ministry's engineering department and not with the consultant engineer. It may be that the reduction was justified, but we should be told who made the error in the specification.

I could have found good excuse for the reduction in the specification. Subsequent traffic may have been heavier than expected. Raising the speed limit for freight vehicles from 20 to 30 m.p.h. —and we are now in the process of raising it to 40 m.p.h.—may have led to such heavy pounding from great weights going at terrific speeds that the surface broke up. I have no technical knowledge about the hard core; I know how roads are built, but I do not have the qualifications to argue about their construction.

However, somebody somewhere must have assumed what the requirements for this road would have to be. One of the cardinal principles of engineering is that one is required to build to withstand certain stresses. Bridges, for example, have to be built to withstand certain stresses, and so do roads. What was the specification which was made by the consultant engineers and which was reduced at the Ministry's request? Should not the Ministry now admit that a mistake was made? In his letter to me the Minister accepted that a mistake was made, because he said that future motorways would be built to higher specifications. It is, therefore, fair to assume that the specifications for the M.1 were wrong. We now have to ensure that the mistake does not happen again, and I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will give us such an assurance.

I have no time for destructive critics who, at the end of their destructive criticisms, have no constructive comments to make. The House knows that I do not seek publicity. Indeed, my job in my party is such that I am not normally allowed to speak. However, I call attention to a newspaper report of what the Bedfordshire police have said: Since the beginning of September, when extensive motorway repairs began north of Luton, 40 accidents have been reported. A Bedfordshire police spokesman said, 'This is the worst we have known since the M.1 opened just three years ago'". The report went on to say that the bad accident period of the last few weeks before Christmas was approaching.

If we can convey to the motoring public, who may want to assist the Minister to get even more congestion in Oxford Street and Regent Street—as we have seen on television—as people come to see the lights, that there is danger on the M.1 because of the repairs, my Adjournment debate will have been useful. The report goes on: 'We appeal to all motorists to "break the accident bogy" before the worst period arrives. When no repairs are taking place, the M.I is still the safest road in England'. I completely endorse that and I hope that motorists will take it to heart. An average of 21 people a year are killed on the M.1 and I wonder what effect the repairs are having.

For instance, to quote again from the Bedfordshire police: In our experience, they take very little notice of the warning signs unless they can actually see the obstruction. That may be true, but they go on to say: Some motorists complain that the signs are inadequate or illegible. If they are illegible it is because they have got knocked about by so many cars running into them. That is true. Half the cones have gone. It ought to be the job of someone, possibly of the local authority, to see that a sign is replaced after it has been knocked down by a motorist. It is no consolation to the widow or the parents of someone who has been killed on M.1 to be told, "This would not have happened if someone had not knocked the notices down."

There is a lot that I would like to have said, but in an Adjournment debate one's time is limited. I have no confirmation of this, but I believe I am right in saying that the A.A. has suggested that when the G.P.O. is working on new telephone services along M.1 it should assist in providing warnings of fog and other dangers. I commend this idea to the Minister.

The Minister referred one of my hon. Friends to the Road Research Department. I would ask him to refer to the Road Research Department the question of the water-holding capacity of M.1. Anyone driving along M.1 hours after the rain has stopped creates waves of water 6 ft. high. Water is thrown up from the up road on to cars proceeding along the down road—speaking as a former railway man. Either the camber or the constituent material of the road is such as to cause it to hold the water. Inquiry can ascertain from anyone, including hon. Members opposite, that the effect is like a ship going through the water, curving the waves up. There is a terrific amount of water there.

I ask the Minister to request the Road Research Department to investigate this, because if that amount of water freezes we have a skating rink instead of a motorway, which could create tremendous damage.

11.43 p.m.

Dr. Reginald Bennett (Gosport and Fareham)

I should like for a few moments to support the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Charles A. Howell) in having raised this subject. I. too, have been most anxious about the M.1 and its troubles. I had an Answer in this House before the Summer Recess which seemed to me to scoff at the possibility of any danger arising from the repairs which were necessary to M.1. I am very concerned at the manner in which it has been breaking up, especially in the southern part, where the work had to be most rushed.

I am convinced that the specification must have been at fault. That has been proved by the fact that the specification for flexible surface motorways has been amended this year by the authority of D.S.I.R. and it now specifies a much thicker layer of material. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that he should look more into the prospect of improving the specification by adopting the use of concrete which may be locked slab to slab to make a continuous ribbon road, internally stressed, by which it is possible to use thinner layers of concrete road instead of thicker layers of asphalt road.

11.44 p.m.

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

I think that I ought to begin by denying categorically, and for the record, that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport feels that he in any way deceived the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Charles A. Howell), either in the correspondence that they had on the question of the amounts which had been spent or were to be spent on repairs to M.1 or in answer to Questions. I thought my right hon. Friend, in his letter of 31st October, had very fully explained there had been a misunderstanding. If the hon. Gentleman is not satisfied, I am very sorry, but certainly my right hon. Friend had no intention of deceiving the hon. Gentleman or the House.

I have not got very long now to deal with a rather complicated and technical matter in some detail and I should like very quickly to come to the main point which the hon. Gentleman has raised. The whole point is whether or not the specification for the M.1 motorway was defective from the start.

Here, I must make it clear that our task in building a motorway is, first, to lay down what is the broad requirement for the road. It is for the consulting engineer who carries out the design of the road to lay down the specification on which the contractor works, and it is, therefore, for the consulting engineer to interpret the Ministry's desires about what needs to be done. Provided that, within certain fairly wide tolerances, he is able to do so, the specification is his responsibility.

In this case a rather unusual type of specification was drawn up because this was the first major length of motorway we were building in this country, and we wanted to make sure it would be able to bear the traffic which was likely to use it. On top of the chalk or clay or earth foundation—the natural surface of the land—there was to be a sub-base composed of crushed rock, of stone, of gravel; and its thickness would vary according to the strength of the ground. Above the sub-base was to be a base, and this base consisted, according to the specification, of 14 in. of what is called lean concrete in two layers using gravel as dug straight from the pit.

At the time—we are speaking of 1957 —there Was some doubt among the technical experts who enjoy details of this kind whether the 14 in. depth of the base was too extravagant, because at that time many people thought that 10 in. would be much more normal and much less costly. Nevertheless, having gone into the matter in some detail, we and the engineer agreed that we should accept this particular depth of base; for two reasons: first, that it would mean that some degree of economy could be exercised—in fact, it would mean a slightly cheaper road than other types of construction, in particular concrete; and secondly, that it would mean a much faster speed in the actual construction. We should gain something on money and we would certainly gain something on time.

There were two important provisos: first, that the sub-base underneath it should be very carefully and fully compacted; and, secondly, that the surface layers on top of the base itself should be of the highest quality. The surface layers consisted of two courses, as they are called; the base course, which was 2½in. of asphalt, and the wearing course of 1½in. of asphalt, with a high stone content to provide a skid-resistant riding surface.

The contractors consulted the Asphalt Roads Association, which is a great expert in these matters, and it was generally agreed that this was 'the right course to take. The Stamford by-pass was being built at the same time. Although not a motorway, it was being built to motorway standards, and it had the same specification, and we have had no troubles with the Stamford by-pass.

What did this cost? This particular method of construction, the flexible method, cost about £387,000 per mile. We saved a good deal by comparison with concrete, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) referred, although he was speaking of a rather different method of construction which has become much more popular recently. We estimate the cost of concrete as about £469,000 per mile, so there was some advantage in cost.

What actually went wrong? First, the effect of heavy traffic at very high speeds had a great deal to do with the problem. About 12,000 vehicles per hour use each carriageway of the motorway. This works out at about 20 per minute, or, if we reduce it even further, one vehicle on average every three seconds, and one vehicle in every three is a heavy lorry. Under this pounding, and particularly in the slow lane which is used by most of the heavy vehicles, the surface began to show signs of damage underneath.

We consulted the Road Research Laboratory, investigations were carried out between us, and we came to the following diagnosis as to what was wrong. I mentioned the high stone content of asphalt to give a proper skid resistant surface. We found that water had permeated, that and had got down as far as the base itself. Between the base course, Which is the lower of the two top surfaces and the base itself, which, as I said, is lean concrete, there is a bitumen seal. Water became trapped between the base and the base course, and the pounding of the traffic on top caused a slurrying of the top layer of the base and damage to the lower course of asphalt. This was what we found to be the trouble.

It is easy to be wise after the event, but, nevertheless, at the time, as my right hon. Friend said in a letter to the hon. Gentleman—and the hon. Gentleman has quoted the words tonight but I will repeat them— It appeared to be a calculated risk to take that particular form of construction", and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that not only was there no "fiddling", as he has generously and properly said, but there was no fault to be found with the contractors themselves. They carried out the job they were asked to do, and certainly it is not the case that the consulting engineers' specification was reduced at the request of the Ministry. We and the consulting engineers were at one as to what we wanted, and there was no difficulty about that, but, as I have said, we have found this problem as time has gone by.

In this morning's Daily Telegraph there was a letter from Mr. T. K. Chaplin about roads and soil, and his suggestion was that much of our failure on the motorway has been due to soil failure. But the weakness which has developed in some lengths of the slow lane of the M.1 does not have its origin in overloading of the soil below the carriageway construction. Highway engineers and scientists engaged on highway research have for many years been fully aware that the type and strength of the soil is an important factor in designing and selecting the most appropriate type of carriageway construction, and it is a fundamental thing for all highway engineers to carry out the necessary soil surveys before they complete their designs. This was done in the case of the M.1. The action being taken is to replace the damaged base with a bitumen macadam, and the asphalt surface is being replaced with one of the maximum impermeability to prevent this happening again.

It is not true that we are spending £1½ million on repairs to M.1. That sum is for repairs and improvements, and by far the bulk of the money is going to improvements to the road. We are spending £650,000 on improved drainage, particularly of the central reserve, on an improved emergency telephone service, and in strengthening the hard shoulders. We are spending about £250,000 on repairs to the road itself, and for the future we are earmarking about £500,000 for further improvements and repairs and works as time proves them to be necessary, but even with that £1½ million for repairs and improvements added, M.1 is still the cheapest motorway of its size that we have ever built or are likely to build.

I must say quite openly that as time goes on it is proving more expensive to build motorways, but we feel that we got a very good bargain for the nation out of M.1 even taking into account all improvements and repairs that have had to be done since. We have also taken advantage of the experience that we have gained, and the changes in our standard specification, to which the hon. Gentleman drew attention, have been made as a result of our experience on M.1. I will not go into the detail of them, because time presses, but I take this opportunity of thanking the hon. Gentleman for bringing the matter forward tonight. I hope that I have been able to clear up any misunderstanding or misapprehension there might be, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his attention.

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 five minutes to Twelve o'clock.