HC Deb 06 December 1962 vol 668 cc1608-20

8.57 p.m.

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

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the question of the continuation of the M.5 motorway from Birmingham to Bristol, southwards, through Tewkesbury where it now ends. I do this for two reasons, both equally important. First, I think that this motorway is vital to the traffic communications of the area and that my constituents will find it an immense benefit by relieving the crowded roads in the district; and, secondly, because of the effect which it has already had on Tewkesbury by the fact that this motorway ends just north of the town, disgorging all its traffic into its very narrow and ancient streets

The county council did not object to the Provisional Order for the new motorway because it felt that it would be unwise to comment on the situation until after the present section of the M.5 is finished, and it had actually seen what happened in Tewkesbury I think that it is my first duty to prove beyond any doubt that conditions in Tewkesbury have in fact deteriorated seriously. To that end, two surveys have been carried out. The first was carried out by the Traffic Engineering Unit of Birmingham University, which I am sure my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport would approve of as being a worthy source. It estimated that the traffic going through Tewkesbury had increased by about 30 per cent. since the motorway was opened.

In addition, the application of a Civic Trust scheme to that beautiful town is being considered and a traffic survey was carried out a year ago in that connection. Recently an identical survey was carried out, exactly one year later, because of anxiety about the motorway and the traffic problem. It was found that heavy vehicles had increased in number by 60 per cent. These figures are only a rough guide and there may not be complete agreement about them, but I submit that they are evidence that there has been a great increase in the traffic going to Tewkesbury.

It is particularly serious during Bank holidays, the holiday season in the summer and on Saturdays when queues have stretched back to the end of the motorway, three or four miles north, and it has taken an hour to get through the town. It is, therefore, certainly true that although conditions were bad before they are now considerably worse and are having a serious effect already upon the life of the town.

It is rather surprising that the Chamber of Commerce in Tewkesbury, which, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, is mainly a shopping centre and a town which people visit and stay at overnight and a market town for the surrounding district, should so wholeheartedly be hoping for the construction of a motorway to by-pass the town. The members of the Chamber of Commerce realise that a town clogged with heavy traffic and one where people cannot leave their vehicles for a moment is bad for their own trade. They would prefer to have the town by-passed and that people who wish to come in for shopping or for holidays should be able to stay in peace without being interfered with by this heavy traffic. This is proof enough that the town itself is very keen on this project. Trade is definitely falling off and the townspeople are very worried.

We should also take into account the structures of the ancient buildings in Tewkesbury. It is a town of some fame and of great beauty. Although the Abbey itself is far enough from the road to be safe, the vibrations caused by heavy vehicles in the main street cannot but cause deterioration to the ancient brick walls of the houses. This is an added reason why we should press forward with the by-pass.

In addition, since I suggested that this matter should be raised on the Adjournment, a proposal has been made for a 10,000 increase in the population of Tewkesbury as overspill from Birmingham. This is obviously another reason why tire main through traffic should be taken out of the town so that it can have a life of its own without interference from traffic.

The motorway has been planned since before the war. The county council has been very active in suggesting routes and in helping the Ministry in every possible way to provide all the facilities needed. The main indictment I would wish to make against my hon. Friend's Department is that it has allowed one section to be planned, the contract to be let and the work to be finished without having a nearly adeqate follow-on for the remainder of the motorway to the south. Even if the motorway were completed in the shortest imaginable time from now, there would be a four-year gap between the northern section from Birmingham to Tewkesbury and the southern section from Tewkesbury to Bristol, and that probably would be pushing on extremely fast. It seems very strange that the Minister should have allowed this section to have been built to disgorge traffic on to Tewkesbury without having sufficiently advanced plans to carry it further to the south.

Planning, to my knowledge, has been going on for two years, because I have had correspondence with people who wished to find out whether the motorway would go through their land. I think that it has been going on even for at least three years, during which time this route has been under active discussion. But it is disappointing to hear that draft proposals were only fixed by the consultants six months ago. This is far too long a period to have been allowed to pass. There should have been a much smoother programming for this motorway and it should have been foreseen that stopping the motorway just north of the narrow streets of Tewkesbury would cause this serious problem of traffic attracted on to the motorway being spilled into Tewkesbury, there being no sensible way round the town which heavy vehicles and motor cars could use.

There is no point in criticising what has happened in the past. I want to concentrate on what should be done in the future. It has been suggested that it might be possible to re-route traffic to by-pass Tewkesbury. I have heard it said that some traffic can be sent down the Ross Spur and round Gloucester that way, but that is a very long way round, and there were traffic congestions near Gloucester when the experiment was tried last summer. That suggestion does not provide a practical solution, and as Tewkesbury is at the confluence of the rivers Avon and Severn there is no chance of a short by-pass through the town without building a major bridge. We are forced to admit that there is no satisfactory solution, short of the provision of the motorway itself, with the new bridge over the Avon at Bredon.

The police have put up "No Waiting" signs throughout Tewkesbury, which have had some effect towards the alleviation of congestion, but it is thoroughly inconvenient to the residents of the town and to people who wish to shop and to stay overnight if they cannot leave their cars at the side of the road. From my own experience I can say that it has become extremely difficult to do that in Tewkesbury.

I am sure that there is no alternative but to press on with the next stage of the motorway at the greatest possible speed. I do not think that it was either necessary or right to attempt to build the whole section as far as Somerset in one bite. I am sure that the work should have been phased, so that each section followed upon the previous one. This serious problem will be solved if the motorway is taken just to the south of the City of Gloucester, about 18 miles from where it now ends.

If we concentrated on building the 18-mile section to the intersection lying to the South of Gloucester, there would be great advantage to many places other than Tewkesbury. It would take the traffic off the main Tewkesbury-Gloucester Road, which is one of the worst roads I know, as is confirmed by its accident record. Large sums of money have been spent in trying to improve the road, but it would have been far more sensible to use that money for the further construction of the motorway. There is also considerable congestion in the City of Gloucester and the ring road round it, all of which would be cured by the provision of this motorway to the south of Gloucester.

It is essential to get that section of the motorway scheduled to start at some definite date. In reply to the original Question in the House, which made me raise this matter, my hon. Friend could give no date and no place in the programme even for starting the work. I have been informed by Gloucester County Council that it would be quite feasible to complete the statutory procedures and the necessary land transfers by the middle of 1964–18 months from now. This would mean pressing on quite quickly, but I am told that previous experience proves that this is possible.

It would probably take between two and two-and-a-half years to build the 18-mile section to which I have referred. That would take us to the end of 1966. I am sure that that is a practical proposition. If the argument is raised that the resources of skilled designers and administrators are not available, I would refer my hon. Friend to the letter from the county council, containing what I believe is no new offer, but one that it has always held to, namely, that it is prepared to do all the detailed designing of the bridges and the detailed setting-out work, and to complete the statutory processes and the land transfers, acting as agents for the Ministry, in the time stated.

That would have taken the load completely off anybody outside the county, for it would be able to let the contract and supervise the construction of the work. It is also worth saying at this stage, and I hope I am not being unduly selfish on behalf of my constituents, that this would be for the benefit of people living further south of Gloucester and around Bristol, and I hope it will be possible to programme the next section south so that it follows fairly soon after the completion of this one.

If my hon. Friend will not accept this suggestion and allow the county council to proceed, I think we shall be forced to the conclusion that it is only money which is holding up the construction of this section. I think I have already made the point that money has been spent on existing roads which would have been obviated if it had been possible to construct this section of the motorway at this time. I think that the situation is not a straightforward question of improving communications. It is a situation in which communications have definitely been worsened, more particularly for residents of Tewkesbury, by the construction of only part of this motorway, and this in itself constitutes a special reason and makes it imperative that this part of the motorway should be constructed in order to save the strangulation of the town of Tewkesbury.

However, in any event, whether my hon. Friend accepts the suggestion and completes the 18-mile length, whether he accepts my time-table or whatever he does or does not do, I hope he will say tonight that this motorway will be given a place in the programme. It is not very encouraging for the victims of this situation not to have any date in mind when it might be started or be planned in detail. It is most important that we should get this section of the motorway put into a programme, so that we may see when it may take place and plan accordingly.

I am quite certain that the build-up of traffic will continue for four or five years, and that the town of Tewkesbury now has to take a very high proportion of the heavy traffic moving from the Midlands, Birmingham and the Black Country down to ports in the Bristol, Channel, South Wales or on the South Coast, while, at the same time, it has to take practically all the holiday traffic moving, not only from the Midlands, but from the north of England and Scotland, down to Devon and Cornwall. I know from experience that large numbers of people who live in the north of England and in Scotland choose the South Coast of England for their holidays when they have the time to get down there, and this is placing a very heavy burden indeed upon a town which was built over a thousand years ago and which was not built to cope with such a volume of traffic.

In conclusion, I would say that this is having a very serious effect on the life of Tewkesbury. I reiterate the point that the life of the town and its sources of income are being quite definitely affected, not only by this latest increase of from 30 to 60 per cent., but by the ever-increasing volume of traffic which has gone through Tewkesbury for the last twenty or thirty years. Up to a point, it was satisfactory, but, beyond that point, it has become a definite disadvantage from a business point of view, and, at the same time, from the point of view of the buildings, and that of the residents, who cannot sleep at night for the noise, and for many other reasons indeed.

I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will be able tonight to give me some really good news about the possibility of putting this section of the road in his programme and I hope that he will accept Gloucestershire County Council's suggestion of building the motorway by the end of 1966. If I get an unsatisfactory answer, I shall have to pursue the matter in every way that is open to me.

9.15 p.m.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) deserves both my thanks and congratulations; my thanks for being kind enough to give me notice in advance of the main points which he wished to raise and my congratulations for having in the course of the clay got himself somehow from Paris, which was fogbound, to London, which also was fogbound, in time to take part in this Adjournment debate. I do not know whether my hon. Friend remembers reading Around the World in Eighty Days. If he does, perhaps he might cut himself out for the part of a latter-day Phineas Fogg.

The subject of the debate which has been raised by my hon. Friend is the Bristol—Birmingham motorway. Before I turn to the problems of Tewkesbury, perhaps I may say a little about the project as a whole and the progress that we have been making with it. The Bristol—Birmingham motorway, which we call M.5, is planned eventually to run from Birmingham and the Black Country to a place called East Brent, about 20 miles south-west of Bristol. It will have two functions. It is intended, first, to serve as part of a fast motorway route between the Midlands and South Wales and, secondly, to connect the Midlands with the south-west of England by a route which will by-pass a number of towns like Worcester, Tewkesbury, Gloucester and Bristol itself.

The route of the motorway is planned to be largely parallel with A.38. The northern section, which was opened this summer, runs from the outskirts of Birmingham to Twyning, where it joins the Ross Spur motorway, which runs down into Wales. It provides the first part, therefore, of the improved route to South Wales to which I have already referred.

The next 70 miles of M.5, when built, will carry the road from Twyning to East Brent. Already, we have had surveys made by our consulting engineers and my right hon. Friend has accepted their recommendations on the line that the road should take. Our consultations with the planning authorities are now going on and we can say, therefore, that we are at the first stage of a very long process of statutory procedures.

This first stage will be followed by the publication of a draft scheme for the main line of the motorway and, subsequently, by the publication of a draft scheme for the side roads which join or cross the line of the motorway. Both of these schemes will come forward as soon as they are ready.

I must emphasise one important thing which, perhaps, my hon. Friend has not fully understood. It was never intended that we should build the Bristol—Birmingham motorway as one operation. Our intention—this was one of the five major projects—was to build a motorway from Birmingham to South Wales and then, at a distance of a number of years afterwards, to add the section of which we are speaking tonight from the junction with the Ross Spur down to beyond Bristol.

My hon. Friend has clearly explained the traffic situation in the town of Tewkesbury and its effects. We entirely understand and sympathise with that situation. The town has developed at the junction of the Severn and Avon Rivers and there are, I believe, a number of other small rivers and streams which radiate from Tewkesbury rather like the spokes of a wheel. As a result it has been developed a road pattern of the same kind. Unfortunately, this has the effect of funnelling almost all the traffic approaching the town into the centre of the town.

I fully realise that the opening of the motorway from Birmingham to Twyning has not eased this problem. It is the very geographical advantages which created Tewkesbury at this particular spot which give rise to the difficulties now facing us in trying to work out a solution to the traffic problem. The answer is a by-pass. That would do what no other road in the area at present does. It would cross the rivers, the roads and the railways which radiate from the town. When the motorway is built, that will be its precise effect.

We intend to extend the motorway from Twyning to some point south of Tewkesbury as soon as we possibly can. When this is done, it will entirely relieve the town of the heavy through traffic. However, we must face a number of problems which such a proposal entails.

First, there are a great many urgent national priorities into which the solution of Tewkesbury's problems must be fitted. I do not think anyone now disputes that the five major projects to which I referred a few moments ago—that is to say, the London-Lancaster motorway, the London-Newcastle improvement, the London-Dover motorway, the London-South Wales motorway, and the Birmingham-South Wales motorway—must each have first call on our national resources, because these are the schemes which traffic as a whole, and industrial traffic in particular, most wants urgently.

We are spending very large sums indeed on road works, but we just cannot do everything at once. It is one of these major schemes—the Birmingham-South Wales motorway—which has had some effect in aggravating the traffic problems in Tewkesbury and on the A.38. Because that motorway comes to Twyning, a point a little north of Tewkesbury, the traffic tends to accumulate as it leaves the motorway and continues along, A.38 to the south-west.

The situation in which Tewkesbury now finds itself, for the time being at any rate, is not unique. I am afraid that it is a feature of any new major trunk road scheme that we may do that it is found to create difficulties at any bottlenecks which still exist beyond its termination. It would be quite impossible to delay the vitally important national schemes until such time as we have been able to build by-passes in other places which may be so affected.

My hon. Friend was a little critical in suggesting that perhaps we should have foreseen the effects on Tewkesbury of stopping the motorway at Twyning. We did in fact foresee them. The fact remains that if motorways are to be built at all they must sometimes stop at a point which will add to the traffic difficulties at the next bottleneck. The first section of M.5 to be built was that between Birmingham and Twyning at the junction with the Ross Spur. This was, and still is, a justifiable stopping place for that road, because it provides the immediately necessary fast route from the Midlands down to South Wales.

The section immediately to the south of it, by-passing Tewkesbury and going on down to the south-west and Bristol, presents us with some very formidable obstacles. To construct the next stage beyond Twyning we must build the bridge and viaducts over the River Avon and we have to cross the roads, railway and other waterways which I have mentioned around Tewkesbury. It was perfectly reasonable and logical, taking these factors together, to end the first section of the motorway at Twyning and deal separately with the particular problems which arise to the south. It would have been unthinkable to delay the construction of the first section until all the problems further south had been solved. That kind of planning, if we were to indulge in it, would not give us very many motorways because very few can be built all in one piece. We must plan to use our resources in a reasonably steady way. It is not the slightest good holding up the design of a scheme until everything is cut and dried and completely settled and then hoping that the resources to build it will be there.

My hon. Friend put forward another reason why it could not at this stage be taken any further. It might seem an attractive solution if we could build a short extension of the motorway to a point just south of Tewkesbury. That might well help to relieve the local situation in the town. The trouble is that the local geography, particularly the connecting roads back to A.38, militate against such a solution. My hon. Friend will have realised that such a short extension does not provide a solution to the problem, so he suggests that we should build the next 18 miles of the motorway by-passing both Tewkesbury and Gloucester. As it happens, his ideas are very much in line with our own on this point.

The best solution, indeed the only sensible one, would be to extend the motorway by 18 or 20 miles. But that means that a by-pass for Tewkesbury would cost us about £12 million to £15 million. We intend eventually to build such a road, but that amount of money and that length of road must be programmed with a very full assessment of the motorway priorities that exist throughout the country. It is not an immediate or an inexpensive palliative which my hon. Friend suggests.

My hon. Friend went on to suggest that this length of motorway might be constructed by 1966, provided that we were to give it absolute priority over all other work. I think that his estimate is a little optimistic, but I would not quarrel generally with the idea that—again, I emphasise these words—given absolute priority the motorway might be constructed at any rate by 1967. I rather take leave to doubt the highly optimistic assumption of the county council that the statutory processes could be got through and the land acquired in so short a time as eighteen months from now. Be that as it may, I think that I have said enough to show that, however sympathetic we may feel towards the problems of Tewkesbury, those problems must be viewed against the national background as a whole. The road must be programmed in the light of a great many other urgent calls which we have on our resources and which equally deserve our sympathy.

The time for this precise programming has not yet arrived. I am sorry to say it, but that is the fact. My hon. Friend expressed some disappointment with progress on the surveys to fix the route. I assure him that there has been no avoidable delay. The preparation has been going on as smoothly and as quickly as it is possible to carry it out, and there is no call whatever for acceleration of these processes. Indeed, to do so might disrupt rather than promote smooth progress.

I promise my hon. Friend that we shall press on with the scheme as fast as proper observance of the statutory safeguards will allow. I have lost count of the number of times I have had to stand at this Box and plead the need for us to go through the statutory processes which Parliament has laid upon the Minister as an answer to the charges, which we hear so often at Question Time, that we are dragging our feet in getting on with road improvement or motorway schemes.

On the other hand, the House will recall that, not infrequently, have I had to defend my Department against accusations of tyrannical behaviour, of riding roughshod over the small man or over local authorities and trying to bulldoze their rights out of the way in order to settle a scheme quickly. One gets the criticism both ways.

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

The hon. Gentleman cannot win.

Mr. Hay

As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, we cannot win. Parliament has laid down in our highways legislation the statutory procedures to safeguard the interests of individuals and has prescribed the framework within which we are obliged to work. We cannot hurry these procedures too much, however irritating they may be or, indeed, they are to us in the Ministry who want to get on, or however irritating they may be to those whom a motorway will serve.

I assure my hon. Friend that we fully understand the situation in his constituency which he has put so forcibly tonight. I realise that the particular circumstances of Tewkesbury are as deserving of sympathy as conditions in other places where much the same situation often arises. I visualise that, in any case, this road will be prepared in sections. It is not, I think, out of the question, when it becomes possible to allocate resources, that it could be programmed in parts. It might be possible to treat each part in accordance with special needs. However, it is still too early for me to say when and how this could be done.

What I can say is that in our preparatory work we shall isolate the section of road which both my hon. Friend and we in the Ministry regard as the section which we shall have to build to by-pass Tewkesbury. This should make it possible, when the time comes for the road as a whole to be programmed, to consider carefully the claims of Tewkesbury for relief against the demands which, no doubt, will be made for the other sections of the road.

I hope I have said enough to make clear to my hon. Friend and his constituents that we shall examine this situation with sympathy. However, I should be misleading all those who are now affected by the traffic on the A.38 if I did not make clear that, in present circumstances, we must reserve our decision about the programming of the motorway for some while yet. When we do take those decisions, I promise my hon. Friend, we shall take very fully into account every factor which operates on the situation, and not least the difficult position of Tewkesbury itself to which he has rightly drawn attention tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Ten o'clock.