HC Deb 30 July 1962 vol 664 cc356-66

7.54 a.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

In turning from a discussion of the Commonwealth to a more domestic matter in my constituency, I take some comfort from the fact that my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations referred to the value of bridges. That point enters into the comments that I wish to make on the issue that I want to discuss.

In May of this year I raised the question of the Whitley Bay Grammar and Technical School and the lack of a safe road access to the school. I make no apology for raising it again because although we have made some progress, we have not yet achieved what my local authority and the education authority in my constituency consider satisfactory conditions for the children who go to the school. Allied with this school is the Valley Gardens Secondary School, and when the grammar school is completed, as anticipated, by this autumn, there will foe between 1,600 and 2,000 children going to the schools. It is therefore absolutely essential that there should be a safe road access for them.

For some extraordinary reason the decision of the Northumberland County Council, under pressure to speed up from the Ministry of Education set in motion the plans for this school without there being any consideration given to the need for a safe road access. When I raised the matter in May the Leader of the House was pleased that it was the decision of the local authority to choose the site without getting the approval of the Ministry of Education. It seems unfortunate to me that a grammar school of that magnitude should be set up without there being a safe road access for the children.

No such provision had been made in May. There was only a small and complicated hump bridge over which two cars can hardly pass and there is no footpath of any kind. Since then representations have been made and it has been decided that there shall be a clip-on bridge—whatever that is—added to the hump bridge, and also that there shall be a footbridge over the electric railway. Children have been seen lifting their bicycles on to the railway and crossing over the line and lifting their machines over the other side to gain access to the Valley Gardens School.

I wish to thank the former Minister of Education for the trouble he took to persuade the Northumberland County Council to make even a 50 per cent. grant to the Borough of Whitley Bay to provide the clip-on bridge. But for this intervention, the whole of that burden would have fallen on that small local authority, despite the fact that the whole of the arrangements for building the school and choosing the site (bad been done without consulting the Whitley Bay authority. In spite of the new arrangements we have no road programme and I consider it deplorable that no proper road should be provided in connection with a school of this magnitude.

The first document I want to quote is a letter from the town clerk of Whitley Bay. The letter was written on 14th July. Mr. Watson says: You may remember that in my earlier letter I pointed out that I feel the most satisfactory solution to the whole question of access would be the acceleration of the construction of Monkseaton Drive extension. The bridges, whilst terribly important from the safety point of view, really assume secondary proportions when compared with Monkseaton Drive Extension which should be the main form of access to the school. I cannot help feeling that as long as the pressure is concentrated on Relton Terrace and Monkseaton Drive footbridges Government Departments will take the attitude"— as indeed they have— that Relton Terrace Bridge is on an unclassified district road and is a matter for the two local authorities and not for the Government Department concerned. I turn from that to draw attention to what the Leader of the House said to me last May. I quote him: First, there is the question of access to the new secondary school"— it is in fact a grammar school— being built there". That is at Whitley Bay. She"— that is me— cites this as an instance of bad co-ordination between the Minister of Transport and the Minister of Education. Her case is that these matters should have been settled before the construction was approved. I do indeed think that. To me"— that is, to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House— that is nothing like so important as getting the matter settled before the school is open, which will happen next year. We have every confidence that the matter will be settled by then."—{OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th May, 1962; Vol. 659, c. 88.] That matter has not been settled by then and the confidence of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has been misplaced. I now hope that he will be on my side and move forward to provide the road access which is so essential.

The next quotation I want to make is just to put in perspective the relationship of my local authority to the county council. Again I quote my town clerk, who wrote me on 13th June to this effect: The main difficulties arising out of the grammar technical school development are, of course, that the school was accelerated in the school building programme at the same time as the Tyneside Conurbation Major Highways Committee had to defer the priority rating of Monkseaton Drive Extension for at least five years. I believe that the local education committee"— that is, the Northumberland County Council— were probably hoping that the Monkseaton Drive Extension would be constructed in the year 1964–65, probably in accordance with the school buildings originally scheduled so that Monkseaton Drive Extension could form the main access to the school. As you know, this has now been rendered impossible by the advancement of the school building programme so that the grammar technical school is expected to be completed and ready for use in the autumn of this year … In the Council's view"— that is, in the view of the Whitley Bay Council— the really satisfactory solution of this whole question of access to the grammar technical school would undoubtedly be the acceleration of the Monkseaton Drive Extension which would carry Monkseaton Drive from its present terminus right up Earsdon Road towards the school. If the Ministry of Transport would be prepared to classify this road, then it would attract grant. You may remember from our earlier correspondence that they are not prepared to give a provisional classification in advance for the road, although they are prepared to accede that it will be a principal traffic route. That brings me to the point that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport has strongly said in the House that he has no responsibility. That did not happen to be correct. because the correspondence which has passed between his own divisional road engineer and the Northumberland County Council and the introduction of my Whitley Bay local authority into the discussions proves conclusively that the Minister of Transport is concerned. I therefore make no excuse for saying this because I am not going to allow any Minister to tell me that I am making false statements when, in fact, the information that I was giving was absolutely accurate.

I now want to quote a letter which was written by the county surveyor commenting on the correspondence between the divisional road engineer, myself and the town clerk. This was written on 29th December. Mr. Garnett, the County Surveyor for the Northumberland County Council, said: I refer to your letter"— this is to my town clerk— of the 27th December, 1961, and previous correspondence regarding the above new road."— that is the Monkseaton Drive extension. The delay in replying to your earlier letter has been due to uncertainty regarding the placing of schemes in the Tyneside Major Highways programme in which this particular scheme is included. As I think you know the scheme was included in the fifth year (1964–65) of the original programme. Due to a vast increase in cost of many schemes, the programme has had to be reviewed and, unless the Minister is prepared to make a big increase in the amount of money available, many schemes are going to be put back a number of years. Under these circumstances, it is quite impossible for me to give any indication of when this scheme can be expected to be carried out. As regards Ministry of Transport grant, the Divisional Road Engineer has already said that he is unable, at this stage, to say whether or not the construction would be regarded as a classified road scheme although it has been accepted as a Principal Traffic Route". The controversy arose on whether the money could be found for the scheme, as between the Minister of Transport and the county council. All I am saying is that there is no doubt that the lives of children are involved here. I have sent to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary a statement from the headmaster of the Valley Gardens School and accounts from the parents who have made representations in support of the case that I am making. If it was important and in the interests of educa- tion that the Minister of Education pressed the Northumberland County Council to accelerate the building of the Whitley Bay Grammar and Technical School, it was equally important that there should have been proper coordination and a scheme to provide a safe road access in accordance with the proposals that had been put forward to the Minister of Transport. I can see no escape from the force of that proposition.

I want to quote one other letter in order to emphasise the point I am making. I have a letter from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport which he wrote on 12th April, in which he said: The Monkseaton Drive extension is marked on the Town Map as a principal traffic route joining A.193 to A.192. At the time this was decided, our Divisional Road Engineer made it quite clear to the Northumberland County Council that he was doubtful about the road's value as a through traffic route. He was not prepared to agree to any particular classification for it in advance. We are now even more doubtful about the advisability of planning this road as a through route, since its main use will be to serve local development in the area west of the railway line. In these circumstances, we do not think it merits an early place in the road programme. So far as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport in writing to me telling me that this particular scheme does not merit an early place in the road programme is concerned, I would point out that I was told an this House that he bad no responsibility whatever for this particular development. I am not going to take that kind of nonsense when the safety of children's lives is involved.

If, after consideration, my hon. Friend feels that the original scheme was unsatisfactory from his point of view, and if we had had the co-operation I was promised from the Government Departments last May, we should not have had the building of a grammar technical school without safe access for the children. I now ask, today, how we are going to resolve this dilemma. Sometimes—and I say this advisedly because it is the opinion of all those who know about this problem—it is said that the Northumberland County Council having acceded to the request of the Minister of Education to accelerate the school building programme, and now that the school is being built, will now say, "There it is, and it is up to you". That person is the Minister of Transport, and if my right hon. Friend is not going to consider as part of his duty the safety of children, them it would be a good plan if the county council called a halt to the building of the school—it is not yet finished—so that the Minister of Education could then take a much stronger line with the Minister of Transport in order to ensure that the necessary road would be built and the children would have safe access.

At this hour of the morning I have no other observations to make except to say that when an hon. Member of this House raises a question about lack of co-ordination between Government Departments and my right hon. Friend said very courteously that it was important to have a satisfactory solution and also agreed to accept my Motion about Departmental co-ordination, I find it disturbing that in July I have to draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the fact that he is here only because earlier in the day the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport refused to answer my complaint. That I find an extraordinary thing. I gave him as I gave you, Mr. Speaker, sufficient notice, and I should apologise to you for committing a breach of House of Commons manners on the last occasion. I do not know who is going to reply to me.

I cannot abide Ministers who do not tell the truth; if he had told me the truth I should have accepted it. There is Ministerial responsibility here, whatever has been said, and I have been promised co-ordination. The school is necessary, and the fact that the Minister has not even sent up a senior official to look at the place, and at this whole problem, is unfortunate.

So far as the hump bridge is concerned, there is another bridge not far away and it would be possible, I am told, to have one-way traffic over the bridge in order to help the traffic arrangements. But if we are to have a stubborn Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, then I do not know what I can do except to say how much I deplore the action of the Minister in relation to his responsibility. I now look forward to hearing from whoever is to answer what I have said today that the paramount consideration is the safety and the lives of our children.

8.15 a.m.

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

At the outset, I ought to clear up this point about responsibility. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward) is under some misapprehension about what the exact situation is. I do not ask her to accept from me alone that we cannot accept responsibility in this case. On 3rd July last, answering a question on this very point, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that the provision of a safe access to this school is a matter for the local authorities and not for either of the two Ministries."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 3rd July, 1962; Vol. 662, c. 275.] He was referring, of course, to the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Education.

We have throughout taken the point that, since what is at issue here is traffic on two unclassified roads, and since the Minister of Transport does not make a grant in respect of unclassified roads, there is no clear burden of responsibility resting on the Minister of Transport. We have throughout said to my hon. Friend that, if only she would take it up with the proper authorities, we would do what we could to assist in a solution but we could not accept responsibility for a solution. What is involved here is a certain lack of co-ordination not between Government Departments, as I see it, but between local authorities, for the local education authority is the Northumberland County Council, the local planning authority is the same county council, and the local highway authority is the Whitley Bay Borough Council. It seems to me, looking at this again, that, if only at an earlier stage greater thought had been given to the co-ordination of the siting of the school and the timing of its building, this situation might not have arisen.

As the House now knows from what my hon. Friend has said, we are here concerned with a school built virtually, as I understand it, in open country, or at least on the outskirts of the town of Whitley Bay. To this school there are only two means of access. One is by an unclassified road which carries the Relton Terrace Bridge. The improvement of that bridge and of the road is entirely the responsibility of the Whitley Bay Borough Council, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has no locus standi whatever in the matter. The other road by which one can gain access to the school, as the children at present are doing, is Monkseaton Drive. This also is an unclassified road, and again my right hon. Friend pays no grant and has no direct responsibility for its upkeep.

We have in the past had suggestions made to us that the Monkseaton Drive should be extended to provide a through traffic route, but this has not been given a high priority on traffic grounds. The proposals for new construction or improvement of classified roads in the Tyneside conurbation, which includes Whitley Bay, are in the hands of a joint committee of local highway authorities, and on this joint committee the interests of Whitley Bay Borough are cared for by the Northumberland County Council. The joint committee has submitted to us a list of proposed schemes for the next six or seven years, and the Minister of Transport is considering those schemes for grant now. I must tell my hon. Friend that the joint committee has never given a high priority to the proposal for developing Monkseaton Drive to the west and changing its status from that of an unclassified road to that of a classified road. I must also say that my right hon. Friend is not prepared to override the 'priorities which the local people on the spot, who are responsible, decide they would like for their own conurbation.

The Whitley Bay Borough Council, like all of us, is anxious about the safety of the children who go to the school, but it is right to put on record that the council is also interested in the extension of the road called Monkseaton Drive because it wishes to develop the land through which the extension would pass. The council wants to build housing estates along there. What it would apparently very much like to see is the Minister of Transport prepared to treat Monkseaton Drive as a classified road, pay grant upon it, to extend it and to improve it with public funds, and then on either side a housing estate could be developed.

We always take the view that there are considerable disadvantages on road safety grounds in planning a principal traffic route to pass through a housing estate or area. The line of the proposed new road is shown, it is true, as a principal traffic route on the Whitley Bay town map, but we have frequently in correspondence completely reserved our decision on whether, in these circumstances, this road will merit classification. We take the view that another route should be sought for through traffic.

Perhaps I may say a word about the present difficulties. When my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth and I had a passage at arms on 4th July last, she was rather inclined to accuse me of not being interested in the danger to the lives of schoolchildren. When I attempted to repudiate that suggestion, I was fairly well howled down by her; but perhaps in the calmer atmosphere prevailing now, I can say a word about it.

On safety grounds, we are not convinced that major treatment here is needed. The fact is that these schoolchildren get to school along the present roads, but there is a problem in connection with the railway bridge near Monkseaton Drive.

Dame Irene Ward

Of course, the children are not going to the grammar school, because it is not yet open.

Mr. Hay

That I understand. I am talking about the situation that has been put to us by the hon. Lady this morning and by the local council in correspondence. The position of the schoolchildren is simply that they would have to go along an unclassified road which does not at present carry a high volume of traffic, but where the road crosses the railway there is a bridge without a pavement. The suggestion has been made that a footbridge should be provided alongside the existing road bridge. This could be what is called technically a clip-on bridge—in other words, a footbridge built alongside and on the same level as the road bridge.

If the bridge is not too high, obviously the children who go to school by pedal cycle could carry their cycles up the steps of the bridge. If, however, it were found difficult, I have no doubt that the local council could arrange for the bridge to be so designed as to be provided with ramps at either end. In any event, the provision of such a footbridge, its design and financing, is a matter for the local authorities concerned and not for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport. I must repeat that this is an unclassified road and we are not responsible for its maintenance.

One final point remains to be said, and that is why my right hon. Friend has refused the hon. Lady's request, reiterated on a number of occasions, that a senior official of the Ministry of Transport should make a special journey to Whitley Bay to discuss these safety proposals with her and other interested parties.

Our divisional road engineers are always willing to give what advice and assistance they can to the highway engineers of local authorities on technical matters, even if, as in this case, they relate to matters which are not the direct responsibility or concern of the Ministry of Transport. It would, however, be quite wrong, and it would probably be quite strongly resented, if the Ministry's officials, without being invited by the local authorities' engineers, interfered in these matters.

We always give advice only on two conditions. The first is that the local authorities request it and the second is Chat any correspondence, meetings or visits or matters of that kind are conducted solely between the Ministry and the local authority engineers. In other words, our engineers are quite ready to help their professional colleagues informally, but they try to keep aloof from local trouble. We have received no request for assistance from the borough engineer of Whitley Bay, nor do we expect to do so. We have no reason to doubt the competence of that engineer and if he is asked I have no doubt that the can advise my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth on the realities of the situation, particularly as regards the highways risks and dangers to children and traffic involved. My right hon. Friend is not prepared to instruct one of his senior engineers to visit Whitley Bay to play the part of arbitrator or in any other capacity unless invited by the local authority to do so.

Dame Irene Ward

I have the authority of Whitley Bay local authority to say that it would like to bring a deputation to see my hon. Friend—or, I should say, the hon. Gentleman. I asked if the authority would like me to suggest a deputation and I was told that the members would be delighted. I think that would include the invitation from my local authority of the divisional road engineer.

Mr. Hay

I had not been apprised of 'that. The ingenuity of my hon. Friend knows no bounds. I can give her an undertaking this morning that I shall consider the suggestion mow made that a deputation should be received, but provided that it is understood that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has at this moment no responsibility for settling this matter. I am prepared to give that undertaking.

One final word. With all respect to my hon. Friend, I hope that she will be a little less apt to accuse Ministers either of telling the House untruths at this Box or of telling her untruths in private. We have tried to play fair with the hon. Lady and to explain the situation. I have a mass of correspondence here. We have throughout tried to do our best to help her, but it does not assist the conduct of business if whenever a debate of this kind arises accusations of bad faith are made as between colleagues. We are trying to do what we can to help her and will go on doing our best. Beyond that I am afraid I cannot go this morning. I have tried to explain that we have no direct responsibility. If we had the situation would be different, but we have not and all that we can do is to use our good offices. That is what we are willing to do.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Martin Redmayne)

rose in his place, and claimed to move, That the Question be now put: —

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Sir Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

Am I entitled to say a word—

Mr. Speaker

At the moment the hon. Member should not be on his feet.

Question put accordingly and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.