HC Deb 14 March 1962 vol 655 cc1493-504

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

12.17 a.m.

Mr. Richard Marsh (Greenwich)

The problem I want to raise this evening is one which affects my constituency immediately but also has a big effect upon transport generally, particularly in London and, to some extent, in south-east England. A lot of us in south-east London have felt for a long time that we have been badly treated in road developments. There has been enormous expenditure incurred in west London—on the Chiswick flyover and the Cromwell Road developments, and so on—but very little in south-east London.

For some time it has been clear that a major problem was growing in keeping traffic moving from north London through the Blackwall Tunnel into Greenwich to join the A.2 and A.20. A large proportion of that traffic coming from north London to either the A.2 to Dover or the A.20 to Folkestone must go through Greenwich, and a large proportion goes through the Blackwall Tunnel. Everybody would agree that the Blackwall Tunnel is totally inadequate for the amount of traffic which goes through it.

A few months ago the Minister introduced a diversion, in consultation with various bodies, in an effort to meet the problem. It was a diversion through a number of side streets. The flow of traffic was improved, but those roads are totally unsuited to the sort of traffic now travelling through them. I have not got accurate figures, but I understand that the traffic at peak periods through Blackwall Tunnel is 1,700 vehicles per hour. This concentration of traffic includes very heavy long distance vehicles.

It takes very little imagination to realise the effect upon the people who live in those side turnings. The noise is intolerable. I have discovered this from personal experience. It is a pity the Minister was not able to take up the invitations made to him by some of the residents to spend a night there. The vehicles include 8-wheeler diesel-driven long-distance lorries passing within a yard or two of bedroom windows. The houses shake and the fumes come up in clouds. There is the question of danger to children, and the big problem for these people is the enormous depreciation of property that follows.

These are small people whose whole savings are invested in their houses. The houses are small but they are beautifully kept and they represent almost the sole and certainly the most important possession of the people who live in them. No one wants the houses now. These people could not give them away, much less sell them. They have seen their total savings depreciate overnight in a way which they cannot control. They cannot move away and they cannot sell the houses and they are not the sort of people who have large savings with which they can purchase other property. They are living in conditions which all hon. Members would agree were quite intolerable if they applied to us.

I will not go far into a matter which arouses unhappy memories for the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and myself, but we have been engaged in discussing and nipping through the Transport Bill.

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

Nipping through?

Mr. Marsh

Clause 11 (6) of that Bill refers to the Transport Boards and says: A Board shall not exercise the power of developing land which is conferred on them by this section on land which is within the prescribed distance from any of the royal palaces or parks without the consent of the Minister. The prescribed distance for Windsor Castle is two miles and the prescribed distance from any other Royal palace is half a mile. The distance for my constituents is about 1½ yards. While one can appreciate in this unequal world that we cannot have complete equality, I think that the difference in these cases is sufficent when it is remembered that in most of the Royal palaces the gardens are rather larger than those to be found in the side streets at the back of Greenwich.

There is a bigger problem. It is the personal problem of individuals, and a great thing about this House and Parliament is that we can stop dead in the discussion of big things and turn to discussing the problems of small people.

There is a transport problem. The capacity of Blackwall Tunnel will be about doubled when the additional tunnel is opened in the spring of 1965. Presumably the traffic then at the peak period will be between 2,500 and 3,000 vehicles an hour. Whatever may be the problem of the moment with this diversion, there will be complete chaos if that sort of traffic is to be pushed through. The southern approach road to take this traffic from Blackwall Tunnel on to the A2 and A20 at Blackheath is to be started in 1966 and, as far as I can establish, to be completed in 1969.

It is, therefore, suggested that these people will not only undergo the present unpleasantness of their personal position, but in addition all the traffic is to have its progress facilitated through the tunnel and then diverted along little side-roads which are capable of taking milkmen's vans and bicycles but certainly cannot undertake for long to take thousands of vehicles an hour. This is terrifying in terms of transport, and the prospect in the summer months is of chaos for two or three miles.

As I understand it, the only reason for the time-lag between the two is shortage of cash. That is the reason which most documents have given for the last hundred years or so for doing nothing. Yet on the same road, the A.2, the same Ministry is busily engaged in the Bexley Heath area in widening the three-lane road and making it into a six-lane carriageway. In the process, it is involved in demolishing 34 modern houses. It is a development which nobody locally wants. I have lived in the area many years, and I cannot understand the purpose of widening this stretch of road into a six-lane carriageway when only two miles or so away the roundabout makes a bottleneck in the road and the road becomes narrow. I have driven up the road thousands of times. It has a 40 m.p.h. limit. I should have thought it would have taken 50–60 m.p.h. without very much difficulty.

So there is enormous capital development on the road where nobody locally wants it—the residents are violently opposed to it—while at the same time four or five miles away on the same road there is a crying need for development. I believe that further developments are to be undertaken at Dartford, and there are problems south of Dartford.

I suggest that co-ordination of these major projects appears to be nonexistent. I am not blaming the Minister. But it is difficult to see any coordination between these three projects. It looks like a major bungle. The most urgent need of the three is the southern approach road. I feel that because of the problems which are evident to everybody and the widespread opposition and uneasiness occasioned by all three developments, we have reached a stage where there would not be any great loss of face if the Minister held a public inquiry, reappraised the situation and had second thoughts about it.

One cannot develop a road system like this. This is a very big area. The idea of having the traffic pouring out of Blackwall Tunnel and bottling up for about one and a half miles until it reaches the A.2 or the A.20 and then on the A.2 zooming into a six-lane carriageway seems to show a most extraordinary lack of co-ordination.

I think the Minister will agree that the problem is his baby. It cannot be shelved on to the local authorities. I am sure he will take full responsibility for the diversion and the problems arising from it. But this is not an issue where one is particularly worried about apportioning blame to a Ministry or Minister.

The fact of the matter is that traffic in that part of London is in danger of coming to a complete standstill. In the summer months when there is an enormous amount of coastal coach traffic from north London through the tunnel these roads are at the best of times very much in use. To double the capacity of the tunnel and at the same time have a gap of about four years, if that is the period—perhaps the Minister can give the right period—before the road is built to carry the traffic away from the tunnel seems to be extraordinary, particularly since it seems perfectly possible to transfer expenditure and labour from another part of the same road where, to say the least, it is not in very great demand to where everyone would be in favour of it.

As I said, there are two problems. For the people it is a tragic human problem. I know these people and their houses. They are in a serious situation. While one cannot at this stage discuss compensation, there is a need to look after people in these circumstances who see their life's savings and their homes absolutely wrecked. I would not live there; neither would the Minister or anybody else if they could live elsewhere. But one appreciates that traffic has to be kept moving, and it might well be possible to justify this as a temporary expedient for a very limited period. I submit that there can be no justification whatsoever on grounds of humanity as far as the residents are concerned, nor efficiency as far as traffic is concerned, for a period which appears to be likely to last some four or five years.

12.30 a.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I will not delay my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary from replying for more than a few moments. The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Marsh) has raised through a specific instance in his constituency a matter of major principle. This instance shows that at any moment the residents of a residential street may find that the general flow of traffic is turned down that street—heavy lorries and noisy traffic being diverted down a quiet residential street—without the right of any appeal and without any compensation for physical injury to health and financial loss to property.

This seems to me to be dictatorship in its ugliest form. I hope that my hon. Friend will deal with the matter very seriously and will realise the injury that can be caused by a wave of the Ministerial wand and an order that traffic should go down a residential street. I support the hon. Member for Greenwich on the point he has raised.

12.32 a.m.

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

The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Marsh), who had the good fortune to raise this subject affecting his constituency on the Adjournment tonight, said that there was little doubt in his mind that here was a problem which was the Minister's baby. If I may correct him, I think that there are three problems here, three babies. There is the problem of the A.2, the problem of the one-way traffic system in the centre of Greenwich and the problem of the tunnel approach road. If I may carry the hon. Gentleman's simile a little further, I think that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport is the father of one of these babies, the foster parent of the second, and, with regard to the third, that he is probably making, or will make, payments under an affiliation order.

I understand the feeling of the hon. Gentleman and of his constituents, and I should like to say a little about all three problems because I do not think that one can treat them in isolation. The main problem is really the tunnel approach road. The hon. Gentleman said that work is now proceeding on the duplication of the Blackwall Tunnel. This is a London County Council project and the tunnel approach road will equally be a London County Council project. These are classified road projects for which my right hon. Friend is not directly responsible but to which he makes substantial contributions. To that extent he has a general responsibility.

The position about the duplication of the tunnel is that it should be finished some time in 1965, as the hon. Gentleman says. The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the traffic volumes. The information which I have is that the figure of about 3,000 vehicles per hour which he mentioned is a peak hour figure and is unlikely to be reached until 1969. So perhaps the situation as far as the flow of traffic through the duplicate tunnel is concerned will not be so severe as soon as he suggested, and certainly there will be less than 3,000 vehicles per hour at off-peak times.

By 1969, when we expect that traffic volumes will reach the figure of 3,000 vehicles an hour at peak times, the southern approach road should be ready, and this is how the two projects have dovetailed in. Before the southern approach road can be built there are a number of things that have got to be done. As I have said, this is an L.C.C. project, and the first thing is that the L.C.C. will next Session have to take powers from Parliament by its General Powers Bill to enable it to build the southern approach road. The L.C.C. expects, if it can get its Bill through during the next Session, to start work in about four to five years and to complete the scheme, as I said, by 1969. It is a question of planning the work and not simply a question of finding the money. The problem of the southern approach road is simply that there are a large number of people who have to be rehoused. About 1,100 have to be rehoused because of this scheme, and this is a big problem for the London County Council.

Because we feel that the traffic volume coming through the Blackwall Tunnel and heading down the A2 is already high we introduced a series of one-way traffic measures round the junction of Woolwich Road, Tunnel Avenue and Westcombe Hill. The object is to enable the traffic to move and to circulate more smoothly. As the hon. Gentleman said, we have banned all right turns and introduced a one-way system. I wish to emphasise, and I shall be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would in turn emphasise it to his constituents, that this system which was introduced in November is am experiment which on the face of it is working fairly well. Traffic is flowing more freely. We are watching the experiment all the time.

I was interested to hear of the complaints of the hon. Gentleman's constituents, and I note what he said. So far we have received few complaints at the Ministry. I am told that we have had only one letter of complaint from a local resident and one letter from the Pedestrians' Association with which my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) is connected. The Association said that this was: a gross injustice and a moral wrong committed against a helpless minority.

Mr. Marsh

I have led a deputation of residents to the Ministry of Transport and there has been a lot of complaint.

Mr. Hay

I heard that the hon. Gentleman brought a deputation to the Ministry. But that was in October before the system was started. The one way system started on 16th November, and the hon. Gentleman brought his deputation on 19th October, so that all the points made by the deputation were taken into account before the system started. I am talking about the amount of complaint in the period following 16th November. This experiment is quite usual. My right hon. Friend is conducting a number of traffic experiments of this kind in London to try to improve the flow of traffic. He is having considerable success. But we must not deny that problems are created for residents in residential streets.

If we are faced with problems of severe congestion on a main road and beside the main road there are a number of other streets which are residential and which bear practically no traffic at all, common sense alone would advise that we should try to make use of the capacity in the existing side streets to relieve the pressure on the central artery. We watch all the experiments closely, and if we feel that they are causing intolerable hardship or damage to property we shall be only too willing to modify the experiment or perhaps to drop it altogether.

My right hon. Friend has a great responsibility regarding the A2. This is a trunk road. At present it is carrying twice the volume of traffic for which it was designed. Through Bexley it is a single three-lane carriageway. We aim at improving it to dual three-lane standards and the cost of the improvement will be about £3 million. It is in the five-year trunk road programme. Last October we published the draft side road Order and we have received a substantial number of objections to it. I have to tell the House that the Minister has decided in the light of these objections to hold a public inquiry. At the same time, an inquiry will be held into the draft orders for two other improvement schemes on the A2, including the Dartford diversion. I emphasise that this improvement is an essential part of the overall improvement of the A2 which is what we call the Channel Ports Route. It is one of the five major projects of the Ministry. This scheme is very difficult and expensive because it passes through a heavily built-up area, but it is in the programme and, subject to what the inquiry finds, we intend to go ahead with it.

The hon. Member suggested that perhaps funds to complete the tunnel approach road more quickly might be found if we abandoned or postponed the improvement of A2. We cannot do that for three specific reasons. The first is, as he suggested, these are two entirely different schemes. The tunnel approach road forms part of the comprehensive improvement of the North-South route to the east of London. The A2 is part of the Channel Ports Route which is an east-west route. The A2 scheme is a trunk road scheme whereas the tunnel approach road is a classified road. My right hon. Friend is responsible for the first and pays 100 per cent. of the cost. He is not entirely responsible for the second although he make a contribution of 75 per cent. as this is a classified road improvement. The House votes funds for these improvements under separate Votes and we are not allowed to transfer money earmarked for trunk road schemes to meet obligations on classified road schemes.

There is a third convincing reason. It is that to delay one of these schemes would not in fact enable faster progress to be made on the other. Major road schemes cannot be started at short notice just because funds happen to be available. It may often take several years to prepare a major trunk road scheme to the contract letting stage, particularly where, as here, the road has to pass through a densely populated area and we have all the consequential problems of re-housing people and finding other accommodation for interests which are displaced. We are under obligation by Act of Parliament to do these things.

The preparation of a major road improvement proceeds steadily all the time up to the contract letting stage quite independently of any other schemes which may be in the programme. When all those schemes are brought forward to the contract letting stage we make our choice. We have now determined our five year programme and we know which schemes come into the programme in successive years. Each scheme will come in when the funds are ready. It is a somewhat difficult and complicated job to make sure that the money is available when the scheme is ready to start, the design work done and everything else is done, but we manage more or less successfully to do it. Occasionally one scheme will slip and we have to put in another. Broadly speak-in, this is how we organise the programme. I hope that I have made clear that we could not stop work on the A.2 and transfer the money to the tunnel approach road. I can assure the hon. Member that we shall keep the problem under close review. The experiment will be carefully reviewed after the first six months and certainly I have taken note of all he has said.

Mr. Marsh

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the responsibility for diversion was the responsibility of the Minister?

Mr. Hay

Yes. I said that my right hon. Friend was to some extent the foster parent here. The traffic scheme was worked out jointly by the Borough of Greenwich and the Ministry, so my right hon. Friend has a very strong interest and will take the final decision whether to retain it or not.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a quarter to One o'clock.